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Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief

Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief

Edited by

Zbigniew Białas, Paweł Jędrzejko


and Julia Szołtysek
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief,
Edited by Zbigniew Białas, Paweł Jędrzejko and Julia Szołtysek

This book first published 2013

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data


A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2013 by Zbigniew Białas, Paweł Jędrzejko, Julia Szołtysek and contributors

Reviewed by Mehmet Ali Çelikel of Pamukkale University, Turkey

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-5059-4, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-5059-9


TABLE OF CONTENTS

List of Images .......................................................................................... viii

The Editors’ Preface .................................................................................. ix

Introduction ................................................................................................ 1
Grieving, Knowledge, Wisdom
Wojciech Kalaga

Chapter One ................................................................................................ 8


Death is An-Other Country:
Grieving for Alterity in “Post-Transitional” South African Literature
Nedine Moonsamy

Chapter Two ............................................................................................. 29


Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning: Empathy and Alterity
in Selected Writings by Zakes Mda and J. M. Coetzee
Paulina Grzęda

Chapter Three ........................................................................................... 52


“Not to Get Lost in the Loss”:
Narrating the Story in Mourid Barghouti’s I Was Born There, I Was Born
Here and in Deborah Rohan’s The Olive Grove – A Palestinian Story
Hania A. M. Nashef

Chapter Four ............................................................................................. 73


The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers: “Victimological Militarism”
and the Symbolic Bargaining Over National Bereavement Identity
Udi Lebel

Chapter Five ........................................................................................... 100


Grieving the Loss of Native American California:
Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona
Katarzyna Nowak–McNeice
vi Table of Contents

Chapter Six ............................................................................................. 108


“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’”: Violent Closeness Between
“Victims” and “Perpetrators” in Don Delillo’s Falling Man
and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Julia Szołtysek

Chapter Seven......................................................................................... 123


Delightful Deaths: Nabokov and the Joys of Mortality
Anna Pilińska

Chapter Eight .......................................................................................... 135


Representing Black Trauma: Bodies, Pain and Haunting in Beloved (S)
Anna Iatsenko

Chapter Nine........................................................................................... 148


In Search of the Lost Harmony:
Existential Grievances in the Fiction of Carson McCullers
Justyna rusak

Chapter Ten ............................................................................................ 167


“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief”:
Figures of Grieving in Sebastian Barry’s Recent Fiction
Leszek Drong

Chapter Eleven ....................................................................................... 183


Of Death and Grief, Johne The Savage, Aldous Huxley
and D.H. Lawrence
Grzegorz Moroz

Chapter Twelve ....................................................................................... 192


Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism
in Graham Swift’s Out Of This World
Sławomir Konkol

Chapter Thirteen ..................................................................................... 208


“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder”:
The Compulsion to Repeat in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled
Wojciech Drąg

Chapter Fourteen .................................................................................... 223


Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature
Jacek Partyka
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief vii

Chapter Fifteen ....................................................................................... 235


W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning
Sławomir Masłoń

Chapter Sixteen ...................................................................................... 251


Traumatic Bifurcation: Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009)
Sonia Front

Chapter Seventeen .................................................................................. 267


Grieving Monstrosities: Grudges, Terrors and Obsessions of Antagonists
in Interactive Entertainment
Tomasz Gnat

Bibliography ........................................................................................... 277

Notes on Contributors............................................................................. 298

Index ....................................................................................................... 303


LIST OF IMAGES

Fig. 1-1. The Moghrabi Family in Akka, 1939 ......................................... 59


THE EDITORS’ PREFACE

Although generally resented and deemed unfavourable for individuals,


societies and nations, grief, grievance, and grieving, along with a complex
list of epithets that could in various situations, under varying
circumstances, accompany them – racial grief, political grievance,
protracted grieving, chronic grief, traumatic, unresolved grievance –
nevertheless occupy a significant place in culture and its manifestations in
literature, art, history, science, or politics. Confused experiences of
melancholia, grief, nostalgia, shame, anguish, hate, longing, and jealousy
continue to permeate cultural productions across historical moments,
literary epochs, and political sympathies. It is these veneers that the
present volume endeavours to uncover and dismantle, thus – dissolve, or,
assuming yet a different approach – assemble into larger entities
exhibiting common patterns of formulaic imagining.
The name Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief comes with several
emphases in mind – great impact is placed on attempts to explore
questions of how globalization has affected modes of grieving, how it has
altered the subjects/objects over which we grieve, and finally, how
grievances have come to adopt the shape of ultimatums, sometimes
escalating into forms of sabotage, schizophrenia, or even outright military
conflict. The proposed collection aims to explore literary/cinematographic
representations of the phenomena under investigation from a wide array of
scholarly perspectives and attitudes, including articles dealing with the
potential intersections of grievings and politics; grievings and history;
grievings and globalization; grievings and (post)colonization/
(post)colonialism; grievings and trans/multi-culturalism. Among the
themes approached by the Contributors to Culture and the Rites/Rights of
Grief, the following have been given special attention:

• Trauma and traumatic haunting,


• Racial/ethnic grief,
• Melancholia,
• Mourning,
• Imperialisms,
• Sickness,
• Madness,
x Preface

• Compulsion,
• Obsession,
• Terror and terrorism,
• Violence

In their texts, the Authors assume inter-/trans-disciplinary perspectives


to explore and analyse the issues they have undertaken, since all these
topics in themselves stretch across several disciplines: history, literary
studies, psychology, political sciences, educational sciences, gender/queer
studies, anthropology, or sociology. It is this plurality and multiplicity of
voice that we wish to emphasise and celebrate with Culture and the
Rites/Rights of Grief.
In terms of formal structure, the organization of the Volume follows a
linear development, with the articles arranged thematically, though not
divided into separate parts. The logic behind such an arrangement assumes
that the Collection constitutes a uniform monograph, the complexity and
multifocality of which are overlaid with the linking fabric of the leitmotif
of the Volume, i.e. the vicissitudes of grief, grievance and grieving.
Importantly, those are approached from a plethora of critical stances
ushering in the emergence of what may be described as a contemporary
and transdisciplinary vision of trauma which reveals tenets of the
traumatic experience that have frequently suffered oblivion and deficiency
of scholarly and academic attention. In their articles, the Contributors –
representing diverse academic backgrounds – cut across geographical,
social, political, historical and generic divides, offering responses which
originally bring together even the seemingly disparate themes and
problematics, arriving at a final outcome that fills in a substantial gap in
modern criticism and research, from trauma studies as exemplified by war
and Holocaust studies, perpetrator studies, terror and terrorism, politics
and literature, grief, death and the body, grief, death and sex, trauma and
grieving across media discourses, photography and interactive
entertainment, monsters and martyrs, as well as many others.
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief is opened by Wojciech Kalaga
(University of Silesia, Poland) who in his essay approaches the notion of
grief from a philosophically-informed perspective, shedding light on the
inter-dependencies between grieving, knowledge and wisdom. Noting the
social bias against grieving in contemporary cultures of cheerfulness,
Professor Kalaga’s essay proposes a rehabilitation of grieving, revealing
its multifaceted nature and ambiguity, which signal grieving’s regenerative
and knowledge-building powers.
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief xi

The following two articles, by Nedine Moonsamy (University of the


Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa) and Paulina Grzęda
(University of Warsaw, Poland) respectively, engage with post-apartheid
South African literature. Heavily informed by Jacques Derrida’s theories,
Nedine Moonsamy’s article puts forward the concept of “nostalgia
contretemps” and sets out to explore it in the context of post-1994 socio-
political developments in South Africa and their bearing on the country’s
literature, drawing on selected works by Justin Cartwright, Marlene Van
Niekerk and Mark Behr in an attempt to show how structural
representations of death can be read as symptomatic of a failed
nationalistic desire. Paulina Grzęda, too, focuses on post-1994 South
African literature, seeing it as a work of mourning which might lead
towards the emergence of alternative forms of community. With reference
to Jacques Derrida’s and Dominick LaCapra’s scholarship, Grzęda stresses
convergences between Mda and Coetzee in the context of both authors’
engagement with South African violent legacies.
Through a shift in geographical perspective, the next two articles
concentrate on the Middle East and the endemic Gaza-Israel conflict,
presenting the interests and grudges of both of the involved sides. Hania
A.M. Nashef (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates)
analyses and compares two novels by contemporary authors of Palestinian
origin, shedding light on how Palestinian voices have been muted in
official discourses and the people refused the right to tell their own stories
of loss and displacament. Udi Lebel’s (Ariel University Center, Israel)
article offers a discussion of the Israeli “grief regime” put in place since
the establishment of the state. Lebel’s analysis provides insight into the
social struggles over who can and should be included in the national
pantheon, showing the workings of a stringent hierarchy of casualties
deeply entrenched in Israeli culture through the insistence on the
preservation of what Lebel calls “Victimological Militarism”.
The following article returns to the theme of the loss of land, albeit
seen from a more strictly literary perspective. Katarzyna Nowak–
McNeice–McNeice (University of Wrocław, Poland) concentrates on
Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona, approaching it from the
viewpoint advocated by Anne Anlin Cheng who defined the dominant
American identity as a melancholic construct. Nowak–McNeice draws on
this concept and applies it to what she perceives as a uniquely Californian
variety of melancholia, connected to the complex process of closing the
American frontier.
Questions of the American geopolitical identity and global designs on
maintaining a superpower status are explored by Julia Szołtysek
xii Preface

(University of Wrocław, Poland) who, through focusing on the American


war on terror and its literary representations, endeavours to establish
patterns through which the seeming ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ are forced
into a melancholic and parasitic relationship with one another. Resorting
to Don DeLillo’s notion of the “organic shrapnel” as signifying the
conflicted closeness between the constructs of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’,
Szołtysek attempts to dismantle the constituents of this bond, revealing the
long-term impact of the global war on terror and its repercussions, both on
an inter/national and individual level.
The following three articles move away from direct political
involvement, concentrating instead on overcoming social taboos in
literature, issues of body politics, and philosophical approaches to
existential dilemmas. Anna Pilińska (University of Wrocław, Poland)
conducts a survey of Nabokov’s handling of the theme of death, proposing
to read death as inseparably linked to yet another social taboo, i.e. sex,
with the two elicitng special, even perverse, attention from Nabokovian
characters. Anna Iatsenko (University of Geneva, Switzerland)
concentrates on Morrison’s treatment of the memory of trauma in relation
to the black body and its physicality, employing as a cross-reference
Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of Morrison’s novel, in an attempt to
show to what extent ‘remembering’ is a physical act. Justyna Rusak
(University of Silesia, Poland) conducts an overview of selected characters
from Carson McCullers’ fiction, focusing on the author’s handling of
themes of existential anxiety, alienation, and spiritual isolation.
In the following four articles, emphasis shifts to British and Irish
contemporary literature and multiple forms of involvement with trauma
and grief it engages. Through focusing on micro-histories and their
relevance to Sebastian Barry’s recent fiction, Leszek Drong (University
of Silesia, Poland) puts forward a study of new developments in Irish
fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, especially in terms of the relationship
between literature and historiography, and a shift from large-scale
narratives to those which emphasise an individual’s predicament dictated
by historical circumstances. Grzegorz Moroz (University of Białystok,
Poland) discusses Huxley’s personal and literary development, focusing in
particular on the theme of fear of death and attempts to overcome it
through ars moriendi, and building a bridge to D.H. Lawrence and
Huxley’s criticism of his philosophy of blood. Sławomir Konkol
(University of Silesia, Poland) investigates the strategies employed by
Graham Swift which have been the object of many scholars’ criticism for
their suspiciously traditional character. Working from this premise,
Konkol goes on to show how Swift’s use of tired stereotypes and cliches
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief xiii

proves a self-conscious technique designed to depict the preconditioned


human affliction having to do with grief, trauma, and loss. Wojciech Drąg
(University of Wrocław, Poland) examines Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The
Unconsoled as an intricately structured dramatisation of its narrator’s
peculiar trauma-induced condition, arguing that it corresponds closely to
the Freudian conception of the fort-da game, or repetition compulsion.
The following article also relies on Freud’s theories – drawing on the
Freudian notion of transference, Jacek Partyka (University of Białystok,
Poland) traces representations of trauma in two contemporary Holocaust
novels. Through a juxtaposition of Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of
Stockholm and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Partyka engages with the
dialectics of the “1.5 generation” of Holocaust, using it as a starting point
to his analysis of the vicarious experience of trauma and terror. An
analysis of Sebald’s oeuvre is offered by Sławomir Masłoń (University of
Silesia, Poland) who explores a selection of Sebald’s fiction, focusing on
notions of mourning and melancholy and their handling in the author’s
works. Noting the close affinity between Sebald and Walter Benjamin,
Masłoń analyses the vision of human history shared by the two, assuming
a philosophically-informed perspective and methodology.
Resonant in the two concluding articles is an involvement with
contemporary media discourses and their original tackling of trauma.
Sonia Front (University of Silesia, Poland) analyses a particular strand in
contemporary cinematography, characterised by its manipulation of
chronometric time. Instead of the chronological plot, this type of film
narrative relies on atemporality, and, as Front argues, proves particularly
effective in expressing the interiority of trauma. In her discussion of Mr.
Nobody, Sonia Front considers the notion of ‘quantum time’ vis-a-vis
cinematic time, and conducts an investigation of the concept of personal
identity as explored by the film. Drawing on postmodern theories and
contemporary entertainment studies, Tomasz Gnat (University of Silesia,
Poland) analyses a selection of popular interactive games, focusing on the
figure of the postmodern monster. In an attempt to eplore the
monstrosity’s psyche and motivation, Gnat confronts recent modes of
representation of the monstrous with older, more conventional approaches,
showing the monster as heavily imbued with the frustrations, obsessions
and grudges of the contemporary world.
Thus composed, Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief offers an
intellectual excursion into realms of potentially regenerative problematics,
too frequently dismissed without due consideration. In this light, the
Volume constitutes a weighty contribution to the field of literary and
cultural studies. Thanks to its wide-reaching critical embrace, the variety
xiv Preface

of themes tackled and the multiplicity of approaches assumed, the


collection is bound to attract the attention of scholars, critics, academics,
as well as doctoral candidates and students working in the areas of
American and British literature, postcolonial theory and literature, political
sciences, trauma and Holocaust studies, film theory, entertainment studies,
photography, as well as discourses of terror and violence, and war
dialectics. First and foremost, however, Culture and the Rites/Rights of
Grief is to be intellectually enjoyed by readers with an interest in present-
day literary, cultural and political phenomena, at the intersection of which
grief and grieving execute an imposing presence, albeit one that remains as
indeterminate and flitting as the nature of contemporary cross-cultural and
cross-disciplinary encounters.
INTRODUCTION

GRIEVING, KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM

WOJCIECH KALAGA

Only through suffering and sorrow


do we acquire wisdom not found in books
(A Japanese proverb)

Given the domination of the contemporary cult of silly cheerfulness,


grieving does not belong to the mainstream; it is a niche of culture.
However, it is a niche which, despite its gloom, should be precious to any
society and any individual. A society incapable of grieving can only
produce superficiality; an individual who has not experienced grief is only
half a person. “Happiness is beneficial for the body”, Marcel Proust wrote
in Remembrance of Things Past, “but it’s grief that develops the powers of
the mind”.
Yet grieving is ambivalent – ambivalent in many ways. It is a state of
mind – some would say: of heart – and at the same time a process, almost
an activity, albeit an unintended one. In principle (which, as we shall see,
may be broken), it is not, however, a teleological process, which would
end with an achievement of its task: if there is a telos, it is not at the end,
as a final cause, but rather as an all-encompassing and permeating
condition – grief – a necessity to maintain itself as permanence. In its
essence, thus, grieving contains no end: no end as a chore to be fulfilled or
as a process which, from the start, would have completion inscribed into
it; the sense of an ending is alien to the idea of grief. The griever falls into
grieving with no intention to terminate it, no plans to carry it out, to bring
it to a conclusion. Grieving takes place in time, but – and here is another
touch of ambivalence – it evades time: it is a-temporal in the sense that
closure is external and contingent to it. What may eventually bring
grieving to an end is the unaware labor of forgetting, the external working
of time bringing rather an unwanted finale than an anticipated or
inherently predictable cessation. In this sense, grieving is masochistic, but
without the component of pleasure – rather than contentment, it is
2 Introduction

suffering for its own sake, the kind of suffering that fuels itself in an
endless cycle of pain.
The ambivalence of grieving extends itself to the corporeal: by way of
an existential metonymy, it is also a state (and a process) of the body. Like
happiness, grieving affects the body, but unlike happiness it is detrimental
to it. There seems to be no greater unity of the soma and the psyche, but in
grief. The grieving body is a body of pain. In the visual images of
grieving, that pain is pain/ted into the contortion or blankness of the face,
emblazoned in the arched torso, limp and excruciatingly tense at the same
time, in the twisting of hands and the hollowness or infinite depth of the
eyes. Sometimes the hands cover the face to safeguard the loneliness, to
keep away the compassionate gaze from the outside, to beg off sympathy –
because true grief is a lonely affair, not something to be shared with those
who do not grieve. Compassion and sympathy are external impositions,
they have no access to the body; the body rejects them as intruders
obliterating the pain. No cure is desired because it would spoil grieving; if
there is cure, as one rabbi insists, it is to continue: “The only cure for grief
is to grieve”.
Grieving thus re-adapts the idea of pain in a double way. First, the
body aches even though no pain has been inflicted to the body itself;
grieving brings about corporeal suffering without corporeal cause: no
wound or fracture of bodily tissue, no impact on the skull or chest apart
from the inside. The body aches from within, and even though the
griever’s corporeal pain may not be as acutely intense as the pain caused
by physical injury, it is by no means less severe. Rarely converging in one
afflicted spot, it unhurriedly permeates each cell and, while creeping in
this way, unites with the pain of the self, or heart, or soul – that part of an I
which has no substantial or tangible existence. If the continuity of the self
is a combination of time and awareness, the agony caused by grief fills
each molecule of this amalgam and eventually becomes its semi-organic
surrogate. In the griever, the two kinds of pain – the corporeal and the
existential – unite to create a polyphony whose score charts the graph of
suffering.
Henceforth this pain of grieving? From knowledge – the condition and
cause of grief. In Lucille, Edward Bulwer Lytton asks both radically and
rhetorically: “– what is knowledge but grieving?” Yet, in his allegation, he
is only partly right because not all knowledge incites grief: there is neutral
knowledge, impassive, free of emotions, in-affective, one might say; there
is also joyful knowledge, the chocolate for the mind, filling the knower
with the self-reflexive bliss of pure knowing or with the happiness of
knowing the good. Bulwer Lytton is right, however, in identifying
Grieving, Knowledge, Wisdom 3

knowledge as the essential prerequisite for grieving; yet to do justice to his


question, we should, in fact, reverse it and ask: “what is grieving but
knowledge?” In the narrative of our lives, anagnorisis always precedes the
peripeteia of grieving: the latter, without exception, transpires from the
former.
Yet this painful knowledge, which gives rise to grief, is not a uniform
power – it operates in its own multiple ways, perhaps too diverse to be
pinpointed or categorized. From the perspective of grief, however, three
kinds of knowledge impose themselves as those that mark out the
spectrum and can be identified as grief’s major determinants.
On one extreme of the spectrum, there is the knowledge of a singular
event – the knowledge which strikes one like a lightning and fills the mind
with the awareness of irrevocability: the death of a dear person, the loss of
a lover or child that seems forever unbearable, a sudden detection of a
terminal illness and the necessity to leave whatever is dearest. When set
against the background of human experience in general, this kind of
particular knowledge is, in fact, a triviality, unnoticed by the movement of
history. Yet it is a triviality which ruins the whole procession of one’s life.
It has two simultaneous modes of operation and works in two directions: a
posteriori (post mortem, one might perhaps more aptly say) and a fortiori:
it shreds one’s past into a mash and turns the future into a void. What has
once been a life filled with unique occurrences and encounters, a life of
remembrances and expectances, is now crushed into a pulp, out of which
protrudes only the devastating awareness of bereavement and
irreversibility. Both the past and the future now constitute only a
pulverized milieu for grief.
The other extreme is occupied by – or perhaps privileged with – the
knowledge available only to the few, the kind of knowledge which
requires time for its accumulation. Its object is not a particular event; no
loss or bereavement is involved. This is slow and inductive knowledge,
which emerges from the apprehension (in its full ambiguity) of the world
and entails both distance and commitment. There is a kind of
conclusiveness and finality in this knowledge, underscored by a sense of
hopelessness that one might call existential: the loss of faith in the
goodness of humanity, the recognition of the incorrigibility of evil in man,
the awareness of the unfathomability of transcendence, the realization of
the inevitability of zum-Tode-Sein, the ultimate understanding that there is
no sense to be understood. It is bleak knowledge that blackens gradually
through the various shades of lightness of life and changes doubt into
certainty, leaving no promise of hope. The grieving bred by this kind of
knowledge may be a detached kind of grieving of a hermit observing the
4 Introduction

world from the shelter of his cabin, but it can also manifest itself as an
innermost trembling, an insurmountable anxiety of the self, not limited,
however, to an individual ego, but imparting the trembling to the world,
like Kierkegaard’s grieving over himself and man, or Sisyphus’ anguish in
Camus, or Schopenhauer’s pessimism. This kind of grieving knowledge
wipes out the boundary between the personal and the universal, elevates
the knowing self and merges it with the Other, thus turning the griever into
a philosopher.
Between those two kinds of grief-breeding knowledge, there is an
intermediate kind, less distinctly marked on the spectrum. It entails neither
direct loss of an object of love nor aloof reflection on the fate of humanity;
rather it creeps in steadily carrying with itself residues of pain. This kind
of knowledge verges on or alters with bitterness; it works in its mild and
subliminal way, sneaks into clear thought and stains it with a slight sense
of anxiety. Bitterness, if experienced only incidentally, will not turn into
knowledge that causes grief. There is, however, a point of crossing over
the critical mass – when one drinks one too many cup of disappointment
with those one had trusted – that changes it into grief-inciting knowledge.
The grief thus produced is not the utmost grief in which one drowns
entirely and sees no surface to return to; it is rather a lingering sediment of
grief which builds up and slowly raises its level. What feeds this kind of
grieving is a loss of trust and faith in the other, rearing despondency and
disillusionment. Like the emotional grief effected by personal trauma, this
kind of grieving originates in individual experience, but it requires time to
accumulate; unlike traumatic grief, however, it reaches beyond
individuality and again bridges the personal and the universal. In this way,
it approximates the philosopher’s grief, but never attains its magnitude;
rather than a philosopher it yields a misanthropist.
Grieving thus construed emerges as a trans-rational reflection of
knowledge – a reflection and transmutation of the rational into the
irrational. The rationality of knowledge disperses in grief into the chaos of
tremulous vacillation and trembling. But if knowledge is an efficient and
immediate cause of grieving, maybe we should reconsider the question of
the telos and ask what is the final cause of grieving (if there is any)? A
profound suggestion of that final cause is contained in Ecclesiastes (1:18):
“In much wisdom is much grief […]”. Wisdom thus would seem to cause
grief, but at the same time it is posited as a possible effect, if not the
absolute telos, of grief: much grief is required to attain wisdom.
But, of course, it would be a falsity to claim that all wisdom comes
from grieving: there is wisdom that comes from joy, or tranquility, or
distant observation of an entomologist of humankind. Yet certainly there is
Grieving, Knowledge, Wisdom 5

also a kind of wisdom that falls upon one only as a result of grief (and
which perhaps, as implied in the passage from Ecclesiastes, in a self-
reciprocating loop reinforces grief). And further: the final cause of grief –
wisdom – may never be attained because the (non)teleological movement
of grieving usually turns on itself into a circle or spiral without end: one
may fall short of attaining that wisdom, as Kierkegaard did, remaining
forever in the state of trembling and anxiety, but which Schopenhauer
reached by turning to the East. However, when knowledge sifted through
grieving reflects on itself, wisdom does emerge: it is this special case
when – in the long run – grieving becomes a bridge to wisdom, when in
and through grieving, knowledge and wisdom come together.
This coming together of knowledge and wisdom may take on the form
of a collision, when wisdom eventually overpowers and neutralizes the
knowledge that was the source of grief. In Pearl, an exquisite medieval
depiction of grieving, spiritual rebellion and discernment, the griever-poet
mourns the death of his beloved two year old daughter Margaret – the
pearl, margarita. He is a “joyless jeweler” overwhelmed with grief which
„pierces [his] heart with pangs”. One can read the Pearl, of course, not
only as a symbol of the lost child but also as an allegory rich in religious
and spiritual meanings (innocence, purity, perfection of the soul, beatitude,
eternal life, the Eucharist etc.). However, irrespective of possible
allegorical senses, what remains central is the grief of a mortal bereaved
by the death of his dearest child and engrossed in his earthly suffering.
When Margaret appears to him in a dream – now as a young woman in
garments adorned with pearls – she demonstrates the erroneousness and
triviality of his earthly comprehension of death. The griever’s sense of
injustice is countered and appeased by the parable of the vineyard and the
vision of his daughter amongst blissful maidens following the Lamb. Yet it
is not his own earthly wisdom that brings him consolation; the Pearl
imparts to him the wisdom of heaven and thus drives his „dire distress”
away. Her teaching eventually leads to the illumination of the griever; his
sense of bereavement and his suffering are overridden and annulled by the
wisdom of the heavenly realm. Grief now emerges merely as a veil of
blindness which only heavenly wisdom can uncover and replace with
solace and peace.
If in the Pearl the Dreamer wakes up from his grief reconciled with the
world by the wisdom conveyed to him – or, better, thrust upon him – in the
dream, in Synge’s Riders to the Sea grief changes into wisdom when the
knowledge of ultimate loss falls upon the griever. For the mother of six
sons, who has lost five of them and her husband in the sea, life is anything
but a mixture of grief and fear for the life of the last one. We witness the
6 Introduction

peak of her grieving when the death of her fifth son is discovered and the
peak of her fear when the last son is going to sea again. But then,
suddenly, the fear and the grief turn into tragic wisdom. We behold this
alteration of utmost despair into utmost peace when the last son’s body,
still soaking with water, is carried in and laid on the table: “They’re all
gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me”, says
Maurya, the mother. In her wisdom of acquiescence, Maurya has now not
only achieved her dreadful calmness, but also the wisdom of existential
stoicism in the face of destiny, contained in the simple truth of her final
understanding: “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be
satisfied”.
It is interesting to see this kind of alteration of grief and wisdom,
which was dramatized by Synge, multiplied to an ineffable diversity in
thźe spatial separateness of the images of Pietà. Subsumed under one title
– if we ignore chronology and geography, and focus just on the face of the
Mother as an embodiment of the inner calamity – an opalescence of
visions of grieving comes into view: from the all-encompassing, though
invisible grief of the face covered by cloth or hands, as in the paintings by
Arnold Böcklin and Franz Stuck, through utmost loss in Agnolo Bronzino
or pure, insurmountable pain in Juan de Valdes Leal, in an anonymous
Pietà in the National Museum in Warsaw, in Louis de Morales, or in
Ippolito Scalza; through blind suffering drowned in itself, as if separate
from the body of Christ, in the Gothic Pietà in St. Barbara’s church in
Cracow; through the emptiness of grief in Pietro Perugino, or emptiness
and reproach in the Bouguereau Pietà; through the brooding grief in
Giovanni Bellini or almost carnal grief of compassion in his other
painting; through helpless despair in van Gogh’s versions of Delacroix;
through grief twisted with anger in Röttgen Pietà; through rebellion and
disbelief on the face turned obliquely to heaven in Paula Ruego and much
earlier in Jacob Jordaens; through grief and thankfulness in Massimo
Stanzione to the solemn understanding in Titian or in the Avignon Pietà; to
the sadness of wisdom in El Greco or in an anonymous German sculpture
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; to the wisdom of tenderness in the
painting by Van-der-Weyden and, finally, to the mature wisdom in
Michelangelo: the quiet suffering overcome by the awareness of
inevitability in the sculpture in Vatican and the gentle wisdom of care of
the Pietà Rondanini in Milan.
Albeit occupying the traumatic end of the spectrum, Maurya, the
Dreamer, and the Mother in some versions of Pietà epitomise the transition
from knowledge through grieving to wisdom. Wisdom thus achieved
brings consolation to the griever; it combines humility with stature for it
Grieving, Knowledge, Wisdom 7

grows out of hardening pain. This is not wisdom of a joyful kind – it is


rather nourished by stoic resignation and acceptance. Grieving, as a
transitory stage, emerges therefore as a necessary moment of reflection
and deliberation ensuing from knowledge, but also enriching knowledge
with forbearance and thus neutralizing its trauma into the wisdom of
acquiescence. With the philosopher and the misanthropist the modus
operandi is the same, even though no immediate trauma strikes the mind
or the body; the trauma of steadily accumulated knowledge is extended in
time and thus dissolved into a plateau of accruing ache of disillusionment.
Yet despite the lesser intensity of grieving, and maybe a greater distance to
the knowledge that is its source, wisdom comes – or, at least, may come –
in the end: with the philosopher, it is the wisdom of understanding, albeit
disenchanted; with the misanthropist – the wisdom of bitterness. If we
imagine that wisdom grown out of grief as a hemisphere (the other
hemisphere being the wisdom of peaceful enjoyment of knowledge), its
space is occupied by experience: either sifted through individual
sensitivity or, via empathy, generalized on humankind. This wisdom, as in
the Japanese proverb, cannot come from books – its only source is the
grief-breeding knowledge construed as an immediate encounter with the
world.
CHAPTER ONE

DEATH IS AN-OTHER COUNTRY:


GRIEVING FOR ALTERITY
IN “POST-TRANSITIONAL”
SOUTH AFRICAN LITERATURE

NEDINE MOONSAMY

It is difficult to believe that the woman who chafed my shivering body –


Matt also had goose bumps at bath-time – is the same woman now waiting
at a faint borderline to be admitted to another country.
(Justin Cartwright, White Lightning 112)

1.
In recent years the term “post-transitional” has come into usage in
contemporary South African cultural and literary studies. Its aim is to
account for the dynamic changes that occur within a national and literary
imaginary after discarding the politically laden impetus of the anti-
apartheid struggle and the easy optimism of post-apartheid nation-
building. Yet, as I will illustrate in this article, the pervasive
representations of death and grieving in contemporary South African
literature illumine a premature appraisal of a “post-transitional” state.
In current writing one finds a prevalent plot structure that involves a
protagonist who lives abroad but is forced to return to South Africa to
confront the reality of death through the loss of a parent. In this paper I
will offer analyses of Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning (2002), Marlene
Van Niekerk’s Agaat (2006) and Mark Behr’s Kings of the Water (2010) as
useful illustrations of how structural representations of death can be read
as symptomatic of failed nationalistic desire.1 I argue that these texts

1
The analysis of nostalgia contretemps is part of a larger body of research that
captures this phenomenon across a much wider range of texts.
Death is An-Other Country 9

express this loss as a debilitating form of nostalgia that cannot be


mourned. In addition, these texts also present reactionary impulses that
seek to alleviate these feelings of loss through active examinations of how
one approaches and perceives death.2 The duality upon which these texts
hinge is thus suggestive of a transitional moment in the national and
literary imaginary that aspires towards a new ideal of “post-transitional“
status but cannot lay claim to the “afterwardness” of arrival.
In the Introduction to Load Shedding (2009), Sarah Nuttall and Liz
McGregor state that South Africa has entered its difficult years. The
political upheavals that have occurred since 2007, they argue, have marked
a shift in the country’s self-representation and signaled the onset of the
early symptoms of depression for its citizens. Nuttall and McGregor state
that the country is now left with the “the feeling that we were living at the
end of the dream years, at the tail end of our big Idea” (10). They allude to
the weariness of a cultural imaginary that grapples with the complexities
of post-apartheid South Africa, a nation that has now lost sight of the
expected or anticipated ideals of a democratic future. Utopia becomes a
less apt description for the nation, giving way instead to a nascent
nostalgia. Yet the complexity of this national malaise lies in the fact that it
is nostalgic for a future that has never arrived. It is thus an experience of
nostalgia that if out of time with its normative pastness – it is a nostalgia
contretemps.
In “Aphorism Countertime”,3 Jacques Derrida conducts a reading of
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Through this study we learn that the term
“contretemps” can imply mishap, syncopation, inopportunity, out of time
and in counter-time. Derrida analyses the play in order to outline its
central preoccupation with the anxieties and “accidents” of time. He
proceeds by first establishing the homogeneity of “objective” and
“external” time, as it is an awareness of this linearity that proves to be the
a priori condition out of which the contretemps arises. In making a display
of the various “accidents of timing” that occur in the play, and which
ultimately lead to its tragic end, Derrida explores how linear time opens up
the possibility for “elsewhere” for the characters. In the play this is
expressed through the lovers’ wish and desire for the reversibility and

2
These trends are equally discernable in Imraan Coovadia’s High Low In-between
(2009) and Anne Landsman’s The Rowing Lesson (2007).
3
The French title is “L’aphorisme á contretemps”. I have decided to retain the
French term contretemps as I find the English translation to be a poor one. Derrida
also theorises this term in Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of
mourning, and the new international.
10 Chapter One

malleability of time – for a different time – such that their tragedy may be
undone or “rewritten”.
Similarly, in The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym insists that
nostalgia, as a state of temporal dissonance, can be effectively read as a
rebellion against the ever-narrowing parameters of time. 4 Much like the
contretemps, nostalgia is deemed to be of an aneconomic order that seeks
to disrupt an increasingly capitalist agenda of linearity. Yet, exploring the
Derridian contretemps further, we find that it is determined also to carry us
out of the “now” as opposed to granting it privilege as a centripetal
framework. Contrary to Boym’s nostalgia, which utilizes the present and
the past to challenge the future, the contretemps actively employs the
future as a means to challenge the present and the past (“Aphorism
Countertime” 419).
Hence, to talk of nostalgia contretemps is to suggest that the future
may indeed serve as an organizing temporality for nostalgia. It is to
propose a reading of nostalgia that is out of time with current theoretical
conceptualizations that validate nostalgia as an experience of the present.
To talk of nostalgia contretemps is to grant the future unexpected
prominence such that it may also begin to account for contemporary
experiences of nostalgia as they occur within the South African national
and literary imaginary.
Arguably, it is the new regime, post-1994, that has allowed for
nostalgia contretemps to ensue by making available a construct of “home”
that drew inspiration from the liberal and messianic cornerstones of
triumph, achievement, transformation and arrival. In “Cracked Heirlooms:
memory on exhibition”, Ingrid De Kok states that

The political transformation of South Africa, represented so powerfully on


10 May 1994 by the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president, was
interpreted by most of its citizens as triumph premised on compromise. For
support of the new government and goodwill in general to be sustained,
that compromise would have to be experienced as worth it: worth the pain
and suffering, worth the capitulation. Since the past has to meet the present
through settlement, not revolution, it needed an accompanying rhetoric
about how to process the future: and that process was divined as the act of
nation building (57).

4
In her text, Boym describes nostalgia as an awareness that “the time of their
happiness is out of joint” ( 21) – a seeming echo of the Derridian contretemps
which also famously presents its argument through Hamlet’s line, “‘The time is out
of joint’” (19 – 20), in Specters of Marx.
Death is An-Other Country 11

The South African democratic state, born anew in 1994 as a nation that
sought transformation, marks a temporal break with its own past. This
implies a national construct that does not extend out of the past but,
instead, seeks distance from it. One notes the over-emphasis on the future
as a temporal locale in order to construct a national rhetoric, or rather, a
rhetoric of nation, for it is out of the promised ideals of the democratic
future that the South African nation arises.5 Furthermore, we witness the
ready awareness of transformation of the past. By stating a need to
transform the past as opposed to an acceptance of it, a utilitarian approach
is adopted towards the past such that it may “count” in favour of the
future-oriented nation-state.
However, in recent times this protention of hope now appears to have
transformed into despair. The “event” of post-apartheid South Africa is no
longer looked upon as the pinnacle of progress in the national imagination
as the future that it was intended to reveal has not arrived – indeed, one
might argue that it ceases to count as an “event” at all. And this, in turn,
has led to conditions of mourning and melancholia in the literary
imaginary where there is now a desire to “return” – nostos – through an
assertion of longing and loss – algia – for a time that never was –
contretemps.

2.
In White Lightning, the protagonist, James, a former South African,
returns to the country because his mother is dying. James states at the
outset that “I was waiting for my mother to die” (Cartwright [from hereon
WL] 1). He is resigned to the fact that she must pass away and does not
face this prospect with any apparent angst. This appears to be a common
reaction in the texts: in Marlene Van Niekerk’s, Agaat, the protagonist,

5
See Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the temporal frameworks of the modern
secular state in Imagined Communities: Reflections On the Origin And Spread Of
Nationalism (1986). Anderson argues that the nation-state imagines itself to extend
out of the past and “still more important, glide into a limitless future” (19). From
this we understand that the past, present and future are all employable
temporalities in the construction of a nation. However, Anderson argues that the
nation, as “an imagined community is an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through
time” (63). Hence the nation is often perceived as subject to the modalities of
linear time, progressing from past glory into future greatness. However, it appears
as if the South African nation presents an anomaly in this regard and thus proves to
be somewhat “incapable” of experiencing nationalistic forms of nostalgia as they
are conventionally conceived.
12 Chapter One

Jakkie is summoned back to South Africa by an urgent telegram that


notifies him of his mother’s impending death. In the prologue and epilogue
of the text, in which we encounter Jakkie, we learn that he has actively
been working on mourning for many years. He desires the completeness of
an ending – a wish that is made evident when he travels back to South
Africa to attempt a successful mourning for his mother. Similarly, in Mark
Behr’s Kings of Water, Michiel returns to South Africa for his mother’s
funeral. Much like James in White Lightning and Jakkie in Agaat, he does
not have a close relationship with his mother and her sudden death appears
to arouse shock but certainly not despair. The common lack of grief
amongst the three protagonists, I argue, implies a willingness to embrace
the death of a parent because it symbolizes a discursive entry into “an-
other country”.
In Death, Desire and Loss, Jonathan Dollimore states that death has
often been governed by notions of perfection, which comes “from the
Latin perficere – to accomplish, bring to an end” (73). He argues that
death has often been welcomed as a timely or perfect end to which one
aspires or progresses. Here death is experienced as a teleological journey
where one attains a symbolic state of arrival and finds an ideological
coeval in Derrida’s description of border-based discourse.
In Aporias, Derrida entrenches his entire discussion of the
philosophical aporia around discourses of death and provides description
of the unique forms that the respective aporia assumes. “In one case”, he
states, “the nonpassage resembles an impermeability” (Derrida, Aporias
20). The first philosophical school that Derrida identifies employs a visible
border between life and death. Because life and death are perceived as
singular, and hence separable, the border represents the mark between
perception and what lies beyond perception. It maintains distance between
the self and the other, hence providing sufficient distance for radical
alterity as the new.
As cited in the epigraph, James perceives his mother’s death as the
necessary border to be crossed to enter into “another country”. Not only
does Cartwright reveal the logic of a border-based approach to death, but
he self-consciously depicts James’s response through nationalistic rhetoric.
Through the thematic desire for death as border-crossing activity into a
new national space, White Lightning alludes to the frameworks of post-
apartheid South Africa where alterity was similarly employed such that the
messianic infrastructure of the “New South Africa” could be sustained.
However, what we have in all three of these texts is the portrayal of a
structural inability to sustain such border-based beliefs in relation to death
which, I argue, is suggestive of their flailing applicability in the South
Death is An-Other Country 13

African national context. One finds that the texts, all in their own ways,
provide forms of critique and revision of this notion by illustrating how a
death of this kind cannot be experienced and has given way to a state of
impossibility, represented as melancholia, and hence, directly revealing the
formations of nostalgia contretemps.
In White Lightning, Cartwright employs his protagonist, James, to cast
skepticism over border-based notions of death. As James watches over his
mother and reflects on the course of her desolate life and her current
decrepit state he is forced to re-evaluate his opinions about what death
entails. Evoking Virgil, he states, “I agree that life is thin-spun, but I can’t
believe that she, or her essence, will fly off to join the numbers of the
stars, as much as I might wish it” (WL 41). He can no longer accept death
as that which signifies a happier prospect of graduating into a desired state
of predetermined perfection. Instead, he grows to believe that the other
side of the border is, in fact, “a departure to nowhere” (WL 41). Here
Cartwright appears to challenge nationalistic discourse by alluding to the
irony that nothing “new” can arrive when thinking within the constraints
of predetermined messianism. As an alternative, James opens himself up
to the prospect that death need not be informed by destinal logic and
thereby grants death the radical alterity that it deserves.
In the text, this hopeful re-evaluation of death becomes so appealing
that James indicates a desire to die alongside his mother such that he may
have access to an-other country that now defies messianic definition: “I
have a curious notion suddenly, that I should lie next to her and die with
her” (WL 41). James now seeks out his own “death”, and in the text this is
portrayed as a desire for self-dispossession. It is for this reason that he
decides to buy a farm and settle in South Africa, feeling that the country
will inspire him to find happiness beyond or outside of the ego and self.
However, it is here that the text makes apparent the Derridian aporia of
border-based logic by illustrating an awareness that death, as a state of
impermeability, dictates that the border is always uncrossable once
reached (Aporias). Because death is governed by a border, it keeps one
from its realisation and reduces it to impossibility. Consequently, just as
the narrative space for death through self-dispossession is introduced, it is
exploited for its aporetic ironies and marred by impossibility as all
attempts at engaging otherness fail dismally. James begins to realise that
despite the allure of death as radical alterity an encounter of this kind is
fallacious precisely because the boundaries between life and death exist as
an assertion of distance between the two.
What White Lightning appears to re-establish – through negation – is
that the border into death is one that is utterly impermeable and
14 Chapter One

uncrossable. The narrative of James’s time in South Africa ends with the
dismal realisation that “the limits of my language have met the limits of
my world” (WL 243). He appears to be resigned to an existence of
limitations and borders that will forever keep him away from the much
desired prospect of death but nevertheless maintains a boundary that seeks
to respect its alterity.
Consequently, he must learn to live with a perpetual sense of loss for
“an-other country” that will never arrive and James makes a hasty return to
London. This resembles a melancholic longing of sorts, for the pathos of
James’s awareness of his self-negating desire is indicative of an unceasing
despair; in order to maintain the ideal he must continue to mourn its
impossibility. Ultimately, we find that White Lightning thus gestures
towards the alterity of the future by asserting James’s longing for it yet
simultaneously closes off the possibility of its arrival by encapsulating it in
a narrative of loss, exemplifying the condition of nostalgia contretemps.
In Agaat, Marlene Van Niekerk introduces conflict to border-based
beliefs by portraying the sheer impossibility of mourning. Jakkie has been
actively working on mourning for many years and assumes that Canada,
the country to which he has immigrated, is a suitable environment to effect
such a plan because nationalistic mourning has been achieved; “here the
blood has long since been spilt. Cold. The massacres efficiently
commemorated, functionally packaged, sanitized” (Van Niekerk [from
hereon A] 2). Through the economy of mourning Jakkie assumes that he
will finally be able to live without loss and so he travels back to South
Africa to attempt a successful mourning for his mother, Milla De Wet.
Despite expressing a wish to see his mother before she passes away, he
eventually gets to South Africa and feels “relieved after all that I was too
late. Couldn’t have stomached it” (A 677). His relationship with her has
been polite at best. Jakkie has never had a strong connection with Milla
and as he casts an eye over her belongings he feels alienated and distant
from her. Having no way or means for accounting for her identity or their
relationship, he feels stuck as to how to consolidate their relationship at
her funeral. Because this is a loss that cannot be sufficiently identified or
understood, Jakkie struggles to mourn for it.
Furthermore, much of his hostility towards his mother stems from the
shroud of secrecy she created around Agaat’s existence in their lives. In
this text, Jakkie has a close relationship with his former nanny and
domestic servant, Agaat (after whom the text takes its title). She was more
of a mother-figure to him but at the same time, the closeness he felt and
still feels for her was and is corroded by the racial and class politics of
apartheid. Throughout his life Jakkie feels that he knows too little about
Death is An-Other Country 15

Agaat to lay claim to a definite connection to her and she plays heavily on
his conscience even though he no longer resides in South Africa. In this
novel, much of the narrative is structured around the mystery of Agaat’s
history and the secret bedtime story that she shared with Jakkie when he
was a boy. Despite his wish to forget, Jakkie still cannot erase this story
from his mind as it keeps flooding back into his consciousness, which is
indicative of a haunting of sorts.
In Specters of Marx, Derrida defines the nature of the specter as
aneconomic in its potential to haunt. The imposition of the ghost is not felt
only in relation to the past but also as an arrival that “seems to be out
front, the future” (Derrida, Specters of Marx 10). Derrida explains that the
figure of the specter is representative of that which is neither present nor
absent. As an always becoming-body, we cannot locate, identify and name
it and therefore, we can never successfully mourn for it by ensuring its
burial as such. The specter introduces us to a liminal reality that
compromises the notion that life and death are divisible entities – it
declares the border non-existent. It invites us into the borderless space of
absolute hospitality where one is meant to assume responsibility for the
other by playing host to it.
Agaat provides an interesting elucidation of hauntology, for it is clearly
not only the fissures of the past that exact a haunting force upon Jakkie but
also a more profound sense of loss – that of imagined loss. Because Jakkie
remains uncertain as to who Agaat is and what their true relationship
entails, this carries further obsessions as to what their relationship is in the
present and could have been in the future. Nevertheless her omniscient
absence-presence asserts itself upon him and Jakkie harbours a residual
hope that the intimacy of their connection will result in full realisation
when he returns to South Africa for his mother’s funeral, which will serve
as such an “event” of imminent arrival.
However, when he returns to South Africa, the idealistic quality of this
hope is exposed. The imagined intimacy that he shares with Agaat in his
dream is far from the woman he encounters on the farm. He finds her
clinical and hostile, consumed by bitterness that comes with a life spent in
servitude. The empty narrative of her past that he has always longed to
hear and the hope for a future relationship is turned into palpable loss as
he describes her as an “Apartheid Cyborg” (A 677) – a disembodied and
empty soul.
Encountering this reality, he remains determined to mourn the loss that
he feels. Yet despite Jakkie’s determination, haunting compromises the
very frameworks of mourning and as Jakkie flies back to Canada, he states
the following:
16 Chapter One

What remains? Grieving. Grieving till I’ve mastered the hat-trick. The
difficult triple sanity: Wafer, stone, and flower in turn. De Wet
individuated. Do I hear something under the engine noise, through the air
conditioning? A melody? A rhythm?

Why that? Of all things? Gaat’s story, the last story that she always had to
tell me before I’d go to sleep, the one she never wanted Ma to hear (A
683).

The wish to mourn is followed by the immediate arrival of Agaat’s


secret narrative. She has only ever shared this story with him and it is his
inheritance to carry despite himself. He is caught in the “messy”
borderless space of spectral poetics.
Much like Derrida’s ethical stance in Specters of Marx, Agaat casts a
skeptical eye over the Freudian construct of mourning by illustrating its
impossibility. Derrida argues that the Freudian experience of mourning is
only an anxious containment of the specter by seeking to condemn its
becoming-body (as half body and spirit) to death. Jakkie is left with the
burdensome inheritance of Agaat’s secret story. Not only must he carry
this narrative as his secret but as a story that contains Agaat’s secret self as
well. 6 The inability to mourn is a recurring trace suggesting an endless
strain of melancholia for the loss that has occurred and for what continues
to remain missing.
Much like the repetitive and improvisatory style of the bed-time story
used in Agaat, the specter, Derrida argues, is both “repetition and the first
time” (Specters of Marx 10). For Derrida, that which we are forced to
inherit from the past is responsibility of and for a future that will allow for
the return of the ghost. By allowing for its iterability rather than mere
repeatability, one allows for the potential newness of the story yet to be
told in the future. However, Jakkie has no intentions to live with ghosts
and seeks to deny the borderless space in which spectrality operates. And
by seeking escape from it he becomes increasingly melancholic about the
inability to exorcise them.
Again, Jakkie’s stance exemplifies that of nostalgia contretemps, for
much like James in White Lightning, Jakkie carries with him a wish for
“another country” as a fantasy of alterity – using death as a trope to
suggest that the new may help them realise all of their messianic hopes for
something other than the past and present circumstances. The loss they
both encounter is twofold: realising that if the future is to be maintained as
an exemplar of radical alterity it will be forever unattainable ( more self-

6
The story is presumably her version of her personal history.
Death is An-Other Country 17

consciously in the case of James in White Lightning), and that the new of
alterity can never follow the dictates of their messianic hopes. Because of
the aporetic clash that occurs between the messianic determinism and the
hope for alterity, the future becomes enveloped in a dual economy of loss
as they grieve for the alterity that never comes and the messianism that
proves too forceful. As I have tried to illustrate, their common reaction is
that of labouring through loss by seeking release from it through the act of
mourning. However, the impossibility of mourning leaves them
perpetually melancholic for a loss that proves eternally irrecoverable as
they continue to cling to border-based beliefs of death as the alterity of
“an-other country”.
Through the representation of nostalgia contretemps, the texts enforce
a revaluation of messianism and its relation to alterity. Furthermore, they
also encapsulate a shifting relation toward death, which is indicative of an
ever-growing need to conceive of the nation on different terms. Yet while
this foreshadows an awareness that the messianic perfectibility of border-
based approaches to national rhetoric has come to be felt as inauthentic – a
poor philosophy for “post-transitional“ South Africa – it is a position,
intriguingly enough, does not suggest a loss of idealism but a
reconfiguration of it.
In the texts this is communicated through a prominent inclination
towards an ethical repositioning of death as a borderless discourse. In
Aporias, Derrida describes such an approach as that which “stems from
the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border
to cross, no opposition between two sides: the limit is too porous,
permeable, and indeterminate” (Derrida, Aporias 20). Here death is
perceived as a discursive engagement that denies the use of any borders. It
is an experience that cannot be captured in the language of differentiation
but allows for the possibility that death is interior to and inseparable from
life. An approach of this kind serves to counteract nostalgia contretemps
through an assertion that the “borders” between life and death are, in fact,
porous (or non-existent). Employing this borderless approach to death
does not allow for the foreclosures of mourning because it forestalls the
very perception of loss itself. As a result, the melancholic yearning of
nostalgia contretemps is marginalized by denying loss a place in the
future.
In Mark Behr’s Kings of the Water, the protagonist, Michiel, has a
desire to mourn that is equal to Jakkie’s Agaat. He has frequently
employed the services of a psychologist, Glassman, from whom Michiel
has learnt that “when acute trauma has not been reasonably integrated it
superimposes itself over future experience – new trauma in particular –
18 Chapter One

without the psyche knowing what’s occurring” (Behr [from hereon KW]
82). Much like his male counterparts in the previous narratives, Michiel
subscribes to the psychological dictum of mourning as a means by which
to gain access to the radical alterity of the future and he has come to South
Africa with the intention to mourn; he is aware that “at some point he will
have to allow himself to weep. It will be the first thing Glassman asks
when he gets back: And how did you mourn?”(KW 58).
Contrary to the possibilities of mourning that Glassman outlines for
Michiel’s trip, it proves to be impossible in his South African context:
“what layers of disconsolation had he entered? Or is it the grief of all
memory repeated in the superlative? Never over and done, only done
over” (KW 81). Much like Jakkie in Agaat, Michiel cannot find the
closure he desires and Kings of the Water portrays an equal resistance to
mourning. Michiel spends much of his energy in this pursuit but the sheer
frustration with which his efforts are met leaves him perpetually
melancholic.
Arguably, this serves as Behr’s ethical, and somewhat didactic, critique
of Michiel’s melancholic temperament. For what the text appears to
suggest, most particularly through Michiel’s encounters with Kamil and
Karien, is that death cannot be perceived as exterior to life. The text makes
an evident allusion to the surrender to a borderless discourse of death
where mourning is no longer required. And unlike Jakkie, who resists
hauntology, Behr appears to be amenable to the prospect of interiorized
perceptions of death as a potentially practicable approach by portraying
Michiel’s slightly “forceful” conversion into this way of thinking.
In San Francisco, Michiel lives with his partner, Kamil. Throughout
the narrative he recalls aspects of their life together. We learn that Kamil
has AIDS and Michiel has nursed him through his bouts of illness over the
years. However, Kamil’s fate forever hangs in the balance and Michiel
cannot bear the agony of the uncertainty and the ever-pressing insistence
of death. What he longs for is either the certainty of death or the assurance
of Kamil’s life – a complete mourning or no reason to mourn. Noting this
characteristic in Michiel, Kamil accuses him of exhibiting a narcissistic
desire to control rather than empathise. In a heated argument, Kamil
concludes with the following; “it’s not the thing itself, it’s what we do with
it; not what has been done. It’s what we do with it now. Perfection is stasis
and that’s fascism” (KW 203). According to Kamil, who lives with the
very real probability of death, Michiel needs to learn to embrace the
impurity of uncertainty and the very real presence of death embedded in
their very existences. Nevertheless, this is evidently a lesson that Michiel
struggles to grasp as Karien echoes Kamil’s criticisms of Michiel.
Death is An-Other Country 19

Karien was once Michiel’s girlfriend and when she fell pregnant they
both decided on an illegal abortion which was unsuccessful. Not long
after, Michiel fled the country and left his parents to look after her during
her pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage. Having broken all forms of
contact with her, Michiel now seeks to make amends. When she speaks to
him about the past she is candid, affable and unfazed. Michiel is not
relieved but disturbed by her nonchalance; “he is unconvinced by her lack
of regret or anger at him. ‘Schreiner also wrote that all that’s buried is not
dead’, he says. If she has lived in him for so many years, has he not also
been alive in her? Where is her rage, or at least her memory of it?”(KW
151). Karien does not suffer the past as a loss. Instead, she has willingly
incorporated the pain of the past as part of her life. Michiel cannot grasp
her easy relation to the misfortunes of the past and the imperfections of
others. The liminality of her world-view makes him so anxious that he
even wishes for a punishment to be bestowed upon him such that he may
serve it and then be free. Much like Kamil, Karien is vexed by his
stubbornness and accuses him of narcissism. She argues that his desire for
perfection has led to, or is perhaps informed by, cowardice and paralysis.
Kings of the Water makes clear the aporetic circumstances involved in
relying on the future as a messianic ideal. Behr conducts a generous
exposition of Michiel’s deficient need for absolute mourning by
illustrating how it amounts to stasis rather than pragmatic action and
abstract judgment rather than personal empathy. Contrary to Michiel,
characters like his mother, Karien, Benjamin and Kamil all display an
ability to tolerate the inevitability of death and a willingness to incorporate
it into their acts of living and do not experience any apparent sense of loss.
As a result, they display no symptoms of nostalgia contretemps and have
no need to mourn.
Furthermore, by maintaining the future as a perfectable ideal, Michiel
is not capable of recognizing the “event” or the “new” that does, in fact,
present itself. The myopic relation to the future is highlighted in Michiel’s
thoughts about the New South Africa. As a young student aboard, Michiel
caught wind of the impending democratic nation and was initially very
excited to be involved in this change. However, when the initial movement
marginalized homosexual rights as a secondary concern, he immediately
became disenchanted. Nevertheless, in the text we learn that South Africa
has recognized LGBT rights both in its constitution and law but instead of
meeting this amendment with hope, Michiel is skeptical of change: “how
could Africa’s oldest liberation movement so rapidly have changed its
mind?”(KW 180). Instead of embracing the mutability of the future as an
indication of radical alterity, Michiel can only grieve for the initial sense
20 Chapter One

of loss that he first felt about democratic ideals. Ironically, Michiel is


closed to the true potential of alterity in the future.
The novel ends with Michiel on the way to the airport when his brother
phones to notify him about the 9/11 attacks and states that all flights to
America have been cancelled. He remains waiting on the side of the road,
unsure about whether he is meant to turn back or continue heading for the
airport. Behr leaves him suspended – between borders – suggesting that a
challenge is being leveled at Michiel.
And it appears as if Michiel has gained much from his South African
counterparts. Through various inter-textual allusions of the following kind
(this one from Boris Pasternak), Michiel is ushered into a new vision of
death – his own.

here too, Karien or Ounooi has folded in the corner of the page: The
Grown Marksman…A tall, strapping shot, you considerate hunter …
Phantom with gun at the flood of my soul … Start me, I pray, from the
reeds in the morning, Finish me off with one shot in my flight … And for
this lofty and resonant parting Thank you. Forgive me, I kiss you, oh hands
of my neglected, my disregarded Homeland, my diffidence, family, friends
(KW 229).

Towards the closing of the novel he begins to suggest a new mourning


must occur for the self who so willingly perceived loss as an inevitable
feature of “post-transitional” South Africa. Michiel desires death as a loss
of subjectivity, as a means to gain access to a more expansive spirit that
will allow for communal rather than subjective bonds to be made.
Arguably, this follows from Derrida’s ideal of absolute hospitality.
In Of Hospitality, Derrida presents the utopian prospect of the Law of
absolute hospitality as an aneconomic exchange that requires the host to
relinquish his/her power in honour of the other. In bringing about this
obliteration of distance and difference between host and guest, the law of
absolute hospitality overrides the hierarchical relationship of conditional
hospitality and thus makes a home for the other within the self (Derrida,
Of Hospitality). It is worth noting the parallels between the Derridian
theorisation of absolute hospitality towards the other in Of Hospitality and
the borderless embrace of death in Aporias: both demand a reappraisal of
subjectivity in favour of the other. This ethical relation to the other negates
the borders of the subject by making an ethical demand for true hospitality
as an act encompassed in the host’s “death”.
Similarly, Agaat strives to make a case for the burgeoning of this new
ideal. As previously illustrated, Jakkie is unwilling to assume the space of
a borderless death by denying the specters that haunt him a place in his
Death is An-Other Country 21

subjectivity. Yet, the characterisation of his mother, Milla De Wet, is a


direct counterpoint: she seeks out the aneconomic structures of haunting as
a hopeful prospect of the future.
Milla has motor neuron disease and waits for death in a state of
paralysis. She narrates her experience from her death bed as a paradoxical
condition of death marked by two oppositional impulses of plenitude and
nothingness. She often describes her position as “between heaven and
earth” (A 44, 81) and questions the existence of a transcendental reality or,
on the contrary, the mortal truth of a body that merely passes away.
Initially, Milla desires a transcendental death. This is most clearly
expressed in her attachment to the maps of the farm. The maps serve as
part of a projectionist fantasy that corresponds to the mapping of the self
and the body. Accordingly, Milla turns to these maps in order to
commemorate and consolidate her life – she wishes to conduct her own
project of self-mourning

Between the land and the map I must look, up and down, far and near until
I’ve had enough, until I am satiated with what I have occupied here. And
then they must roll it up in a tube and put on my neckbrace again like the
mouth of a quiver. And I will close my eyes and prepare myself so that
they can unscrew my head and allow the map to slip into my lacunae.

So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the
voyage (A 105).

By ritualistically pouring over the maps, which have attained a sense of


cartographic perfection, she can begin to imagine her life as drawing to
completion as she makes a departure into another world. However, the
early frustration that the text establishes is that of not having access to the
maps she desires to see.
Significantly, Agaat deliberately keeps the maps from her for most of
the narrative. And as a result, she feels that it is Agaat who condemns her
to the empty reality of her putrefying and mortal body. She is stuck in a
“purgatory according to Agaat” (A 158), an interstitial space in which she
already “dead” but cannot appreciably embrace the onset of death as a
transcendental unity. Milla perceives Agaat’s care to be a sadistic form of
nursing as it sustains and denies her both life and death as ultimate
realities. In turn, it is this paradoxical space, where selfhood is denied, that
allows for an opening where haunting occurs.
The narrative rendition of haunting in Agaat is deeply evocative and
complies with Avery Gordon’s theorisation of the experience as a sensuous
22 Chapter One

thrust into knowledge. In Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological


Imagination, she states that

Sensuous knowledge is a different kind of materialism, neither idealistic


nor alienated, but an active practice or passion for the lived reality of
ghostly magical invented matters. Sensuous knowledge is receptive, close,
perceptual, embodied, incarnate […] It tells and it transports at the same
time. Sensuous knowledge is commanding […] to experience a profane
illumination is to experience the sensate quality of a knowledge
meaningfully affecting you […] Sensuous knowledge always involves
knowing and doing. Everything is in the experience with sensuous
knowledge. Everything rests on not being afraid of what is happening to
you (Gordon 205).

According to Gordon haunting is a phenomenological impression


whereby the specter enters through the sensual faculties of being. She
understands haunting to have a more tangible quality, serving to interrupt
on the level of the body.7 Entering thus, knowledge, transportation and
change become possible; in trusting the circumstances of haunting as
primarily sensual, the specter induces knowledge that is exterior to the self
and, more importantly, incites new action.
In her state of utter passivity Milla is a receptacle for sensual
experiences that she can no longer create or control. The text does well to
illustrate the borderless exchange that occurs under such circumstances as
Milla and Agaat are not merely represented as intimate with each other but
intrinsic to each other. For example, when Agaat is brushing her teeth
Milla states that “it gives her an opportunity to get into my mouth, under
my tongue, behind my teeth” (A 60). The extent to which Agaat imposes
upon Milla’s body suggests acts of penetration that are both loving and
provocative. Furthermore, now that Agaat is left to interpret Milla’s
thoughts, she is able to do so with a great amount of accuracy and can
assume Milla’s subject position on her behalf. When the doctor comes to
visit he thinks that Agaat is mad for being able to read Milla’s thoughts but
Milla states that “I signal to Agaat yes, and you’re also quite sound of
mind. Tell the man our imagination is a shared one, tell him we thought
each other up” (A 212). Milla is aware that she cannot claim a single
subject position as they are one and the same being; “when Agaat leaves
me alone, like today, I am nobody. Between me and me [you]8 no fissures

7
Gordon argues that while Derrida understands the specter as an absence-presence,
she asserts and maintains that the ghost has presence (Gordon 2008)
8
Error in text TBC in 2nd edition
Death is An-Other Country 23

of differentiation” (A 101). It is an intimacy that is represented as both


terrifying and extremely touching.
Yet, unlike Kings of the Water, Agaat also uncovers the aporetic effects
of what haunting entails and thus displays greater resistance to idealism.
Now that Milla is a paralyzed receptacle for what comes, she notes that
this has led to a radical shift in power in their relationship. She is no
longer a subject but one who is subjected to Agaat’s subjectivity. As a
result, Milla embodies the ironic state of captivity where she is both host
and the hostage.
This, in turn, reveals the inherent perversity of violence that absolute
hospitality equally makes possible. In Of Hospitality, Derrida argues that
“it is the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the
hostage – and who really always has been” (125). In making an
aneconomic invitation, the host relinquishes power and becomes
vulnerable to any abuse that the guest may wish to render. It is precisely
because of this antinomic result that Derrida maintains that absolute
hospitality must be approached with a measure of caution as practicable
hospitality. He argues that since absolute hospitality is always idealistic, its
application is bound to bring us less than satisfactory results of the
aporetic kind (Derrida, Of Hospitality).
As hostage, Milla is often frustrated that Agaat “interprets me to the
brink of Babel, to the threshold of death. But there are limits! Back! Stand
Back! You’re too close! My death is of me! And my bed! There are
boundaries!”(A 450). She expresses powerlessness that arises because of
the lack of boundaries between herself and Agaat. Yet it is only through
enduring the discomfort of the haunting effect that sensual knowledge
arrives and Milla is quickly consumed by shame.
She realises that Agaat has always been condemned to a shadowy
existence – a ghostly figure without any access to being. Throughout the
narrative Agaat is consistently represented as being “half in the shadow”
(A 348), suggesting her precarious position in relation to Milla. As is re-
iterated through Milla’s journals, Agaat’s life has always been literally
confined within her borders of her interpretations and as a result, Agaat is
often, only, a weak parody of her:

You watched her, her gestures, her phrases, her gaze. She was a whole
compilation of you, she contained you within her, she was the arena in
which the two of you wrestled with yourselves.

That was all she could be, from the beginning.

Your archive (A 554).


24 Chapter One

It is, in fact, Agaat who has spent her entire life in a state of captivity
and, as an act of transformation, Milla surrenders to the haunting claim
that Agaat now makes upon her. As Agaat continues to antagonize her
about her journals, Milla is well aware that none of Agaat’s audacious
pronouncements would have been possible if Milla could still talk. Yet,
she embraces this state of debasement, realising that Agaat too, has a
desire for closure and mourning that is equal to her own and she makes
allowances for a mourning that is not merely her own; “perhaps we are
jointly out of our minds to think we can complete this project in the
allotted time. All the parts of it. The remembering, the reading, the dying,
the song” (A 212).
However, because they are caught in the mutuality of unconditional
hospitality, Agaat can only pursue her project through Milla and they
remain active participants in each other’s lives. It is for this reason that
Milla often has dreams of Agaat accompanying her to her grave and
imagines that in death she will find in her hand, “the hand of the small
agaat” (A 674). Yet, in one such dream she imagines that Agaat “arose out
of that grave of mine last night” (A 646). In wonderment she questions
whether her hospitality and death will eventually allow for Agaat’s
otherness to come into being in the future.
This is poignantly registered through the maps which, as previously
illustrated, Milla reads as extensions of her body and being. Towards the
end of the narrative Agaat eventually presents these maps to Milla. She
tacks the maps up on the wall for Milla to view and simultaneously issues
Milla with an enema. Agaat then proceeds to point out various places that
Milla would possibly like to see and Milla states that “of some of them
I’ve never heard. She’s inventing half the names” (A 403). Agaat has a
map of her own that is in parasitic relation to Milla’s maps. 9 She continues
listing names of places on the map and they are “released from her like a
flood” (A 405). It is poignant to note that this occurs while Milla is caught
in the humiliation of her own faecal stench – her body and her maps are
being made ‘empty’ while Agaat makes her stamp on the map by listing
“everything that you forgot and never even noted in your little books” (A
405).
In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon states that

the ghost is primarily a symptom of what is missing. It gives notice not


only to itself but also to what it represents. What it represents is usually a
loss, sometimes of life, sometimes of a path not taken. From a certain

9
This parasitic condition can also be noted in the wild fennel that Agaat has
planted over the years as her unique trademark.
Death is An-Other Country 25

vantage point the ghost also simultaneously represents a future possibility,


a hope (63-64).

Gordon insists that the specter always outlines that which is lacking in
any given society. However, in drawing attention to what is missing, it is
not meant to be embraced as a melancholic figure of what cannot come
into being – as perpetual ‘lack’ – but as a reminder of that which must, by
necessity, be incorporated in the future.
Through the metaphoric use of the maps, Agaat alludes to the
possibility of narrative that is yet to entrench itself upon this cartographic
space, leaving the reader to imagine the potential of the other whom one
must await and who can only arrive through an unconditional invitation.

3.
In Entanglement: Literary and cultural reflections on post-apartheid,
Sarah Nuttall argues that post-transitional South Africa is spurning the
constraints of messianism. She thinks optimistically about the fact that one
can lay claim to the expansiveness of the past that notions of progress
virulently sought to deny. Ultimately, she reads this epoch as a victory of
experience over expectation where one can lay claim to a greater spectrum
of empathy (Nuttall, Entanglement). Similarly, I argue that in
contemporary South African fiction, the shifting inclination towards a
representation of death as borderless in its expression is reflective of a
national imaginary that is increasingly invested in the experiences and
possibilities of mutability itself as opposed to merely seeking to overcome
it. 10
As illustrated, this is developed in the texts through the reconfiguration
of the concept of loss and the place it holds in the national and literary

10
In “Tales of Unrest: David Medalie’s The Mistress’s Dog: Short Stories 1996-
2010”, Michael Titlestad defines this position as characteristic of “transitional”
literature and demotes the term “post-transitional” in relation to the writing he
analyses. He maintains that “we should interpret ‘transition’ (the transcendental
signifier of the post-apartheid dispensation) not as teleology, not as a journey to ‘a
final state’ […] but as a permanent condition” (Titlestad 120). Titlestad questions
the “post-transitional” status of literary output by illustrating how current writing
still exhibits the “transitional” qualities intrinsic to the post-apartheid literary and
national imaginary. However, he suggests that writers “are now willing to
countenance far greater ambivalence about the claims of nationalism”, giving way
to “a distinctly post-apartheid condition of suspension” (119), not as teleologically
defined but as “unrelenting suspension” (Titlestad 120) that, somewhat ironically,
reads transition as permanence.
26 Chapter One

imaginary: by incorporating death as inherent to the subject, there is no


longer an impossible death whose arrival one constantly awaits. Instead,
death is welcomed at every turn as an awakened commitment to living.
As a result, the melancholic condition of nostalgia contretemps, while
finding ample representation in contemporary literature, is marked as a
hindrance to the very progress it initially sought. Arguably, the texts
suggest that the last grieving is left to those who cannot overcome
nostalgia contretemps by allowing for yet “another country” to arrive.
Yet, in closing, I wish to address the hypothetical, rather than
practicable, force of the “post-transitional“ stance of these texts. In Kings
of the Water and Agaat the new ideal of interiorized death and
unconditional hospitality is always stated as an incomplete project. At the
end of Kings of the Water, Michiel states that “he knows he will tell Kamil
and Glassman of this moment. We have our work cut out for us” (KW
229), suggesting that it is an ethical relation to strive for rather than one
achieved. While it may serve as an ethical imperative in order to hinder the
potential for aporetic violence, it (more importantly) recasts the future as a
different ‘new’ that is yet to be realised.
On some level this expresses an inability or reluctance to think the
nation in terms other than future-orientation and the ideal. According to
Ashraf Jamal, this may well stem from the fact that we have

never satisfactorily addressed a latent sensation that South Africa as a


country suffers the unease of never having begun. To grasp this realisation
would mean to question not only the optimism of liberatory narratives but
also the arrest which distinguishes fatalistic ones. In short, […] the very
logic of the grand South African narrative is flawed at its core for the
simple reason that it has been bipolar in focus (16).

Here Jamal addresses more specifically the rise of apocalyptic and


dystopian impulses in contemporary South African literature. What is
worth noting is that nostalgia contretemps (or what he here describes as a
country that never began) still assumes a central “reading” position in
more recent writing. Never having dealt sufficiently with the melancholic
“weight” of nostalgia contretemps, Jamal argues, proceeding narratives
have become reactionary as opposed to truly novel.
Arguably, the need to address the overbearing grief of nostalgia
contretemps through ethical reconceptualisations of loss can be read as
equally reactionary. I make this suggestion primarily because the “new”
concept of nation that arises from an incorporation of borderless
representations of death appears to formulated on “old” ideologies of an
idealised and future-oriented concept of nationhood. By employing the
Death is An-Other Country 27

very rubrics upon which nostalgia contretemps has been realised, the
“post-transitional“ becomes questionable for one of two reasons: it
suggests that nostalgia contretemps still holds unwarranted sway over the
national psyche, or that nostalgia contretemps may, in fact, be the
perpetual South African dis-ease as the hope for the future is constantly
displaced and transformed ad infinitum.11
In Agaat, the tenuous and fragile awareness of a “transitory” rather
than “post-transitional“ space is keenly relayed through the use of dual
narration. As previously illustrated, Jakkie narrates through border-based
discourses of death and subsequently develops nostalgia contretemps, and
borderless reflections on death are central to Milla’s narrative. The reader
is, somewhat uncomfortably, poised in-between these two perceptions and
left to decide what the difference between lost hope and new hope
amounts to in the transitional present.

References
Anderson, B., 1986, Imagined Communities: Reflections On the Origin
And Spread Of Nationalism, London: Verso.
Behr, M., 2010, Kings of the Water, London: Abacus.
Boym, S., 2001, The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books.
Cartwright, J., 2002, White Lightning, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Coovadia, I., 2009, High Low In-between. Cape Town: Umuzi.
De Kok, I., 1998, “Cracked heirlooms: memory on exhibition”,
Negotiating the past : the making of memory in South Africa, eds.
Nuttall, Sarah and Coetzee, Carli, Cape Town: Oxford University
Press, 57–73.
Derrida, J., 1992, “Aphorism Countertime”, in Attridge, D., ed, Acts of
Literature, London and New York: Routledge.
—. 1993, Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit, Stanford: Stanford University
Press.
—. 1994, Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning,
and the new international, trans. Peggy Kamuf, New York and
London: Routledge.
Derrida, J., and Dufourmantelle, A., 2000, Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel
Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Dollimore, J., 1998, Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, London
and New York: Penguin.
11
Titlestad also refutes any notions of the “new” by insisting that “we have been
forever transitional and all indications are that we are condemned to that plateau of
meaning and being” (121).
28 Chapter One

Gordon, A., 2008, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological


Imagination, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Jamal, A., 2010, “Bullet through the church: South African Literature in
English and the future-anterior”, English Studies in Africa, 53(1), 11 –
20.
Landsman, A., 2007, The Rowing Lesson, London: Granta Books.
McGregor, L., and Nuttall, S., eds., 2009, Load shedding : writing on and
over the edge of South Africa, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
Nuttall, S., 2009, Entanglement: Literary and cultural reflections on post-
apartheid, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Titlestad, M., 2010, “Tales of White Unrest: David Medalie’s The
Mistress’s Dog: Short Stories 1996-2010”, English Studies in Africa,
53(1): 118–121.
Van Niekerk, M., 2006, Agaat, trans. Michiel Heyns, Cape Town:
Tafelberg, Jonathan Ball
CHAPTER TWO

POST-APARTHEID LITERATURE
AS A RITE OF MOURNING:
EMPATHY AND ALTERITY IN SELECTED
WRITINGS BY ZAKES MDA AND J. M. COETZEE

PAULINA GRZĘDA

What good can come of grief?


Homer, The Odyssey

One of the chief challenges confronted by South African literature has


been its endeavour to translate and offer ways of coming to terms with the
traumatic legacies of apartheid and colonialism. Outside of the
instrumentalising context of the resistance struggle, in the wake of the
Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s dissuasive practices to subsume
personal narratives into the hegemonic national discourse of forgiveness
and reconciliation, post-apartheid literature seems to have finally
recovered autonomy in its attempts to grapple with South Africa’s violent
past. Indeed, although the TRC hearings incited people to confess and
provided a forum for expression of personal traumas, through their
exclusionary procedures, as well as their restricted scope, they
simultaneously left wide strata of society either marginalized and
disillusioned with the way their personal testimonies were co-opted in the
grand national narrative of nation building, or entirely deprived of an
opportunity for self-representation.1 Mahmood Mamdani, in particular, has

1
Many criticisms have been leveled against the TRC’s procedures. Among others,
objections have been raised against: its short duration; the fact that less than 10%
of testifiers were able to bear witness at public hearings; the relatively short period
chosen for consideration, namely 1 March 1960 to 10 May 1994, which left many
of colonial and apartheid-era crimes unaccountable for; the fact that its hearings
were confined to the investigation of human rights violations, thus obliterating
30 Chapter Two

famously accused the TRC of individualising and depoliticizing the


injustices of apartheid, which, to his mind, obliterated the central
characteristic of apartheid as an institutionalized system of oppression
which systematically dehumanized millions of South Africans and
constituted “a crime against humanity”.2 It might be further claimed that,
though adopting a personalized approach to traumatic encounters, due to
their overemphasis on the ethics of reconciliation and forgiveness, the
TRC hearings never succeeded in adequately addressing the injustices of
the individual experience of subjugation. Indeed, the Commission’s
reliance on therapeutic and biblical notions of healing and redemption
brought about accusations that it attempted to enforce premature closure
on the past, in Desmond Tutu’s words, “shutt[ting] the door on the past”,
which was conceived as a fundamental pre-requisite to “move into the
glorious future of a new kind of society” unburdened by past wounds.3
Therefore, the TRC’s multiple appropriations in the visual and textual
media of individual testimonies in the service of a shared national memory
and the collective history of heroism and martyrdom have actually
contributed to silencing some of the most traumatic micro-narratives, thus
only perpetuating the marginalisation established under apartheid.
An impulse to re-appropriate, re-personalize these disembodied
narratives of collective, unsutured memory might account for a wider shift
in emphasis in South African post-transitional writing identified by a
number of literary critics and cultural commentators, namely the passage
from the public domain associated with resistance struggle and politics
which characterised apartheid, and to an extent also transitional literature,
to the manifestly more introspective, private realm of interiority, self-
questioning and reflection.4 An effort to compensate for the inflicted
suffering and to mourn the losses of the colonial and apartheid era has also
naturally become a component of this introspective turn. With reference to
selected writings by Zakes Mda and J. M. Coetzee, this article attempts to
reposition South African literature produced after the demise of apartheid

gender-related crimes equally induced by apartheid legislation (Mamdani 2002,


Poyner 2008, van der Vlies 2008).
2
Mahmood Mamdani, “Amnesty or Impunity? A Preliminary Critique of the
Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South African (TRC)”,
Diacritics 32, 3 – 4 (2002): 34.
3
Desmond Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
Vol. 1. (1998): Ch. 1, Para. 91,93, http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/
4
See Rob Nixon, “Aftermaths”, Transition 72 (199): 77; David Attwell and
Barbara Harlow, eds., “Introduction: South African Fiction after Apartheid”,
Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000): 4; Jane Poyner, “Writing Under Pressure: A
Post-apartheid Canon?”, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 44.2 (2008): 103-104.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 31

as a work of mourning, providing alternative modes of grieving, which


somehow coexist at the intersection between empathy and recognition of
fundamental alterity of the experience of the other being. Drawing upon
Derrida’s notions of “inconsolable” or “impossible mourning” and
Dominick LaCapra’s conceptualization of “empathic unsettlement”, I will
point towards some illuminating congruencies in the way Zakes Mda and
J. M. Coetzee engage with the legacies of South Africa’s violent past in
their effort to reclaim space for expression of personal grief. Outlining the
works’ embodiment of “empathic unsettlement”, I will also suggest that
that they might be interpreted as gesturing towards new forms of
community.
In laying out his early theory of mourning in his seminal essay
“Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud discriminates between two
responses to loss: a salubrious process of “mourning”, which manifests
itself in the withdrawal of libido from the love object, in other words, an
integration of loss into one’s consciousness; and a pathological refusal to
severe one’s emotional ties to the lost one, namely, a denial of loss, which
he terms “melancholia”. Whereas “mourning” implies remembrance and
commemoration in order to relinquish emotional attachment and
subsequently find a consoling substitution, melancholia’s unceasing
compulsion to repeat perpetuates the process of remembering and, thus,
precludes the possibility of reinvesting the free libido into a new object.
Freud’s distinction proved to be highly prescriptive, forcing the founder of
psychoanalysis himself to admit that “with one exception, the same traits
are met with in mourning” as in melancholia. 5 Numerous criticisms were
leveled against this early theory of mourning, many of them following in
Woodward’s line of thought, which accused Freud of being oblivious to
the simple fact that “there is something in between mourning and
melancholia”, a grieving process “that is lived in such a way that one is
still in mourning but no longer exclusively devoted to mourning”.6
Consequently, the mourning theory was later revised in The Ego and
the Id (1923), where the founder of psychoanalysis redefined the
identification process formerly associated with melancholia as an inherent
component of both mourning and subject formation. Indeed, partially in
response to the events of the Great War, Freud was compelled to admit
that the internalization of a trace of the lost one, in other words, the
incorporation of the lost other into the structure of one’s own identity

5
Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, Standard Edition 14 (1917): 244.
6
Kathleen Woodward, “Freud and Barthes: Theorizing Mourning, Sustaining
Grief”, Discourse 13 (1990): 96.
32 Chapter Two

provides “the sole condition under which the id can give up its objects”.7
Thus, the process of identification with the lost other, of bereaved
internalization establishes the very condition for constituting the self. If, to
use Butler’s words, no final repudiation of attachments to the lost one
“could take place without dissolving the ego”, the grief work can never be
completed and the process of mourning may prove to be endless. 8 Freud’s
re-conceptualization of “the ego” as “a precipitate of abandoned object-
cathexes”, in other words, an embodied history of severed bonds, links us
to a more recent theory of mourning proposed by Nicolas Abraham and
Maria Torok.9 The Hungarian-born psychoanalysts have argued that all the
mnemonic traces of loss are internalized within the grieving ego. They
distinguished two forms of such internalization: “introjection”, a
salubrious process governing mourning which is generally associated with
the verbalization of loss, and “incorporation”, a literalized fantasy
characterising melancholia in which traces of trauma are denied and the
lost other becomes incorporated in a ghostly crypt within the self.10
Drawing on these earlier theories of bereavement, Jacques Derrida in
his Mémoires: for Paul de Man (1986), and later also in Specters of Marx:
The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International
(1994) has elaborated the notion of “inconsolable” or “impossible
mourning”, which declines this clear-cut distinction between mourning
and melancholia. It is precisely in this failure to assimilate the loss, this
refusal to romantically “consume” the dead that Derrida places the ethical
value of melancholia, which he terms impossible or refused mourning.
Refusing idealization and resisting temptation to translate the memory of
the dead into a recognizable form, into an identifiable discourse, refused
mourning “leav[es] the other his alterity, thus, respecting his infinite
remove”.11 For Derrida, it is exactly through engaging with the
indigestible past, to use trauma theorists’ terminology, through exposing
the unspeakable, the incommunicable nature of a traumatic loss that
“impossible mourning” counteracts the potential invalidation of loss, its

7
Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id”, Standard Edition 19 (1923): 29.
8
Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1997), 196.
9
Freud, “The Ego and the Id”, 29.
10
Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, “Introjection-incorporation: Mourning or
Melancholia”, in Psychoanalysis in France, ed. S. Lebovicki and D. Widloecher
(New York: International Universities Press, 1980), 127-129.
11
Jacques Derrida, Mémoires for Paul de Man. trans. Eduardo Cadava, Jonathan
Culler, Peggy Kamuf, and Cecile Lindsay (New York: Columbia University Press,
1986), 6.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 33

misappropriation and trivialization traditionally performed by what he


calls “successful mourning”. An ethical form of remembrance, impossible
mourning safeguards the lost other and counteracts amnesia routinely
engendered by successful mourning. Thus, stemming in part from the
postmodern disregard for totalizing discourse and poststructuralist
scepticism towards wholeness, Derrida’s theory marked a critical shift
which has depathologized melancholia and laid foundations for modern
trauma studies.
Drawing to some extent on Sam Durrant’s discussion of postcolonial
literature as the work of mourning12, my assumption is that certain post-
apartheid writings by J. M. Coetzee and Zakes Mda may be seen as
performing the act of “impossible, inconsolable mourning”. In the way
that, in their recognition of limits of identification, as well as their
continuous explorations of racial, cultural and political divisions, they
refuse to transcend the fundamental alterity of the experience of the other,
be it an ethnic other, a political enemy, an animal or, ultimately, the other
within oneself. In doing so, they inscribe what LaCapra terms “empathic
unsettlement”, which constitutes an ethical response to trauma, a response
that opens up possibilities for creation of new forms of community based
on acknowledgement of mutual difference. Thus, offering alternative ways
of working through loss and traumatic events of the past, as well as the
disillusionment with the contemporary South African predicament,
selected post-apartheid writings of J. M. Coetzee and Zakes Mda reclaim
space for expression of personal grief, usurped by apartheid literature and
later also the TRC narratives.
Perhaps this central positioning of the notion of alterity and the
relationship of empathy to otherness within South African literary studies
should not come as a surprise. Bearing in mind that otherness is
intrinsically embedded in South African history, both colonialism and the
apartheid system being predicated on negative othering, it might only have
been expected earlier to come to the fore in South African literary
criticism. Some cultural commentators have even suggested that the new
South African ruling elite has premised its political power on an equally
othering agenda based on Manichean binaries of black and white or rich
and poor.13 In her insightful analysis of totalitarian systems elaborated in
The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah
Arendt demonstrates that the policy of negative othering manifested in a

12
Sam Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 2004).
13
Michael Chapman, “The Case of Coetzee: South African Literary Criticism,
1990 to Today”, Journal of Literary Studies 26.2 (2010): 107.
34 Chapter Two

refusal to occupy the place of the other is a fundamental prerequisite for


survival within any totalitarian system. Drawing on her observation of the
Nazi perpetrator, Adolf Eichmann, Arendt concludes that in order to be
able to function within any modern bureaucratized societies their members
are not only enforced to internalize the absolute obedience to the law, but
also to master the art of self-deception in their attempt to comprehend
distortions of reality. Embedded in such acquiescence to elevate law to an
abstract level of autonomy is a willful abandonment of one’s empathic
abilities. 14 Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa might be seen as
only two examples of such pathological totalitarian rule among many. Yet,
working from the premise that what enabled the development of the
apartheid system was precisely this unwillingness to think one’s way into
the being of one’s fellow human beings, we might do well to heed
Arendt’s contention that in order to transcend this “banality of evil”, in
other words, to move beyond apartheid, it is necessary to create a new
vision of human interdependence. Certain post-apartheid writings by J. M.
Coetzee and Zakes Mda might be seen as performing precisely this task.
Indeed, Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying (1995) and The Heart of Redness
(2000), emerging from the midst of the process of dismantling apartheid,
both portray a society that is deeply divided not only along racial lines, but
most prominently, within the same ethnic groups. In the context of state-
funded ethnic conflict, Ways of Dying engages explicitly with the black-
on-black violence that results in numerous deaths of innocent victims,
such as the two sons of Noria, one of the central characters. Despite the
highly politicised nature of funerals under apartheid, when many political
songs naturally turned into mourning chants, the decision of Toloki, the
main protagonist, to become a Professional Mourner may be interpreted as
proclaiming an urge to re-internalize mourning rites. Indeed, initially
driven by hopes of material rewards, Toloki gradually realises that “to
mourn for the dead became a spiritual vocation”. 15 He, subsequently, starts
mediating between rival funerals, offering his mourning services
irrespective of the cause of death and its social consequences, always
selecting ceremonies himself, never being commissioned to attend. He
even invents his own peculiar style of mourning, producing “whines and
moans meant to invoke sorrow and pain”, thus creating an aura of sadness

14
Arendt quoted in Imke Brust, “Chapter 5: Transcending Apartheid: Empathy and
the Search for Redemption”, in Trauma, Resistance, Reconstruction in Post-1994
South African Writing. ed. Jaspal K. Singh and Rajendra Chetty (New York: Peter
Lang Publishing, 2010), 79-80.
15
Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying (New York: Picador, 2002), 134.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 35

and dignity that politicized funerals obviously lacked.16 This need to


recover intimate space for grieving is also exhibited in his relationship
with his homegirl, Noria. Her son being necklaced by Young Tigers from
her own community and his funeral being managed by political leaders
representing the murderers, Noria is not only deprived of an opportunity to
offer her son personalized last rites, but she is actually punished for openly
mourning her son, being threatened with losing her house or even life.
Thus, Toloki appears to be the first person to empathize with Noria, the
first eager to share her sorrow in a personal, intimate setting. Decentring
what could be considered as a focal issue in the transitional period fraught
with internecine black strife and political uncertainties, namely the
liberation struggle, the novel focuses instead on marginality,
foregrounding spiritual otherness of its main protagonists. Although they
are living at the margins of South African society, literally on the fringes
of a small settlement called “squatters’ camp”, Toloki’s and Noria’s
existence is not confined to irrelevance. On the contrary, both characters’
moral integrity seems to lie precisely in their commitment to helping the
community, their dedication to relieve and share other people’s suffering.
Having herself suffered the unthinkable hardships of a life in the city: the
brutality of her late husband forcing her to prostitute herself, the death of
her two sons, and the burning of her shack, Noria is a feminist figure, an
urban activist involved in the life of the community. Toloki, on the other
hand, might be cast by some literary critics as a solipsistic figure of the
artist “with a muted sense of politics”, who remains impervious to the true
concerns of the community. 17 Yet, within this particular temporal setting
Toloki’s character rather seems to be performing a distinct role, the one of
a mediator and a guardian who encourages Noria to renegotiate her
position within the society, and enables her to reclaim intimate space for
the expression of sorrow and bereavement.
The significance of this quest for a non-instrumental mode of
mourning is only compounded in the final chapter of the novel. Indeed, it
is only when Toloki gives away the little iron figurines that his father
created when inspired by the singing of the young Noria that the main
protagonist finds himself able to reinvest his feelings into a new form of
art, thus deriving solace from the act of drawing portraits of the township
children. As Durrant has insightfully pointed out, the novel’s ending
gesturing towards a possibility of reaching a sense of psychological

16
Ibid., 108
17
Grant Farred, “Mourning The Postapartheid State Already? The Poetics of Loss
in Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying”, Modern Fiction Studies 46.1 (2000): 186.
36 Chapter Two

closure through the medium of art is highly symptomatic of Mda’s specific


conception of the role of post-apartheid literature:

The allegorical message could not be clearer: the role of the artist in an era
in which ‘our ways of dying are our ways of living’ and vice-versa, is
precisely that of the professional mourner.18

An infinitely respectful professional mourner, remaining attentive to


the radical heterogeneity of the other, truly in the image of Derrida’s
“impossible mourner”, one might be tempted to add.
The very title of Mda’s second novel begging comparison with Joseph
Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, The Heart of Redness might indeed
be seen as inviting a parallel between the main trope of Conrad’ work, a
journey into an unchartered territory, and the subject matter of Mda’s
narrative. Yet, the decision of the main protagonist, Camagu, to abandon
Johannesburg and set out to explore a sleepy village of Qolorha-by-Sea
does not constitute the beginning of an epic voyage into darkness. On the
contrary, Camagu’s journey proves to be one of discovery and
enlightenment. That the central messages of the two novels stand in stark
contrast to each other is exhibited in the very first description of The Heart
of Redness’ setting. The valley of Nongqawuse is not dark and
impenetrable, but rather appears to be “painted by a generous artist …
using splashes of lush colour. It is a canvas where blue and green
dominate”. 19
Although far from being depicted as “wild men”, “unhappy savages”,
or “cannibals”, all cast in the mould of Conrad’s threatening sexual Other,
the residents of the village do not form a homogenous entity.20 The
community of Qolorha-by-Sea portrayed in The Heart of Redness is one
deeply conflicted, torn between two feuding clans: the Believers who
oppose modernization and capitalist development and the rational
Unbelievers. This historically engrained feud, dating back to the 1850s, is
not only exhibited as ineradicable, but can be seen as further exacerbated
by contemporary internal conflicts within each of the groups. And yet, an
arrival of an outsider, a wandering stranger, Camagu, does seem to gesture
towards potentially alleviating, healing properties of this rural setting. If
not for the community itself, for Camagu the visit proves to be therapeutic.

18
Sam Durrant, “The Invention of Mourning in Post-apartheid Literature”, Third
World Quarterly 26.3 (2005): 443.
19
Zakes Mda, The Heart of Redness (New York: Picador, 2002), 55.
20
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), 31, 43, 67.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 37

While recognising the irreconcilability of the interests and the


worldviews of the two groups, he finds regenerative properties precisely in
what seems to constitute the main bone of contention between the clans,
namely the reverence for the past and their attachment to the land. It is
equally striking that even when he decides to strengthen the bond with one
of the village girls belonging to the Believers clan, Qukezwa, Camagu
remains equally sceptical of the two clans’ arguments and consistently
refrains from taking position in any matters pertaining to the political
sphere of the village life. Yet, it is in Camagu’s, this outside figure,
acknowledgement and his unconditional recognition of the two clans’
fundamental difference, their incommensurability and the incompatibility
of their belief systems that the narrative’s empathic potential is realised.
The works’ marked attentiveness to the ethics of difference, in their
attempt to re-appropriate, re-personalize the disembodied narratives of a
homogenous collective memory is not consigned to their subject matter.
Indeed, Mda’s novels counteract the totalitarian project of eradicating
difference also structurally. Inscribing numerous silences, most notably
refusing to engage with the history of the “Middle Generations” born into
colonial and later apartheid rule, the narrative structure of The Heart of
Redness only foregrounds the limitations of the narrator’s perspective and,
in doing so, simultaneously subverts the notion of the past that is wholly
retrievable. Similarly, Ways of Dying in its refraining from exploring the
apartheid era and its resistance to linearity, refuses to consign the
problematic history to the archives, thus not allowing it to be mapped out,
tamed and subsequently effaced. The employment of the narrative strategy
of magical realism can also be seen here as such a disassociating device
devoted to the ethics of difference.
Yet the most striking stylistic ruse through which Ways of Dying
insightfully exposes the dominant discourse’s tendency to deny
subjectivity in its effort to obscure the differences is the novel’s occasional
employment of an omniscient first person, plural narration representing
the whole community. Though traditionally performing the opposite task,
namely that of tacitly affirming the unbounded limits of the narrator’s
knowledge, Mda’s insertion of the communal voice strikes a note of
warning. He says:

No individual owns any story. The community is the owner of the story,
and it can tell it the way it deems it fit. We would not be needing to justify
38 Chapter Two

the communal voice that tells this story if you had not wondered how we
became so omniscient in the affairs of Toloki and Noria.21

Single-handedly governing the realm of collective memory the


communal voice threatens to eradicate any possible indications of discord
and efface all traces of otherness. Any mnemonic elements associated with
trauma or loss that do not fit a chosen agenda automatically risk being
erased. In this very subtle commentary, Mda seems to be admonishing
against the possible implications of the then prevailing tendency to
subsume personal testimonies of loss and suffering within the hegemonic
narrative of nation-building. Truly in line with Derrida’s conceptualization
of inconsolable mourning, Mda’s writings resist the temptation to translate
the memory of the dead into a recognizable form, into an identifiable
discourse, and in doing so they remain attentive to the fundamental
separateness of human experience. In order to prevent the invalidation of
the individual experience in South Africa, the writer seems to be pointing
the way towards a fruitful middle ground between traditional narratives
encouraging to empathize with the suffering protagonists and the
employment of certain disruptive techniques which foreground the
impossibility of ever fully comprehending the other and which compel us
to remain respectful of his/her irreducible alterity.
It was already in “Mourning and Melancholia” that Freud emphasized
that the feeling of loss and the acutely felt need for mourning may arise in
“reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction
which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, and ideal,
and so on”.22 It might, therefore, be claimed that grief and bereavement
can equally originate in the loss of an attachment to a political ideology, a
religious creed, or an unaccomplished project in which we have invested
all our hopes. Thus, it could similarly emerge in response to one’s
disillusionment with unreciprocated feelings or a long-anticipated, yet
impossible bond. Problematizing the ontology of human and non-human
relationships, according centre stage to the improbable love triangle
between a man, a woman and a southern right whale, The Whale Caller,
one of Zakes Mda’s latest novels, imaginatively inscribes such a symbolic
loss.
Raising the existential question of what it means to be human vis-à-vis
our ultimate other, the animal, The Whale Caller thematizes the symbiotic
bond between the main protagonist and a whale he names Sharisha. Living
in Hermanus, a South African seaside town that has recently become a

21
Zakes Mda, Ways of Dying, 8.
22
Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, 243.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 39

popular tourist attraction renown for whale watching, the whale caller
spends most of his days blowing his kelp horn in order to attract Sharisha,
thus establishing an intimate form of communication between the two, a
form of communication that one might liken to a mating dance. Indeed,
the bond between the man and the whale seems to be of more than a
spiritual nature, with some passages of the novel clearly indicating sexual
connotations. Yet, setting himself clearly apart from the official whale
criers, whom he levels with shark callers or cannibals, the main
protagonist also expresses his disapproval of the new practice of watching
whales from boats. The whale caller himself takes pride in never having
touched a whale, except with his spirit, playing the horn. This seemingly
peaceful co-existence is soon to be disrupted by an intervention of Saluni,
the enigmatically attractive town drunk who comes to occupy an important
place in the whale caller’s life. Although both partners are struggling to
nourish love, the human relationship will inevitably come under strain, as
the rivalry between the whale and Saluni begins to intensify. This
impossible bond between a human being and an animal finds its tragic
culmination in the allegorically charged scene of Sharisha’s death.
Incapable of relinquishing his obsessive attachment to the whale, resolved
to blow his horn “until it saps the life out of him”, the whale caller is ready
to abandon the world. He believes that Sharisha “will feel the vibrations
that have been left by his sounds even if he no longer exists”, that she will
remember and will always mourn his passing. Yet, the whale comes to
save him from the death he is so longing for:

All she wants is to bathe herself in its sounds. To let the horn penetrate
every aperture of her body until she climaxes. To lose herself in the dances
of the past. She is too mesmerized to realize that she has recklessly crossed
the line that separates the blue depths from the green shallows. When he
opens his eyes from the reverie of syncopation she is parked in front of his
eyes […] Her stomach lies on the sand. He stops playing.23

It might be tempting to assert that the manner in which this symbiotic


bond between the whale caller and the animal is depicted contributes to
effacing the essential distinction between the existential condition of
humans and non-humans. Yet far from collapsing the difference between
the human and the animal, the novel’s ending, I would argue, gestures
towards the ultimate impossibility of ever transcending this symbolic “line
that separates the blue depths from the green shallows”.

23
Zakes Mda, The Whale Caller (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005),
216.
40 Chapter Two

In his seminal essay “The Animal That Therefore I am (more to


follow)”, when pondering the ontology of the relationship between the
humans and the non-humans, Derrida seeks an ethical approach towards
animals in thinking beyond the traditional discriminations of language and
reason that have founded the human/animal divide. Thus, he proposes to
acknowledge the absolute singularity of the animal as the other, yet
exclusively within the structures of human consciousness. Rather than
positioning the animal in a relationship of hierarchy with humans,
situating it as the other of humanity, we should approach animals as
constituting a separate dimension of human subjectivity. Only then,
Derrida argues, we will be able to relate to non-humans from their own
perspective, within the parameters of their own consciousness. Thus, this
willful act of accommodating and recognising their alterity will also
enable us to fully realize our own humanity.
My assumption is that, although the novel manages to reconfigure the
space that humans share with animals, bridging the gap that Derrida terms
“the abyssal rupture” between humans and non-humans and articulating a
possibility of relating to the other on its own terms, thus accommodating
his otherness and respecting his ultimate remove, The Whale Caller clearly
refuses to transcend the boundaries that separate humans and non-humans.
Far from advocating a total symbiosis between a human being and an
animal, in fact rather precluding such a prospect, Mda’s novel ponders the
possibility of repositioning the other not in fundamental opposition to the
human being, but rather as yet another dimension of human subjectivity.
Derrida’s line of thought clearly resonates with J. M. Coetzee’s
reputation as a non-representational writer whose novels have long been
recognised as adopting an anti-historicist stance, foregrounding the
difference of the other in order to render the incommensurability of human
experience under apartheid. Whereas his novels published in the apartheid
era can, indeed, be seen as bearing witness to the narrator’s fundamental
inability to identify with the other, foregrounding radical discontinuity
between the existential condition of disparate ethnic groups, my
assumption is that some of his later novels, from Age of Iron on, and most
notably since The Lives of Animals and Disgrace, both published in 1999,
can be seen as gesturing towards a possibility of empathizing with the
other, providing the unbridgeable distances between two incompatible
experiences are recognised. Whereas in Coetzee’s earlier novels,
characters such as the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians (1980),
Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K (1983), and Friday in Foe
(1986) stand for perpetual figures of alterity, whose incommensurability is
only compounded by their lack of surnames, or in the case of the barbarian
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 41

girl lack of any name whatsoever24, Coetzee later novels, while still
foregrounding the ineradicable difference of the other, point towards the
possibility of thinking one’s way into the being of the other, in some cases
they even strongly advocate such an empathic identification.
Although Age of Iron does accord centre stage to the horrors of
oppression founded solely on the notion of the victims’ perceived
otherness from the self-anointed master class, the novel’s philosophy as
well as its narrative structure, employing a great number of distancing
techniques, might indeed be seen as conducive to the world of empathy.
Yet, truly in the image of Derrida’s notion of inconsolable mourning, the
empathy that the novel embraces is definitely not tantamount to a
straightforward and unproblematic identification between readers and
characters. Neither does it indicate the ability of the main protagonist,
Mrs. Curren, to think her way into the full being of the novel’s marginal
characters. As a writer of high ethical awareness, J. M. Coetzee has always
remained attentive to the dangers of cheap empathy. Thus, most of his
output clearly resonates with Lisa Propst’s admonition against such an
easy identification:

In sharing the pain of people abused or enslaved, readers can fail to


recognise the particularities of those people’s experiences or the limited
forms of power those people wielded. Writing that helps people put
themselves in the shoes of others can paradoxically be divisive.25

Age of Iron is here no exception. Yet, as Eze has insightfully pointed


out, it might still be seen as one of the novels marking a shift in the
manner Coetzee portrayed the human condition in South Africa. Prior to
the publication of Age of Iron, the South African author relied heavily on
allegory in order to bear witness to human suffering. The Soweto Uprising
in 1986 and the unthinkable violence unleashed against innocent students
in the wake of the Uprising might have alerted the writer to the limitations
of such narrative strategy in his attempt to adequately address the ubiquity
of human rights abuses characterising the transitional period. 26 Conceived
as a letter to a daughter, Age of Iron narrates incidents that have occurred
over the last days in the life of Mrs. Curren, the terminally ill classics
professor. Thus, the protagonist recounts the discovery of Mr. Vercueil, a
vagrant who has taken to live on her property, her visit to Guguletu, a
24
See Durrant, Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning, 26.
25
Propst quoted in Chielozona Eze, “Ambits of Moral Judgement: Of Pain,
Empathy and Redemption in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron”, Journal of Literary
Studies 27.4 (2011): 19.
26
Eze, “Ambits of Moral Judgement”, 21.
42 Chapter Two

black township which is being burnt down, the death of Bheki, the son of
her housemaid, Florence, and the killing on her own property of Bheki’s
friend, John. Against the backdrop of so much violence surrounding her
and other South Africans in the late 1980s, bearing in mind her terminal
illness, when the protagonist famously inquires how long before the softer
ages will return, one might be tempted to believe that all she demands is
the right to mourn and die in privacy. And yet, the evolving relationship
with Mr. Verceuil and the rare opportunity it offers her to connect to the
world beyond her house is indicative of a journey of self-discovery that
the protagonist embarks on. This journey will necessary go through the
other, in this case embodied metonymically in both Mr. Verceuil and the
dead boy, John, with whom the character never really sympathised. When
trying to conjure up the image of the dead boy in her mind, she admits
that:

[T]hat sullen boy I never took to … He is with me or I am with him: him or


the trace of him … His eyes are unblinking, fixed on the door through
which he is going to leave the world … His eyes are open and mine,
though I write, are shut. My eyes are shut in order to see … I am here in
the room in the night, but I am also with him, all the time.27

As if inscribing the image of the boy, ‘a trace of him’ in a ghostly crypt


erected within her consciousness, Mrs. Curren refuses to cast his troubling
image in oblivion. Instead, writing with her eyes shut, she manages to
establish a representation of the lost other which does not totalize him, but
rather inscribes the other’s alterity without threatening to foreclose on
him.28 Thus, Mrs. Curren might be seen as willfully embarking on a quest
to reach out beyond her restricted world, a quest which finds its most
prominent expression in her relationship with Mr. Verceuil, the vagrant.
When recounting their first encounter, she admits:

[B]ecause he is and he is not I. Because in the look he gives me I see


myself in the way that can be written … when I write about him I write
about myself.29

In his insightful analysis of Age of Iron in Levinasian paradigms, Mike


Marais interprets Mr. Vercueil’s role as a narrative trope as connoting “the

27
J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron (London: Martin Secker& Warburg Ltd., 1990), 159-
160.
28
Mike Marais, “Writing with Eyes Shut: Ethics, Politics, and the Problem of the
Other in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee”, English in Africa 25.1 (1998): 51.
29
Coetzee, Age of Iron, 9.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 43

opening-up of the self to the otherness of the other person, its infiltration
of the self’s consciousness”.30 According to Attridge, the two characters’
specific relationship can equally be interpreted as “a kind of heightened
staging of the very issue of otherness, a story that is continuous with the
attempts by such ‘philosophical’ writers as Levinas, Blanchot and Derrida
to find ways of engaging the issue”.31 Indeed, I would agree with Eze’s
contention that Mrs. Curren’s “awareness of her own death has opened
[her] eyes to the mortality of others”, thus gesturing towards a possibility
of empathically incorporating the other into the structure of her
subjectivity.32 Given that the age of iron is founded on a complete
suppression of human empathy, Mrs. Curren does seem to be longing for
the age of clay. Yet, simultaneously acknowledging the incompatibility of
her own experience with the experience of her maid, Florence or
Florence’s cousin, Mr. Thabane, and by way of analogy thousands of other
victims of apartheid, Mrs. Curren ultimately chooses to remain
emotionally removed. Never truly engaged in the affairs of those sharing
her flat, living side to side with them, she keeps on asking herself the
resonating question: “And I? Where is my heart in all of this?”.33 Indeed,
in his resolution to shun at all costs easy identification that would conflate
the experience of suffering of oppressors and their victims, Coetzee seems
to be alerting readers to the fact that “morality devoid of critical
consciousness is [ultimately] deficient”.34
This problematic interrelationship of empathy and alterity is further
explored in The Lives of Animals (1999) and Elisabeth Costello (2003),
which creatively interweave fiction and philosophical disquisition.
Thematizing animal rights, the ontology of the relationship between
humans and animals and the question of human responsibility, the novel’s
narrative is once again presented from the perspective of the progressively
vulnerable main protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, who must confront her
own nearing death. Just as Mrs. Curren’s awareness of her own mortality
in Age of Iron inclined her to identify with the suffering other, Elisabeth
Costello’s predicament might be seen as conducive to empathy. It is
precisely through this leveling of animals and human beings in their

30
Mike Marais, Secretary of the Invisible: The Idea of Hospitality inthe Fiction of
J. M. Coetzee (New York: Rodopi, 2009), 115.
31
Derek Attridge, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004), 103.
32
Eze, “Ambits of Moral Judgement”, 25.
33
Coetzee, Age of Iron, 50.
34
Eze, “Ambits of Moral Judgement”, 33.
44 Chapter Two

common natural frailty, their vulnerability to suffering and death that


Coetzee’s novel seems to resonate with Derrida’s argument stating that:

Mortality resides … as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that
we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of
life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the
possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the
anguish if this vulnerability and the vulnerability of this anguish.35

It is precisely the human beings’ unwillingness to empathize, this


refusal to think our way into the position of the other that is disclosed by
Costello as engendering atrocities such as Holocaust, which is here likened
to the industrialized slaughter of animals. As if echoing Arendt’s
theorization of the origins of totalitarianisms, Costello demonstrates how
Nazi perpetrators “by treating fellow human beings, beings created in the
image of God, like beasts, had themselves become beasts”.36 Thus,
advocating empathy as the unique vehicle for realizing our own humanity,
Costello perceptively enquires that if one can imagine through the aporia
of one’s own death, why “should we not be capable of thinking our way
into the life of a bat?”.37 In a refrain reiterated throughout the two novels,
the main protagonist insists that “there is no limit to the extent that we can
think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the
sympathetic imagination”.38 It is enough to reject the notion of hierarchical
natural order with human beings at the apex, to be able to relate to animals
within the parameters of their own consciousness. Thus, accommodating
the animals’ absolute singularity as the other, acknowledging the
impossibility of living in community with them, we come to recognise that
“each creature is a key to all other creatures”. If we repeat after Costello
that “in the mind of our Creator we interpenetrate and are interpenetrated
by fellow creatures by the thousand”,39 it seems to be enough to begin
exercising empathy to acknowledge that an ordinary dog might prove to be
a vessel of revelation.
Perhaps the most striking, most paradox-laden exposure of the
porousness of boundaries between the self and the other, between empathy
and emphasis on otherness is performed by the cycle of J. M. Coetzee’s

35
Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (more to follow)”, Trans.
David Wills. Critical Inquiry 21.2 (2001): 121.
36
J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
2001), 65.
37
Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, 32-33.
38
Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, 35.
39
J. M. Coetzee, Elisabeth Costello (London: Vintage Books, 2004), 229.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 45

novelized memoirs, encompassing Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and


Summertime (2009). Through the employment of a number of alienating,
distancing formal and textual devices – extensive fictionalisation,
imaginative shifts, third person narration, free indirect discourse
destabilised through insertion of varying focalisations and polyvocality –
in his attempt to recuperate self-deprecating, highly displaced memories of
his childhood and youth, J. M. Coetzee provides us with a genre-bending,
highly unsettling autrebiography (a term coined by Coetzee himself in the
collection of essays and interviews, Doubling the Point, 1992). What he
achieves through an autobiography, which is, to use Klopper’s words,
“ambiguously located at the limits of self and other, present and past,
narration and historiography”, 40 is the seemingly impossible task of
relating to oneself as the other. Indeed, this autobiographical trilogy
repositions the writer as experiencing a radical loss of subjectivity,
abjection, in which the author himself is violently thrust into the realm of
the other. Thus, drawing our attention to the need for controlled empathy
founded on recognition of otherness within oneself, J. M. Coetzee might
be seen as paying ultimate tribute to the ethics of difference. Yet, in
foregrounding the ambiguous coexistence of the aesthetics of relationality
(as many autobiographies naturally do) and, on the other hand, autonomy,
the cycle of fictionalized memoirs simultaneously emphasizes the
singularity of the author’s experience, thus replacing the individual at the
centre stage, and reclaiming space for personal grief.
LaCapra argues that empathy is fundamental in responding to trauma
and loss, yet, providing it acknowledges unbridgeable distances between
the victim or the lost one and the secondary listener. His concept of
“empathic unsettlement“ is defined as:

A kind of virtual experience through which one puts oneself in the other’s
position while recognizing the difference of that position and hence not
taking the other’s place.41

When addressing traumatic events of the past, as well as bearing


witness to symbolic loss, repudiation of attachments to an ideal that might
never have been accomplished, it would be preferable, LaCapra argued, to
employ a type of writing that would not only inscribe “acting out” but also
“working through”, “developing articulations that are recognised as

40
Dirk Klopper, “Critical Fictions in JM Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth”,
Scrutiny2 11.1 (2006): 23.
41
Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: John Hopkins
University Press, 2001), 78.
46 Chapter Two

problematic but still function as limits and as possibly desirable


resistances to undecidability”.42 In his attempt to alert the authors to the
dangers of creating “over-identification” with the victim of a traumatic
event, thus risking to conflate the experience of suffering of victims and
secondary witnesses, LaCapra does not preclude the employment of
disruptive techniques, such as aporia, varying focalisation, or numerous
distancing devices. What he advocates is simply a balance between
disruption and engagement. Adopting “empathic unsettlement“ as one’s
narrative strategy is thus considered as an ethical approach to literary
representations of suffering.
LaCapra’s argument for the notion of “empathic unsettlement“ clearly
resonates with Nussbaum’s conceptualization of empathy which postulates
a cognitive distance between two parties. In Nussbaum’s argument:

[Empathy] involves a participatory enactment of the situation of the


sufferer, but always combined with the awareness that one is not oneself
with the sufferer.43

The American philosopher posited that if “the empathic person


attempts to reconstruct the mental experience of another … too crudely[,]
she will probably not get credit for empathy at all”.44 LaCapra’s and
Nussbaum’s theorizations both seem to be an elaboration of Kaja
Silverman’s concept of “heteropathic” identification. When discussing
processes of identification in film studies in her influential work, The
Threshold of the Visible World, Silverman discriminates between two
possible modes of the subject’s identifying with the other: ‘idiopathic’
identification, which she sees as a cannibalistic tendency to consume the
other within the self, rewriting the other from one’s own perspective and
“heteropathic” identification, which requires stepping outside of the self
and respects the other’s alterity, recognising his irreducible separateness.
For Silverman, it is the heteropathic identification that proves enriching
and displays a moral potential. Similarly, in “Projected Memory:
Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy”, when gesturing
towards possible ways of ethically addressing collective trauma such as
Holocaust, Marianne Hirsh urges the postmemorial artists to “resist
appropriation and incorporation, resist annihilating the distance between

42
LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 22.
43
Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotion
(Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 327.
44
Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, 328.
Post-Apartheid Literature as a Rite of Mourning 47

self and other, the otherness of others”45 in their attempt to avoid


becoming surrogate victims. Thus, she claims, out of respect to the
traumatized:

[An artist must] find the balance that allows the spectator to enter the
image, to imagine the disaster, but that disallows the overappropriative
identification that makes the distances disappear, creating too available, too
easy an access to [a] particular past.46

The conceptualizations of “empathic unsettlement“ and “heteropathic”


identification appear to stay in line with Derrida theorization of
“inconsolable mourning”, which refuses to severe attachment to the lost
object, while at the same time leaving “the other his alterity, [thus]
respecting his infinite remove”.47 Both Mda’s as well as Coetzee’s post-
apartheid novels markedly contain signs that complicate the pursuit of
such cannibalistic identification and force us to retain a critical
perspective. While foregrounding the limits of idiopathic identification,
both thematically through the insertion of incommensurable characters,
and the portrayal of ineradicable divisions polarizing South African
communities, as well as structurally, through the deployment of a number
of distancing formal devices, and the inscription of numerous narrative
silences, the writers do not preclude the possibility of heteropathic
identification with the other. On the contrary, adopting an approach that
inscribes their own developing understanding and confusion, they allow us
a perspective on the traumatic past, as well as the unsettling present, that
writes from both inside and outside of the traumatic experience, and in
doing so, they offer a powerful alternative to the unifying, homogenizing
discourse of nation-building that dominated South African media, and to
some extent also literature, in the transition period. When pondering
certain pronounced trends in the way traumatized people narrate their life
stories, Judith Butler contends that:

Willingness to imagine oneself in the position of the other while remaining


vulnerable before one’s own opacity in giving an account of oneself
importantly contributes to the human rights project of social justice and

45
Mariane Hirsh, “Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and
Public Fantasy”, in Acts of Memory, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, Leo Spitzer
(Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), 9.
46
Hirsh, “Projected Memory”, 10.
47
Derrida, Mémoires for Paul de Man, 6.
48 Chapter Two

reconciliation after oppressive regimes and episodes of extensive


violence.48

In his conceptualization of “empathic unsettlement”, LaCapra


recognizes that empathy can effectively “place in jeopardy fetishized and
totalizing narratives that deny the trauma that called them into existence”
and which tend to recuperate the past “in terms of uplifting messages or
optimistic, self-serving scenarios”.49 My belief is that it is precisely
through their post-apartheid narratives’ inscription of “empathic
unsettlement”, in other words, through their imaginative performance of
the task of “inconsolable mourning”, that Zakes Mda and J. M. Coetzee
denounce the totalitarian project of eradicating difference and the
invalidation of personal experience engendered by socio-cultural
developments in transitional South Africa. In their attempt to re-
appropriate, re-internalize mourning, they simultaneously gesture towards
a new form of community, one based on empathy that consciously
acknowledges the fundamental separateness of human as well as non-
human experience. If one is to understand alterity, in Chapman’s
argument, as a creative amalgam of Foucault’s, Derrida’s and Levinas’
philosophies that “neither excludes, nor absorbs the Other, but seeks to
turn negative associations of apartness into a positive precondition of
dialogue, in which the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ must learn to respect the autonomy
of intervening culture while seeking difficult interchange”,50 perhaps
paradoxically, it is alterity itself that might prove to be a common ground
for mapping out the post-apartheid future.

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49
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50
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CHAPTER THREE

“NOT TO GET LOST IN THE LOSS”:


NARRATING THE STORY
IN MOURID BARGHOUTI’S
I WAS BORN THERE, I WAS BORN HERE
AND IN DEBORAH ROHAN’S
THE OLIVE GROVE
– A PALESTINIAN STORY

HANIA A. M. NASHEF

Introduction
Rarely do we pause and wonder how some countries have been erased
from world maps, and what impact such actions have on the lives of
citizens of these countries. The year 1795, for instance, marked the third
and final partition of Poland; territorial divisions and expansions, which
were carried out by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, led to the disappearance
of Poland as a sovereign state for 123 years. In more recent history,
specifically in 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel wiped out the
name of Palestine from the world map. The creation of a new state led to
the destruction of another, as at least 418 Palestinian villages were
demolished, towns and cities were emptied of their original inhabitants,
and around 1 million Palestinians were expelled out of their homeland to
what became known as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and to neighboring
countries and in the larger diaspora. Only 165,000 Palestinians were able
to remain in the territories that became the state of Israel in 1948. The
Gaza Strip and the West Bank were later occupied by Israel in 1967, which
led to another wave of refugees, namely to neighboring Arab countries – to
some who have earlier ended up in camps in the Gaza Strip and the West
Bank, this was yet another exodus. Hence to this day, for many
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 53

Palestinians in the diaspora, the loss of the homeland has become the
characteristic that defines their very essence. Salim Tamari notes from the
Palestinian testimonies of the 50th anniversary of commemorating the
Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe of 1948, that the listeners and narrators
“were perplexed at having kept silent for what seemed like an eternity
before releasing their concealed stories”1. The Palestinians having been
negated and traumatized by the history of the last 100 years have been
unable for the most part to tell their story. Furthermore, the absence of a
willing audience has made this task yet more difficult. The two novels that
I will be discussing in this paper are Mourid Barghouti’s 2011 translated
English edition of I was Born There, I was Born Here, and Deborah
Rohan’s 2001 novel, The Olive Grove: A Palestinian Story, as they essay
to write the Palestinian narrative back in history.

The Invisible Palestinians


Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H. Sa’di write:

Israel’s creation was represented, and sometimes conceived, as an act of


restitution that resolved this dialectic, bringing good out of evil. The
Palestinians were excluded from the unfolding of this history. Their
catastrophe was either disregarded or reduced to a question of ill-fated
refugees.2

The Palestinians had only their memories to create a counter-history or


a counter-memory against “the thundering story of Zionism”3. In his
memoir, Edward Said describes his own feelings at the eradication of
Palestine:

What I experienced, however, was the suppression of a history as everyone


around me celebrated Israel’s victory, its terrible swift sword … at the
expense of the original inhabitants of Palestine, who now found themselves
forced over and over again to prove that they had once existed. ‘There are
no Palestinians’, said Golda Meir in 1969, and that set me, and many
others, the slightly preposterous challenge of disproving her, of beginning
to articulate a history of loss and dispossession that had to be extricated,

1
Salim Tamari, “Narratives of Exile”, Palestine-Israel Journal 9, no. 4 (2002):
101.
2
Lila Abu-Lughod and Ahmad H Sa’di, “Introduction: the Claims of Memory”, in
Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod and
Ahmad H Sa’di (New York: Columbia University Press), 4.
3
Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, “Introduction”, 6.
54 Chapter Three

minute by minute, word by word, inch by inch, from the very real history
of Israel’s establishment, existence and achievements. I was working in an
almost entirely negative element, the non-existence, the non-history which
I had somehow to make visible despite occlusions, misrepresentations and
denials.4

Meir’s denial of the existence of the Palestinian people was reported by


the London Sunday Times in 1969, in which she clearly said they were no
Palestinians in Palestine and therefore no one was expelled:

It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering


itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took
their country away from them. They did not exist.5

For Palestinians have long struggled against the claim that a land
without a people was given to a people without a land. In October 31,
1991, and in his opening speech as Head of the Palestinian Delegation in
the Madrid Conference, Dr Haidar Abdul-Shafi challenged this persistent
myth in front of a world audience when he remarked:

For too long, the Palestinian people have gone unheeded, silenced and
denied. Our identity negated by political expediency; our rightful struggle
against injustice maligned; and our present existence subdued by the past
tragedy of another people. For the greater part of this century we have been
victimized by the myth of a land without a people and described with
impunity as the invisible Palestinians. Before such willful blindness, we
refused to disappear or to accept a distorted identity.6

The Palestinians have refused to disappear in spite of their near


complete eradication from the land and their continual exile. In his
introduction to Mourid Barghouti’s earlier novel, I saw Ramallah, (Arabic:
1997, English 2000). Said refers to the Palestinians as a displaced and a
misplaced people.7 Regardless of their nationalities, their stateless position
4
Edward W. Said, “Between Worlds: a Memoir”, London Review of Books. May
7, 1998. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n09/edward-said/between-worlds (accessed July
6, 2012).
5
Golda Meir, The London Sunday Times, June 15, 1969.
6
Haydar Abd-al-Shafi, “Madrid Speech October 31, 1991”, Journal of Palestine
Studies 21, no. 2 (1992): 133. On November 29th, 2012, the139 countries in the
United Nations voted to allow Palestine the role of a nonmember observer status in
the international body. The people of Palestine are to this day striving for some
recognition that they exist.
7
Mourid Barghouti, I saw Ramallah, trans. Ahdaf Soueif (Cairo: American
University of Cairo, 2000), IX.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 55

and irrespective of the countries they live in, they carry with them the
trauma of events that led to the loss of their homeland, and the grief of this
loss and endless displacement. Furthermore, they struggle to be able to tell
their story against the negations of their history and the denials of their
existence that still persist. As the Israeli narrative has successfully
eradicated Palestinian entity from the land and from history, the
Palestinians have difficulty in presenting a counter-narrative8. The
Palestinian story was effaced by the destruction of their villages and
towns. In a conversation between a father and a son in Mahmoud
Darwish’s prose work, Journal of Ordinary Grief, the son enquires of the
father as to why he is picking up pebbles, to which the father answers that
these are petrified pieces of his heart; it is the loss of the homeland and the
being that he is searching for as he is adamant not to get lost in the loss
that has characterized his life9. This sense of loss pervades modern
Palestinian literature and the two novels I will be analyzing here provide
pertinent examples.

Writing becomes the place in which to dwell


Theodor Adorno states: “For a man who no longer has a homeland,
writing becomes a place to live”10. It is through writing that the Palestinian
can regain his or her existence. Both Rohan’s and Barghouti’s novels are
essentially narratives in which the central characters insist on telling their
stories as they obstinately refuse to accept a distorted or a non-existent
identity. I will be looking at the narratives of both protagonists who are
now exiled as they revisit what is left of the historic Palestine with their
adult children, at once to make sense of this absence and distorted identity
and their need to pass on their stories to the next generation, hoping that
by doing so they will be able to address part of the ordeal that has long
plagued their lives. Both novels recount the histories of two large
Palestinian families, the Moghrabis from Akka and the Barghoutis from
Deir Ghassaneh, and their respective dispossessions. Rohan’s novel tells
the story of a Palestinian family from Akka through the eyes of Hamzi, the
second son of the family, from the year 1913 when it was under Othoman
rule and until the family’s dispossession in 1948 when the state of Israel

8
Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, “Bleeding Memories”, Palestine-Israel Journal
of Politics, Economics and Culture 10, no. 4 (2003): 105.
9
Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief (New York: Archipelago
Books, 2010), 3-4.
10
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Relections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N.
Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974) 87.
56 Chapter Three

was created. Barghouti’s village of Deir Ghassaneh, on the other hand,


came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Both novels begin with a journey
to and from the homeland.
On her website, Rohan remarks:

… her knowledge of Israel was drawn from books of her youth, such as
Exodus by Leon Uris, and later by the works of Herman Wouk, including
The Hope and The Glory. Stunned by the suffering of the Holocaust, she
delighted in reading about the creation of the state of Israel as a safe harbor
for those who suffered a loss of such horror and magnitude.11

The safe haven that was created for the refugees from Europe not only
dispersed and destroyed an existing people but also traumatized and set in
turmoil a whole nation till this day. In 1993, Rohan meets a Palestinian
person for the first time, who when seeing The Hope in her hands, told her
before even introducing himself “There will never be peace in the Holy
Land until Israelis and Palestinians recognize one another’s humanity”12.
Up to this point, Rohan was not even aware that the Palestinians existed.
After extensive research and persuading Hamzi to tell her his family’s
story, she interweaved their detailed story into the historical events of
Palestine. Her novel follows the story of the family from 1913 to 1998,
from prosperous land owners with an established family name built on
generations before to poor and distraught refugees in Lebanon with a name
that no longer means anything13.
The Olive Grove begins with the arrival of the adult Hamzi who is
accompanied by his daughter, Ruba, at Ben Gurion International Airport
after 50 years of absence. Hamzi, who presses his forehead against the
plane’s window in hope that he find a recognizable landmark, is uneasy as
this land is a homeland that he has only visited in dreams in the last fifty
years of his life14. As he examines the faces of the other passengers on the
plane, he describes this arrival as one that would bring tears of sorrow
rather than joy, “for [his] family who had to flee [their] home, [their] town,
[their] country, so that [the Israelis] could call it home”15. He tells us that
he wants to remember the land and his life on it as it used to be16. It is

11
Deborah Rohan, The Olive Grove, (accessed July 24, 2012), http://theolive
grovebook.com/the-author/.
12
Rohan, The Olive Grove, (accessed July 24, 2012).
13
Deborah Rohan, The Olive Grove: a Palestinian Story (London: Saqi, 2008)
409.
14
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 11.
15
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 12.
16
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 12.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 57

imperative that Hamzi can relive the years of his early childhood in order
that he can get confirmation that this land, which was once his country,
and whose history and presence has been denied him through a willful
negation, did actually exist – and accepting that it is no longer there is a
way to help him grieve the loss. In the last page of the novel, Ruba insists
that she and her father visit Sumayriyya, a village near their hometown of
Akka, and in which they owned olive groves, for confirmation that their
family once existed and to prove that “it wasn’t all just … a story” 17. In
her review of the novel, Lynn Rogers writes: “The novel’s protagonists are
Hamzi Moghrabi and his father, Kamel, a secular and civil conscious man
whose life trajectory symbolizes the destruction of a nation and an
agrarian way of life”18. When Hamzi requests at the airport that the
immigration officer does not stamp his American passport, as he “simply
can’t bear to have the word ‘Israel’ stamped there”, he is in effect reluctant
to admit that the homeland he grew up in is no longer there19. When the
immigration officer asks Hamzi to specify the reasons for his visit as he
flips through their passports, Hamzi informs him that he was born in this
land and that his reason for return is to “see [his] home. To take
photographs for [his] mother” as she would want to see how Palestine has
changed”20. The officer abruptly reminds him that he is now in Israel.
Soon afterwards, Hamzi remarks as he studies the map before he embarks
on the journey to his hometown of Akka that all the names are now in
either English or Hebrew21. Later in the novel when Hamzi is narrating the
history of the Moghrabis to his daughter who demanded to hear the story
of her family, he describes a conversation between her grandparents,
Kamel and Haniya, in which his father remarks on how quickly the
country was renamed within days of the end of the British mandate:

‘Three days ago, one day before the last of the British troops left Palestine,
the Jews declared statehood. They renamed our country, Haniya. They
want to call the land “Israel”. And the newspapers act as if it is that
easy…already, today, they have begun referring to our country as Israel…I
do not accept such a thing can happen in a matter of days’.22

17
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 425.
18
Lynn Rogers”,In The Olive Grove, a Palestinian Story”, Al Jadid: a Review &
Record of Arab Culture and Arts (2010): 46.
19
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 12.
20
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 13.
21
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 14, 145.
22
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 369.
58 Chapter Three

A few pages later, Kamel questions the apathy of the world regarding
their plight, wondering if Palestinians are just a “blurb read in the morning
paper over coffee” and why they have to continually pay the price for
Hitler’s sins23. Joseph A. Massad states that “… the renaming of Palestine
as Israel by the European Jewish settler colonists was not only of symbolic
value, rather it involved (and still involves) a geographic overhauling of
the entire country”24. According to Massad, naming itself functions as
locating the place in history25. Once the name is lost the history and, with
the passage of time, the narration of that history is lost with it. Barghouti
states:

The battle for language becomes the battle for the land. The destruction of
one leads to the destruction of the other. When Palestine disappears as a
word it disappears as a state, as a country and as a homeland. The name of
Palestine itself had to vanish.26

Once the nation is lost, a person who originates from this nation
likewise no longer exists; the suffix ‘ian’ in the word Palestinian is linked
to the proper noun ‘Palestine’, which no longer exists as a sovereign state
but is a state that now belongs in history books. The former Defense and
later Foreign Minister of Israel Moshe Dayan explained in a lecture on
March 19, 1969, to a group of students at the Israel Institute of Technology
the systematic transformation of Palestine into Israel. Dayan described the
process and the reason behind the eradication of the name and the place.
Dayan said: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You
do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame
you because geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not
exist, but the Arab villages are not there either … There is no single place
built in this country that did not have a former Arab population” 27.
Nonetheless, the names are yet to be erased from the collective memory of
Palestinians, as the stories are handed down from one generation to
another, as is apparent in The Olive Grove and I Was Born There, I Was
Born Here. Whereas the Palestinians in the diaspora reluctantly accept the
new names, this is not the case with the Palestinians who remained in

23
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 387.
24
Joseph A. Massad, The Persistence of the Palesinian Question: Essays on
Zionism and the Palestinians. (London: Routledge, 2006): 36.
25
Massad, The Persistence of the Palesinian Question, 36.
26
Mourid Barghouti, “Verbicide – War butlers and their language”, last modified
February 11, 2012, http://www.mouridbarghouti.net/blog/2012/02/11/verbicide-
war-butlers-and-their-language/.
27
Moshe Dayan, “Lecture by Moshe Dayan”, Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 59

Israel post-1948 and post-1967, who tend to use the Hebrew names out of
necessity, yet remember the old ones. Columbia University professor Lila
Abu-Lughod confirms the latter when she describes a similar visit to
Hamzi’s that her own father undertook to Palestine/Israel; she writes how
on his arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport, or as he refers to it by
its old name, Lydda Airport, he was shocked to see a sign that read
“Welcome to Israel”28.

Fig. 1-1. The Moghrabi Family in Akka, 1939 – Courtesy of the author29

Anna Bernard sees in “Hebrew renaming of formerly Arab towns and


villages”, an act of layering, “the Hebrew name obscuring the Arabic and
yet continuing to gesture towards its past existence”30. This process of
layering is not always a gesture towards the past but is also one towards
the future. When on his first visit, Abu-Lughod’s father asked some Arab
children who continue to live in his hometown of Jaffa the direction to a
street, using its Arab name although “the street sign said something

28
Lila Abu-Lughod, “Return to Half-Ruins: Memory, Postmemory, and Living
History in Palestine”, In Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, ed.
by Ahmad H Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod (New York: Columbia University Press,
2007): 84.
29
The Olive Grove: A Palestinian Story with permission from the author, Deborah
Rohan.
30
Anna Bernard, “Forms of Memory: Partition as a Literary Paradigm”, Alif:
Journal of Comparative Poetics (2010): 26.
60 Chapter Three

altogether different”, they were able to guide him31. Abu-Lughod writes:


“From this, [her father] knew that Palestinian parents were still teaching
their children the old names of things even as Palestine was being buried,
erased, and re-written by Israel”32. Passing on the names and telling the
story to the younger generation is essential for the formation of the
Palestinian identity, to be able to exist in spite of the eradication of their
land and them as a people; the older generation feels that it acts as a
custodian of a past that is still vivid in its memory33.
In addition, Abu-Lughod, during the visit with her father to their
ancestral land, as she looks at the hillsides that are now occupied by Israeli
settlements, remarks how the land is being claimed by “modern green
signs in Hebrew and English, or non-native evergreen forests to hide razed
villages”34. Haim Bresheeth writes that the forests that were built in Israel
to commemorate the victims of the European Holocaust, in reality,

… formed part of the active destruction and erasure of hundreds of


Palestinian villages and towns taken over in 1948. Most of these villages
were bulldozed in the 1950s and planted with trees so as to remove all
signs of earlier habitation that would tie past occupants to the land … The
trees, like those who planted them, are in the main foreign. The trees were
firs of European origin, not native to Palestine; they covered up the
evidence of an earlier Mediterranean ground cover35.

In The Olive Grove, when Aziz who was the manager of Hamzi’s lands
informs the latter when he first meets him in Lebanon after fleeing the
Israeli aggression that all his olive trees have been destroyed and uprooted
by Zionist bulldozers, Hamzi remarks as he sobs, “It seems they want no
sign anyone ever lived there”36. Incidentally, Kamel was more upset over
the destruction of the olive groves than the fact that three Jewish families
were now living in his ancestral home37. This piece of news paralyzes

31
Abu-Lughod, “Return to Half-Ruins”, 84.
32
Abu-Lughod, “Return to Half-Ruins”, 84.
33
Abu-Lughod, “Return to Half-Ruins”, 82.
34
Abu-Lughod, “Return to Half-Ruins”, 84.
35
Haim Bresheeth, “The Continuity of Trauma and Struggle: Recent Cinematic
Representations of the Nakba”, in Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of
Memory, ed. by Ahmad H Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2007): 164.
36
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 382.
37
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 382.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 61

Kamel who cannot understand why the olive groves were not spared or
why his earlier prayer of asking God to spare them was not answered38.
The relationship between the olive tree and the Palestinian is very
intimate and symbolic. The tree’s longevity and healing properties of its
oil symbolize eternity. Its products provide sustenance. The olive picking
season was an activity in which the whole village partook. Towards the
end of the novel, young Hamzi, a refugee in Lebanon, recollects the
hunting trip their father, Kamel, took him and his brother Riad on. On that
trip, Kamel showed Riad the olive grove he had planted for him as a baby,
believing that in this way no one will be able to take away their land39.
Earlier in the novel, Kamel told his sons that olives are part of his soul,
and their sturdy roots remind him of his family’s own roots in the land40.
Juliane Hammer notes that trees “especially olive… symbolize the
rootedness of the Palestinians in their homeland … [and that Palestinian
literature often showed] the Palestinian himself as a tree, rooted in the soil,
having a long history, and unwilling to give up his homeland”41. The
uprooting of the olive trees for the rural Palestinian society signifies the
loss of the homeland and the being.
The right to tell their story helps at confronting the melancholy of loss
and ultimately grieving that loss; albeit this came much later. Bresheeth
writes, “Power is not only exercised over the land and its people, it also
controls the story, its point of view, and the meta-narrative of truth and
memory42. Bresheeth adds that the “narrative of Palestine in the cultural
arena carved by Zionism is, first and foremost, a story of erasure, denial,
and active silencing by historians and intellectuals”43. In The Olive Grove,
Hamzi has been silenced for fifty years. It is when he arrives with his
daughter in Palestine/Israel, and upon her insistence, that he begins to tell
her the story of his family. Ruba says that the only part of the story that
she knows is that she is a Palestinian “born far outside Palestine” and that
life in Palestine was wonderful and the fruit was delicious”44. Hamzi also
realizes that it is essential to pass on the history of his family to his
daughter, even though he realizes that this visit will change her forever, in
order to remove the vacuous meaning of the word Palestine, the abstract,

38
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 383, 384.
39
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 393.
40
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 271.
41
Julianne Hammer, Palestinians born in exile: diaspora and the search for a
homeland (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005): 65.
42
Bresheeth, “The Continuity of Trauma and Struggle”, 165.
43
Bresheeth, “The Continuity of Trauma and Struggle”, 179.
44
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 15.
62 Chapter Three

generic, and utopian description of pre-1948 land, which is in effect


repossessing through renaming45. Memories recalled of Palestine have
tended to be ones of the fruits and the beauty of the land but not of actual
people living on these lands. The link to the physical land is somehow
more concrete than the once lived lives of the people, as these lives have
been abruptly interrupted. The geography stays in spite of the place being
stripped of its original citizens. Therefore, Palestinians’ identify tends to
be with the physical concreteness of the land they once dwelled in rather
than with the lives and livelihood of the people who once were part of this
land, as the latter evaporated and were erased unexpectedly. However, as
the painful events continue to unfold, Palestinians have been for the most
part unable to handle the continuous trauma in order to be able to narrate
their stories. Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi state that “The trauma
brings back to life not only the traces of the horrible event but also the
object that was lost in this event” 46.
It is worth noting that the written recollections of the previous lives in
pre-1948 Palestine only started to appear in the post-1980s and 1990s era.
The “village memorial books” make up for apt examples47 – these books
were mostly written by Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Israel, Jordan,
Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank48. Hammer, who has conducted
extensive research of Palestinians born in exile, remarked that the images
of Palestine that she encountered centered around “stories of the sweetest
grapes and figs, the most beautiful orange and lemon trees, the amazing
seashores…”49. This is namely due to the makeup of the Palestinian
society prior 1948. Said thus describes the Palestinian society at the end of
the 19th century, which was predominantly agrarian:

A significant segment of Arab Palestinian history has been made up of


peasant farming and agricultural life. Through the nineteenth century rural
settlement accounted for at least 65 percent of Palestine … Pastoral and
rural forms of existence dominate in [the Palestinian] society50.

45
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 146.
46
Gertz and Khleifi, “Bleeding Memories”, 106.
47
Rochelle Davis”,Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland: Memories of
Village Places in pre-1948 Palestine”, in Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims
of Memory, ed. by Ahmad H Saidi and Lila Abu-Lughod (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2007) 55, 54.
48
Davis”,Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland”, 55.
49
Hammer, Palestinians born in exile, 50.
50
Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1999), 88.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 63

It is not surprising that the physical and now symbolic link to the land
dominates Palestinian narratives. The relation with the land is an essential
component of the Palestinian’s identity; hence, the destruction of the land
not only symbolizes the destruction of an agrarian society but also of the
human being. According to Said, once uprooted from the land, living in
exile becomes “a series of portraits without names, without contexts”51.
On the other hand, Tamari argues that the Palestinian narratives in exile
were namely recollections of a town or village. He writes that there was:

… an overriding sense of localism. What happened then is seen as having


happened to this town or village in isolation from the onslaught that
affected Palestine as a whole. While the narrators recognize that the Nakba
happened across the country, this is not reflected in the protocols of
narration – nor in the stories retold.52

One likely explanation for this overriding sense of localism is the


inability of the Palestinians to grasp the enormity of the events that were
unfolding at the time. They never thought that the erasure of their land
could be that simple. Up to his last day, Kamel continued to hope that a
return to the homeland will be possible, even though on occasions he
questioned his decision to flee from the violence in order to protect his
family53. The sense of localism is also evident in the story that Hamzi is
narrating to Ruba; his association with Palestine is very much linked with
his hometown of Akka and the agricultural land his family owned in the
nearby villages; it also defined who they were. This recollection is
understandable as agriculture and land formed a large part of the identity
of the Palestinian. In her study of Palestinian Memorial Books, Rochelle
Davis notes that these works not only revealed “a discourse of the
glorification of the peasant life, of living closely attached to the land”, but
also memories of a pre-destruction utopia, which eventually shaped a
nationalist discourse54. In some respects, memories of these idealized
pastoral lives are directly linked to the current Palestinian identity. The
need for a pre-1948 idyllic identity to be continually relived through the
stories that the refugees or the exiled keep on telling themselves is
essentially holding onto a presence that was and is attempting to continue
to be. Davis adds, “understanding how Palestinians represent pre-1948
spaces and places relates directly to the identities that Palestinians are

51
Said, After the Last Sky, 12.
52
Tamari, “Narratives of Exile”, 102.
53
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 408.
54
Davis”,Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland”, 54.
64 Chapter Three

actively creating in the present”55. Davis believes that this “geographic


nostalgia” is namely due to three reasons:

… first, the physical destruction of the majority of the villages that these
people came from makes them nostalgic for a lost place; second, the
process in 1948 that turned peasant populations into landless refugees
makes them associate the land with a life before catastrophic change; and
third, the fact that these refugees now work in business and civil service
jobs and not as peasants [or land owners] intensifies their idealization of
what they no longer have.56

This denial of the loss of the homeland and the false hope of return to
Palestine accompanies Kamel till the day he dies. In a letter that Riad
sends Hamzi, who has taken up a job in Bahrain to help support the family,
he describes his father’s final days: “Baba talks only now of going home,
as if our return were imminent. For a man only fifty-three, he looks very
old. Sometimes it seems his soul has died”57. Even though Kamel realizes
the futility of their wait, he refuses to confront the reality that they will
never be able to go back. When Hamzi tells him that the United Nations’
resolution will never be enforced and that:

Baba, they have brought hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel since we


left, and there’s no end in sight. They have overtaken our land, our
businesses and our homes … Each day of hard reality diminishes our
dream of return a little bit more. You know that in the first months after we
left they demolished hundreds of Arab villages and built Jewish settlements
in their stead … There is no home for anyone to return to! Our home is
gone! WE ARE NEVER GOING BACK!58.

Kamel’s reaction was to push “his body into the seat of his wheelchair
though escaping physical blows rather than the ugly verbal barrage” as he
asks his son never to utter these words to him again, “Never, ever speak
such nauseating lies to me again”59.
Gertz and Khleifi argue that the Palestinians’ narrative is constructed
around three pivotal points, “the memory of a lost paradise, lamentation of
the present, and a portrayal of the anticipated return”60. Kamel realizes that
the paradise is lost forever, and the harsh reality of living life as a refugee

55
Davis”,Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland”, 55.
56
Davis”,Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland”, 54.
57
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 411.
58
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 404.
59
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 404-5.
60
Gertz and Khleifi, “Bleeding Memories”,106.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 65

makes this loss much harder to bear. His only hope of survival is the
dream that one day they will return. The only return that is possible is
through the story he has chosen to pass on to his son, Hamzi, who in turn
is passing it on to his daughter, Ruba, and is ultimately recorded by Rohan.
It is a second generation return to the place in which parents or
grandparents lived61. But given the expulsion of 1948, the old family
house is rendered a place of painful memory and a symbol of what was
lost62. Hamzi describes his feelings as he and Ruba stand outside his
family home: “I am filled with a mixture of fear, anger and melancholy as
I knock on the wooden door, and in any case am not prepared for the
barrage of Hebrew when the front door opens”63. Hamzi learns that his
family house has been turned into a Polish synagogue and being gentiles
he and his daughter Ruba are denied entry64. The novel ends with Ruba
and him looking at the ten parcels of land on which his father had planned
to plant an olive grove for him, but he tells us that nothing has been built
on them nor has anything been planted, “[t]hey lay completely barren”,
and according to Rogers the barren grove dismantles the “Israeli myth of
‘greening the desert’”65. The bareness of the land adds to the anguish
within Hamzi as he realizes that his children would also suffer the “pain of
statelessness. The pain of not belonging anywhere”66. It also signifies the
loss of the land.

Loss as historical pain


In his novel, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, Barghouti argues that
in long conflicts the pain of dispossession and loss becomes a historical
one. It is a pain that due to its repetitive nature refuses to go away. In this
novel, the narrator is both the protagonist and the author. Barghouti returns
to Palestine/Israel in 1996 in his first novel I Saw Ramallah after being
exiled in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank, and returns in 1998 in
I Was Born There. The purpose of his second visit is namely to introduce
his son Tamim to his homeland, to pass on the story that needs to be told
and to show him literally where he was born. Invariably in the novel there

61
Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, “Introduction”,2.
62
Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, “Introduction”,2.
63
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 423.
64
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 423.
65
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 425 and Lynn Rogers, “In The Olive Grove, a
Palestinian Story”, Al Jadid: a Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts (2010):
46.
66
Rohan, The Olive Grove, 425.
66 Chapter Three

is a comparison of the homeland that he once knew and the reality that he
encounters, as when he describes the Ramallah of his time and the one he
will be showing Tamim.67 Time is not the only factor that has caused this
change. The people and places he encounters are mostly marred by
occupation and the absurd situation the Palestinians inside historic
Palestine have survived under. Barghouti is, in essence, lamenting the loss
of a homeland and a way of life. He is vocal in his criticism of the events
that have shaped his people under occupation. The novel opens with a
journey in a shared taxi with other passengers as the taxi driver attempts to
wade through puddles, mud, ditches trying to avoid various Israeli
checkpoints on his way towards the Jordanian border; Barghouti remarks
that to “the inhabitants of these same cities and villages, who haven’t been
distanced by successive exiles – everything has become food for jokes”68.
He later remarks how little achievements, such as the time when the taxi is
back on asphalt or buying a loaf of bread, become great joys of
celebration69. On this trip to Jordan armed with the Israeli permit that
should allow his son to visit, Barghouti cannot help but notice the
destruction of the land he once knew. As with Rohan’s novel, he comments
on the unrelenting destruction of the olive groves:

Everywhere you look, huge olive trees, uprooted and thrown over under
the open sky like dishonored corpses. I think: these trees have been
murdered, and this plain is their collective grave. With each olive tree
uprooted by the Israeli bulldozers, a family tree of Palestinian peasants
falls from the wall. The olive in Palestine is not just agricultural property. It
is people’s dignity … It’s the identity card … whose validity doesn’t expire
with the death of the owner … but preserves his name.70

The destruction of the olive tree is in part the destruction of that


essential part of the Palestinian’s story. To those Palestinians who stayed
under occupation it was their link to the land while for those who are in
exile it is what formed their collective memory, an essential component of
the Palestinian narrative, a point I discussed in depth earlier in the paper.
Barghouti says that his friends tell him “that the world is wider and more
beautiful than ‘[their] villages’ and ‘[their] families’, but it is the
Palestinians’ inability to return, tell their stories or hold on to their
identities and having been forced into exile is what makes the attachment

67
Mourid Barghouti, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, trans. by Humphrey
Davies (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011): 63, 65, 66, 67.
68
Barghouti, I was Born There, 3.
69
Barghouti, I was Born There, 21.
70
Barghouti, I was Born There, 10.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 67

to the homeland stronger71. Barghouti adds that the stateless Palestinian


suffers endless “Kafkaesque interrogations before being granted an entry
visa to any place in the world … The Palestinian is forbidden to enter his
own country by land, sea, or air, even in a coffin”, while the “soldier of the
Occupation stands on a piece of land he has confiscated and calls it ‘here’
and I, its owner, exiled in a distant country, have to call it ‘there’”72 . Said,
likewise, poses questions on the identity of the Palestinian:

Identity – who we are, where we come from, what we are – is difficult to


maintain in exile. Most other people take their identity for granted. Not the
Palestinian, who is required to show proofs of identity more or less
constantly … Such as it is, our existence is linked negatively to encomiums
about Israel’s democracy, achievements … We are ‘other’, and opposite, a
flaw in the geometry of resettlement and exodus. Silence and discretion
veil the hurt, slow the body searches, soothe the sting of loss.73

Barghouti’s entrance to Palestine is a counter-narrative to the story that


has been long propagated about the Palestinian. The author and his son
enter through the bridge that separates the West Bank from the East Bank
of the Jordan River, historical Palestine from Jordan, a bridge that “is a
symbol of discrimination, distance, [and] disunion”74. Barghouti adds that
the term West Bank is in itself a pollution of language:

West Bank. West of what? Bank of what? The reference here is to the River
Jordan, the west bank of the River Jordan, not to historical Palestine. If the
reference were to Palestine they would have used the term eastern parts of
Palestine. The west bank of the river is a geographical location not a
country, not a homeland.75

The entrance to Palestine or more precisely the West Bank of the River
Jordan he tells us is both a real and a symbolic hell76. But as with Ruba,
everything that Tamim will witness from the moment he crosses that
bridge will impact his life forever77. Tamim’s knowledge of Palestine is
one that has been formed through the stories told by his family and via the
media. His father resents that no one hears of Palestinians unless they are
being “bombarded by F-16 missiles or under the rubble of houses”; he

71
Barghouti, I was Born There, 80.
72
Barghouti, I was Born There, 81, 80.
73
Said, After the Last Sky, 16, 17.
74
Barghouti, I was Born There, 33.
75
Mourid Barghouti, “Verbicide”.
76
Barghouti, I was Born There, 39.
77
Barghouti, I was Born There, 42.
68 Chapter Three

adds that the Palestinians have not chosen to be just corpses78. On the
other hand, Abu Lughod and Sa’di, write:

Excluded from history as the remnant of a nation whose right to


independence, statehood, and even existence was denied, Palestinian
refugees were seen, at best, as a humanitarian case, deserving what they
often experienced as the demeaning support of UN agencies.79

Barghouti is adamant that the history of the Palestinians as a people is


recorded, with their simple sorrows and desires. Allowing Tamim to
experience his homeland first-hand is his way that the story will continue
to be told. A few pages later, Barghouti writes:

We have to break the state of denial with which the world confronts us. We
shall tell the tale the way it has to be told … recount our little stories … We
shall retell history as a history of our fears, our anxieties, our patience … A
history of all the journeys we have made … A history of the obstinacy of
our bodies and our souls … and here I am, writing it.80

Barghouti is not only documenting the history through his writing but
also tries to relive the history through his son, retracing the steps he and
his own father took earlier through the Via Dolorosa: “It amazes me that I
am now walking in the city as a father, when half a century before I
walked in it as a son, and that now my son walks beside me”81. He is at
once reliving his own history and imparting the story onto his son. A few
pages later father and son stand in front of the Dome of the Rock feeling
like strangers even though they are its rightful owners. The father reflects
in a short poem:

This is the Dome of the Rock.


Stand, stranger, in its shadows.
Take it in with all your senses.
Think of the fact that today it is you who is the stranger.82

To diminish part of this feeling of estrangement, they decide not to take


photos so as not to be mistaken for tourists83.

78
Barghouti, I was Born There, 45.
79
Abu-Lughod and Sa’di, “Introduction”,4.
80
Barghouti, I was Born There, 58, 59, 60.
81
Barghouti, I was Born There, 70.
82
Barghouti, I was Born There, 72.
83
Barghouti, I was Born There, 73.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 69

Writing the story and passing on the story is Barghouti’s way at giving
the Palestinians a voice. Later in the novel and during a visit in which he
accompanies an international writers’ delegation to al-Am’ari refugee
camp in the West Bank, he reflects:

The cruelest degree of exile is invisibility, being forbidden to tell one’s


story for oneself. We, the Palestinian people, are narrated by our enemies,
in keeping with their presence and our absence. They label us as it suits
them … In this sense, the entire Palestinian people is exiled through the
absence of the story84.

This exile has rendered the Palestinians absent. This anguish stemming
from the absence of being is reiterated by Said when he questions: “Do we
exist? What proof do we have? … When did we become ‘a people’? When
did we stop being one?”85 In an article, Barghouti stresses the
contradiction that is inherent in being a Palestinian:

For decades, Palestine has been pushed to the edge of history, the edge of
hope and the edge of despair, present and absent, reachable and
unreachable, fearful and afraid and ragged into zones A and B and C. etc.
This Palestine is my identity, this Palestine is the absence of my identity;
my imposed memory and my imposed oblivion.86

This absence of being compels Barghouti to write his story, even


though the story would probably survive the page numbers of the novel. In
an interview with Stuart Reiguluth following his first novel, Barghouti
remarks:

We are not seen. Now at least there is one person who is seen. The life of a
Palestinian, from A to Z, is in the limelight for 184 pages and then he’s
seen. He occupies the stage for a while. For those reading this book, I
occupy the stage – or my people, or victims of the Israeli occupation are
occupying the stage. It seems this was useful, that one has a voice.87

However, this one voice, which lives through the pages of his novels,
is also the voice that will live through Tamim. In the novel, Tamim wants
to know exactly where his father was born, and standing in one of the
rooms in their family home in Deir Ghassanah, he can tell his son that he

84
Barghouti, I was Born There, 144.
85
Said, After the Last Sky, 34.
86
Mourid Barghouti, “Verbicide”.
87
Stuart Reigeluth, “I Saw Ramallah”, Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics,
Economics & Culture 11, no. 3 & 4 (2004-2005): 177.
70 Chapter Three

was born here88. And standing in this room, Barghouti remembers his
grandfather “entirely alone, with his stick carved from an oak tree…
dancing with the reflection of his shadow on this wall opposite the oil
lamp” upon hearing good news of an engagement89.

Conclusion
Palestinians have managed to survive through their collective
memories of a nation that has ceased to exist as they had once known it
and from which they have been exiled. When Tamim was asked to help the
90-year-old Abu Hassan to the mosque, the old man enquired whose son
he was, and upon hearing the name, he told Tamim that he used to know
his grandfather’s grandfather90. The old man was still able to recite
Tamim’s great grandfather’s poem from memory; these memories are kept
alive through oral tradition of handing down stories from one generation to
the next. Tamim, who like his father is a poet, can only be a true poet if he
recites his verse amongst his people and on his ancestral land91. In Deir
Ghassaneh, the poet is born here. Both Barghouti and Moghrabi (albeit
through Rohan) have chosen to tell their stories, and provide a counter
narrative to the story that is being told by another. Their novels are
attempts at repossessing an identity and an acknowledgement of an
existence in lieu of an absence of at least sixty years. Moreover, their
stories are not only carried by their children but also by the readers of their
novels. The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer.


I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.
I am my language. I am words’ writ: Be! Be my body!92

Words are all that is left to grieve the loss – to elude getting lost in the
loss.

88
Barghouti, I was Born There, 89.
89
Barghouti, I was Born There, 91.
90
Barghouti, I was Born There, 94-5.
91
Barghouti, I was Born There, 104.
92
Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise , trans. by Munir Akash and
Caroline Forche (Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 2003): 91.
“Not to Get Lost in the Loss” 71

References
Abu-Lughod, L., 2007, “Return to Half-Ruins: Memory, Postmemory, and
Living History in Palestine“ in Ahmad H Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod,
eds. 2007, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, New
Nork: Columbia University Press, 77-104.
Abu-Lughod, L., and Ahmad H Sa’di, 2007, “Introduction: the Claims of
Memory” in Ahmad H Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds., 2007, Nakba:
Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, New York: Columbia
University Press, 1-24.
Adorno, T., 1974, Minima Moralia: Relections from Damaged Life, trans.
E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso al-Shafi, Haydar abd. 1992, “Madrid
Speech October 31, 1991”, Journal of Palestine Studie , Vol. 21, no. 2,
133-137.
Barghouti, M., 2012, “Verbicide – War butlers and their language”, http://
www.mouridbarghouti.net/blog/tag/war-butlers-and-their-language.
—. 2000, I saw Ramallah, trans. Ahdaf Soueif, Cairo: American
University of Cairo.
—. 2011, I Was Born There, I Was Born Here, trans. Humphrey Davies,
London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Bernard, A., 2010, “Forms of Memory: Partition as a Literary Paradigm”,
Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics , 9-33.
Bresheeth, H., 2007 “The Continuity of Trauma and Struggle: Recent
Cinematic Representations of the Nakba”, in Ahmad H Sa’di and Lila
Abu-Lughod, eds. 2007, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of
Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 161-187.
Darwish, M., 2010, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi,
New York: Archipelago Books.
—. 2003, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, trans. Munir Akash and
Caroline Forche. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd.
Davis, R., 2007, “Mapping the Past, Re-Creating the Homeland:
Memories of Village Places in pre-1948 Palestine“ in Ahmad H Sa’di
and Lila Abu-Lughod, eds. 2007, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the
Claims of Memory, New Nork: Columbia University Press, 53-75.
Gertz, N., and George Khleifi, 2003, “Bleeding Memories”, Palestine-
Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, Vol. 10, no. 4, 105-
112.
Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969, “Lecture by Moshe Dayan”.
Hammer, J., 2005, Palestinians born in exile: diaspora and the search for
a homeland. Austin: University of Texas Press.
72 Chapter Three

Massad, J. A., 2006, The Persistence of the Palesinian Question: Essays


on Zionism and the Palestinians, London: Routledge
Meir, G., June 15, 1969, The London Sunday Times.
Reigeluth, Stuart. 2004-2005, “I Saw Ramallah”, Palestine-Israel Journal
of Politics, Economics & Culture, Vol. 11, no. 3 & 4, 173-177.
Rogers, L., 2010, “In The Olive Grove, a Palestinian Story”. Al Jadid: a
Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts.
Rohan, D., 2011, The Olive Grove, http://theolivegrovebook.com/the-
author.
—. 2008, The Olive Grove: a Palestinian Story, London: Saqi Said, E. W.,
1998, “Between Worlds: a Memoir”, London Review of Books,
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n09/edward-said/between-worlds.
—. 1999, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, New York: Columbia
University Press.
Tamari, S., 2002, “Narratives of Exile”, Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 9,
no. 4, 101-109.
CHAPTER FOUR

THE “GRIEF REGIME” GATEKEEPERS:


“VICTIMOLOGICAL MILITARISM”
AND THE SYMBOLIC BARGAINING
OVER NATIONAL BEREAVEMENT IDENTITY

UDI LEBEL

Introduction
This article claims that Israeli discourse in general, and the discourse
of military loss and bereavement in particular, has undergone what will be
referred to as a process of “Victimological Militarism”. i.e., on the one
hand, the discourse has become one that emphasizes the victim over the
hero, trauma over heroics, those who pay the price of nationalism over
those who promote it. On the other hand, the right to socially express this
trauma is reserved for those who were “victimized” in military
circumstances. In other words, although there is room in the social and
political discourse in Israel for the framing of military death as
unnecessary, traumatic and unproductive – a death that forced the
bereaved parents to become victims – yet the very same discourse which
emphasizes victimization excludes an entire class of victims: those who
lost loved ones in non-military circumstances. Even in an era in which the
discourse of victimization and trauma are prominent, there is still a
hierarchy of grief which places bereaved parents whose children were
killed in the military above other grief classes. The transition from a
discourse of heroism to a discourse of victimhood occurred alongside a
reproduction of the social status of military symbols in Israel, i.e.,
reproduction of the militaristic dimension in Israeli culture. This paper will
illustrate these cultural developments, as well as:
74 Chapter Four

1. The victimization of the military bereavement discourse

2. The exclusion of bereaved parents from the Israeli pantheon, whose


children were killed in terrorist attacks as civilians and not as
soldiers

This article aims to contribute to the understanding of the concept of


the “national grief regime” which has remained constant; i.e., it has
remained military, even though the Israeli society has undergone
naturalization, globalization, post-national and victimological processes. It
seems that “Cultural Militarism” is still crucial in the Israeli arena.

The National Grief Regime – or – Who’s included


and who’s excluded from the official bereavement arena
in Israel? Research objectives
Due to mandatory military service in Israel, bereavement is regarded as
the ultimate expression of national-republican values. “The fallen soldiers”
are the first to gain a place of honor in the collective memory1, and their
families enjoy a unique status in public discourse. Thus, a review of the
discourse of bereavement and grief, i.e., public statements and the
behaviour of both the official and non-official “Public Intellectuals”, will
provide insight into the social processes dealing with citizenship,
nationalism and political culture in Israel.
Since the eighties, bereaved families in Israel have adopted a discourse
influenced by the process of globalization that is infused with post-
national and liberal elements that work against the national ethos. Within
this trend, the narrative of the hero was replaced by a discourse of
victimization, a process that will be referred to in this paper as the
Victimization of Bereavement, i.e., the bereaved parents and the fallen
soldiers are represented as victims of the social order and not as heroes, as
they once were. At around this time, bereaved parents started to found
bereavement organizations that aimed to distribute “general” values, in the
Rousseauian sense, within the Israeli society. In recent years, these
organizations have become private interest groups that publicly promote
economic benefits for their own members.
Furthermore, bereaved families and organizations began to express
sweeping opposition to any further steps made toward the disengagement
of the “victimization of Israeli bereavement” from the hegemonic

1
Mosse, 1990, 1-10
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 75

structures that had always distinguished it. They were mostly adamant to
put an end to the inclusion of victims of terror attacks in the official
bereavement group. They aired their objection in a public campaign aimed
at excluding families of terror victims from the official memorial
ceremonies and by so doing, to exclude them from the national pantheon.
Their objection aimed to reproduce the hierarchy of casualties that placed
bereaved families of fallen soldiers above families of victims of terrorism.
This paper claims that this movement attempts to preserve the national
grief regime put in place since the establishment of the state. Like other
nation states, this regime worked to highlight and glorify groups
distinguished as displaying the most patriotic of features: bereaved parents
whose sons died for the state of Israel.
Doka taught that every society has its own “grief regime”, in which
public recognition of certain loss exists, while other types of loss remain in
the private sphere. Some of these grieving citizens are even forced to deal
with “disenfranchised grief”, due to the establishment’s lack of
acknowledgement of their loss, leading to lack of griever rights within the
implemented welfare policy2. According to Doka – the grief regime
preserves the community as a family, because it is clear who is a symbolic
member of the family and who is not, and therefore, who is a member of
the family3. This relates to what Bryson calls “symbolic closure”, which
leads to the formation of two political categories: those “eligible” and
those “ineligible” of public goods or status4.
The national grief regime in Israel turned the private loss of military
families into public loss. This process was accompanied by a deliberate
effort to direct high and popular culture to function as bodies that depict
the loss as meaningful and productive. The children – the victims of war –
became part of the public memory in this regime, while the victim’s
parents became public figures with moral weight and social importance.
The fallen soldiers become known and most identified with the national
sense of sanctity, but as Renee Girard noted, the sense of sanctity was
established on the idea of violent exclusion5. “The others” who are
removed from the “sacred” category, will be seen as a ritual threat and a
contamination, as Douglas put it6, of the pure class of fallen soldiers.
Therefore, other losses, that were caused by serving the nation were
kept in the private sphere and were pointed out as those who could

2
Doka, 2002, 10
3
Ibid
4
Bryson, 1996, 887
5
Girard, 1979, 16-18
6
Douglas, 1966. pp. 77-78
76 Chapter Four

“defile” the national pantheon. This can be seen as a militaristic grief


regime that portrayed the military as a “Holy” institution and those who
serve it, especially those who fall on its behalf, as righteous citizens.
At times of nation building, the heads of state shape the culture, the
discourse, the public memory and the grief regime. They have the power
to exclude whatever they choose from public consciousness – such as
groups coping with loss, trauma or bereavement – whose inclusion does
not serve the interests of the heads of state. Even today, military grief
regime does not place enough emphasis on soldiers whose death was
deemed pointless in retrospect. Such is the case when referring to training
accidents and suicides, as opposed to the soldiers who fell in victorious
battles and wars that are publically considered just and productive7. This
has not only cultural implications, but also rehabilitative: the families of
fallen soldiers, who are held in the public memory and praised for their
sacrifice, have psycho-social rehabilitative advantages and a greater
chance of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG)8. The selection of those who will
be included in the public memory and whose loss will remain private has
political, cultural and psychological-rehabilitative significance.9
Many nation states were established on cultural militaristic
foundations. At the turn of the 19th century, these countries experienced the
globalization and post-national social revolutions which instilled in the
people post-heroic, cosmopolitan, anti-militaristic and especially
victimological values – i.e. sanctifying the victim over the hero. It is
fascinating to see how this change affected the discourse of military
bereavement and the behavior of bereaved parents. The latter gained their
social status due to the national militaristic culture that is gradually
disappearing due to subversive cultural trends: those who adhere to post-
global, post-national, civil and counter militaristic values and who sanctify
the victim rather than the hero.
This study focuses on how this transformation affects the status of
military bereavement in the Israeli society.

Thesis
Contrary to the conventional assertions in the literature on
bereavement, this paper will claim that with regard to the national grief
regime and the bereavement discourse in Israel, victimization and
militarism are not dichotomous. Furthermore, the parents of fallen soldiers
7
Lebel, 2013a, 84-89
8
Shanun-Klein, 2012, 350
9
Lebel, 2013b, 63-73
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 77

have begun to display both elements: victimization, which frames their


sons as victims of a mistaken policy, and militaristic discourse, which
demands that they remain the only plaintiffs in society of a unique public
status and symbolic monopoly of the Israeli pantheon. I call this
phenomenon Victimological Militarism: the victimization of a discourse
which itself shapes the discourse that emphasizes victims of the state and
turns the state into the aggressor responsible for their victimization.10
Militarism is a culture that emphasizes the heroes of a nation-state and
denies a public voice to those who contest the grief regime with a loss that
does not glorify the military or the country.11 During the postmodern era, a
unique and hybrid culture of grief was shaped, consisting of both
victimological and militaristic components, which s does not entail an
opposition between the two elements, nor a Zero-Sum Game.
The article will illustrate how bereaved military parents in Israel
engage today in both a militaristic and a victimological discourse.
These parents of fallen soldiers will adopt the victimized military
discourse, but will include parents who lost their children outside the
military context within the public victomoogical discourse. Therefore, it
can be claimed that the grief regime in Israel has changed. This change is
twofold: The bereaved parents of fallen soldiers now present themselves in
public as victims of the state and work to reshape public policy to prevent
further military losses, yet they continue to claim a monopoly of the public
memory: they aim to exclude non-military bereaved families and deny
them of the same presence in the social media.
The following case studies will be examined to illustrate this point:

• Struggles that represent the bereaved military family’s financial


victimization, in which families of fallen Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) soldiers use their social status to promote financial tributes
for themselves. These families present themselves as financial
interest groups that are victimized by economic policy and
highlight their political victimization. Some of them have
established social movements that were motivated by what they see
as their son’s unnecessary death, caused by irresponsible state
policy and the military leader’s recklessness. These movements aim
at promoting new public policy that entails territorial withdrawals
and peace agreements.
• Representation of cultural militarism: Bereaved military families
try to deny bereaved families whose sons were killed in terrorist
10
Lebel, 2007, 80-89
11
Wilson, 2008, 11
78 Chapter Four

attacks, the same public status as the bereavement military families.


They focus on excluding them from the official Memorial Day,
memorial monuments and the national Israeli pantheon that
commemorates fallen soldiers. Ironically, most of the fallen
soldiers were not killed during military operations but rather in
civilian circumstances, such as accidents. The insistence on
separation, hierarchy and monopoly of the capital that comes with
symbolic military bereavement has led the parents of fallen IDF
soldiers to act firmly to exclude bereaved civilian parents from the
abovementioned frameworks.

This relates to claims made by cultural researcher Ingelhart: Inglehart


and Baker’s most significant finding is that in spite of the exposure to
global discourse which exposed conservative societies to `new` post-
modern values, the essence of the founding values and principles that
characterized these societies remained stable.12 According to Inglehart, the
`local` and the `global` are not in conflict, but rather exist together in
various levels of integration. Inglehart referred to many states in which the
cosmopolitan discourse did not intend to destroy existing structural
hierarchies that remained a stable local core. In fact, the public debate in
many of these places became more impassioned and contained competing
narratives and heterogenic interpretations. However, members of these
societies continued to regard themselves committed to stable local-
national foundations, and regarded the attempt to redefine them as a red
line not to be crossed.13
In adopting the insights of Ingelhart and his successors, it is clear that
the national bereavement discourse and national grief regime in Israel have
become glocal in the postmodern era. They have been affected by the
process of globalization, while retaining elements, hierarchies and
properties of localization. “Victimological Militarism” illustrates glocal
identity and discourse.

Methodology
The research for this paper was conducted in line with the Frame
Analysis approach, combining the theory of social construction, the theory
of discourse and the theory of Symbolic politics through the analysis of
documents, protocols and media coverage.14 The paper is based on an
12
Inglehart & Baker, 2000, 24
13
Blank, 2008, 270
14
Johnston, 1995, 221
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 79

analysis of correspondences, minutes of meetings, media interviews,


policy documents, legislation and public speeches found in public archives
(Knesset Archives, Yad Labanim Archive and the National Insurance
Archive), as well as private archives (bereaved family members and
community activists). The analysis aims to reveal the discourse of
bereavement communities – both military and civilian – regarding the
hierarchy of Israeli bereavement and rehabilitation rights.
The working assumption is that each bereavement community, in this
case the community of families of fallen IDF soldiers and the community
of families of terrorism victims, is a discourse community with a
discursive cohesion – a rather homogeneous conception of values and an
interpretation locus called by Spector-Marzel “the community’s narrative
identity”, that is structurally shaped through reference to the identity of the
“other group” and compared to that otherness.15

The Hegemonic Model of Bereavement


1. Cultural Militarism Discourse
and the Virtues of Military Death
Israeli society is an example of a society in which republican values
and cultural militarism16 are central to the concept of citizenship. A
republican civil ethos, namely one in which the individual devotion to
promote the goals of the “general will” is a resource converted into public
appreciation and political legitimacy. This ethos is also seen as a parameter
that justifies the member’s entitlement to symbolic, financial and other
rewards.17
Cultural militarism promotes representations of the military, in high
culture, popular culture and also in the general political psychology. This
contributes to the identification of the “general will” regarding military
activity, sacrifice, and the citizens involved who are seen to have civic
virtue, indicating that they are more entitled to civic rewards.18 Thus, the
army becomes a mechanism of mobility for social groups replacing
citizenship by soldiering.19 According to this analysis, the army,
particularly the site of the major contributors – the military cemetery –

15
Spector – Marzel, 2010, 67
16
Ben Eliezer, 1997, 356; Kimmerling, 1993, 198
17
Dent, 1988, 40-41
18
Lebel, 2006, 171
19
Tilly, 1997, 123
80 Chapter Four

produces parameters by which one’s status in the social hierarchy is


decided, predicting his legitimacy to influence social policy.20

2. Death in the military and Social Hierarchy


The extent of a person`s readiness to apply the society’s values predicts
to what extent he is entitled to support within the framework of the social
policy, which is also subject to the individual’s placement in the social
hierarchy.21 Social policy is also formulated according to Castle`s22
definition of ‘hierarchical citizenship’, which results from political
processes of exclusion and inclusion.23 Therefore, soldiers and their
families, especially those families of casualties who now need social
benefits, rank high in the social hierarchy of entitlement.24 This shows how
even the Israeli government (the welfare regime), often derives its
legitimacy from the military domain. Bereaved parents, widows, invalids
and wounded soldiers, for instance, have the ‘right’ to rehabilitation and
commemoration, while the aid granted to social groups not considered as
contributors to the preservation of the national endeavor, is seen as
charity.25

3. Military Bereavement in Israel


Since the establishment of Israel, the government realized that relations
with the bereaved Israeli families would influence the military’s status in
society. Parents of soldiers and to an even greater extent, parents of fallen
soldiers, have become socio-political categories. The official terms used to
refer to these social groups are “the family of fighters” and the “bereaved
family”.
The discourse of bereavement that either provided or denied legitimacy
to the adopted policy and the attributes of national identity26 was
nationalized in two dimensions:

• Formal legal arrangements that relied on regulations and social,


rehabilitative policy.

20
Oldfield, 1990, 1-11
21
Rosenhek, 1999, 198
22
Castles, 2005, 213
23
Ibid, 214
24
Soysal, 1997, 517
25
Rosenhek, 2009, ibid
26
Gillis, 1994, 17
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 81

• Pseudo-spontaneous cultural arrangements that rely on the way


political psychology of loss is shaped.

The formal institutional dimension applies the symbolic policy, as


Sears states27, by clarifying who is entitled to join the national “family of
the bereaved” and what are the group’s boundaries. Simultaneously, it
determines where the fallen soldiers will be buried, applies the principle of
esthetic-national uniformity of the military gravestones and gives the state
its monopoly to shape the national memory in time and place, by
producing memorial ceremonies and designing memorials and state
monuments. This was under the supervision of the Defense Minister, who
appointed an Advisory Council (The Council for the Commemoration of
the Soldier), whose members were bereaved parents of fallen soldiers.
The spontaneous cultural dimension – or managing the nation’s
emotions – is characterized by cultural militarism, a discourse which
framed the bereaved families of fallen soldiers as a privileged community.
As such, they were honored and awarded for meeting the national-cultural
expectations. The public in Israel expected a certain type of adaptation of
bereavement in the public domain, such as in social statements, at military
funerals and national ceremonies. It was understood that these locations
were not private and were constantly monitored by the state officials who
encouraged “appropriate” behavior.28 Acts of grief in the presence of the
“big brother” of government, i.e., all public behavior, are more pro-
hegemonic and pro-establishment than private behavior that occurs away
from the public eye.
The bereaved families were led to believe that they were responsible
for preserving the national-republican discourse, to accept their sacrifice
(the loss of their loved one), to justify its necessity and to encourage
young people to follow in their footsteps. They are expected to conduct an
‘anti-victimized’ discourse – not to blame or complain against the
establishment. Those who made an effort to advocate this discourse
became cultural agents, opinion leaders and prominent figures in the
public discourse.
War widows were also expected to behave as symbols in the public
arena. They were to act as a living memorial of their husbands. This
perception frowned upon re-marrying, which was regarded as a betrayal of
their “loyalty to the memory of their husband”, and of their function as
memory agents29.

27
Sears 2001, 30-31
28
Duncan, 1994, 151
29
Palgi, 1971, 4; Shamgar-Handelman, 1986, 30
82 Chapter Four

It was decided that the military casualties, together with the casualties
from the underground organizations that died prior to the establishment of
the state, would be included in the formal bereaved community. Those
killed in the Holocaust or in terrorist attacks, however, belonged to a
different category. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion,
emphasized that the “new Jew” aspired to choose “an appropriate death”,
as opposed to those who were led to their death in the Diaspora, in
pogroms or in the Holocaust. This attitude presented many Jews as
passive, victimized and contemptible.

The Victimization of Israeli Military Bereavement


1. The Discourse of Victimization
At the turn of the 20th century, as part of the processes of globalization,
new discourses that challenged the local-national discourse penetrated the
public domain: The liberal discourse30, privatization and post-
nationalism31, which are generally defined as “globalization discourses”.
These positions were in binary opposition to the local-national discourse at
the time32, which led entrepreneurs, organizations and social groups to
decide to free themselves from the “restrictive local ethos” and revolt
against the republican mechanisms that forced the citizen to take part in
the state’s ideological mechanism. This stirred new voices and the
appearance of a “liberated and privatized discourse” that was free from the
establishment’s framing and promoted alternative narratives to the
common perception of reality and unconventional behavior.33 These
developments led leaders of reform groups and social movements to
victimize the national grief regime. For the first time, the casualties were
seen as victims of the state and not as national heroes.
The discourse highlighted the “victims” of the social order in Israel
and thus negated the division of power that constructed it. Certain groups
attracted the public’s attention by emphasizing their “pain” and presenting
it as an excessive price to pay for nation-state.34
As part of the Victimization discourse, which created a rift between the
“binding ethos” and the “republican order”, new voices began to emerge
among the bereaved families – voices seen as being in strict opposition to

30
Shalev, 2000, 154
31
Erlich, 2003, 71
32
Hewison, 1999, 1-4
33
Moscovici, 1984, 40-42
34
Kleinman & Lock, 1997, 11
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 83

the hegemonic discourse of bereavement. Thus, for example, bereaved


military families began to refer to themselves as victims.

2. Bereavement and financial victimization


In the traditional relationship between the state and the bereaved
families, the latter accepted being monitored by the state in return for
compensation and rehabilitation. Yet this new discourse, promoted by the
heads of the representative bereavement organizations now exposed the
Israeli public to a battle over improved compensation rights for bereaved
military parents and IDF widows.
For example, the leaders of “Yad Labanim”, an organization
representing bereaved military parents, demanded that the “income test”
be abolished. The income test was a principle that granted compensation
relatively to the bereaved family’s economic status and current salary.35
The parents contested the income test and the continuous contact it
demanded with the Defense Ministry, which diligently reviewed their
income and requires them submit annual income reports.36 Some bereaved
families maintained that discarding the test would enable them to more
easily voice their opposition to the defense policy, as they would no longer
depend on the ministry regarding their compensation.37
The bereaved parents eventually succeeded in cancelling the income
test and as a result, every bereaved family receives a fixed amount of
money, independent of their income and contacts with officials from the
Division of Rehabilitation in the Defense Ministry.
In accordance, the leaders of the organization called “IDF Widows”,
made efforts to remove the Defense Ministry from their bedrooms, as they
saw it. Since 1950, the legislation defining the welfare and rehabilitation
policy concerning bereaved families38, held that widows of fallen IDF
soldiers who remarried, lost their rights for compensation and would not
be included in the list of national military widows (Griffiths, 1973). There
were those who regarded this mechanism as designed to keep the widows
in their national role – as the representatives of the discourse of
bereavement – at the expense of their personal rehabilitation. In other
words, the policy was seen as clearly one that clearly preferred the
widow’s national role over her rehabilitation.39

35
Knesset Protocols, 2000
36
Haaretz, May 8, 2000, 17
37
Lebel , 2010, 190
38
The Law concerning Families of Soldiers, 1950. Knesset Archives
39
Ben Asher & Lebel, 2010, 42
84 Chapter Four

Thus, this can be regarded as the “republican cooptation” of the policy


of rehabilitation, a policy that, from the start, was not geared toward
promoting the individual’s rehabilitation and empowerment in favor of
serving the common, national good. The widows initiated a large national
campaign designed by a public relations firm, political lobbyists and legal
advisors. The public was exposed to the leaders of the organizations
representing the bereaved, who sought to be liberated from their national
roles and preferred personal rehabilitation.

3. Bereavement and political victimization


The bereaved military families also attempted to be liberated from
informal psycho-cultural arrangements. What this refers to is the
introduction of elements of political victimization into the hegemonic
discourse of bereavement, leading to doubts concerning the value of the
personal sacrifice. This discourse was promoted by opinion leaders who
were not the heads of formal bereavement organizations, but were
regarded by the media and the public as epistemic authorities. Among
them were opinion leaders, leaders of protest movements and promoters of
confrontational politics. This discourse introduced victimization into the
Israeli discourse of bereavement. After the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the
“model of political bereavement”40: This model absolved many families
from their commitment to establishment-supporting discourse and
behavior, and infused their statements with victimized and anti-hegemonic
messages. During the First Lebanon War in 1982, bereaved parents started
to organize protests against the IDF’s invasion of the security belt in
Southern Lebanon that led to over a decade of occupation. This new
victimized self-perception blamed the state leaders, its policy and the
military commanders, and did not hold the enemy responsible for the
soldier’s death. The bereaved families saw themselves as victims of the
mistaken state policy.
This process occurred mainly among the members of the social elite
(upper middle-class, secular and Ashkenazi), as they were the first to
experience the globalization processes and de-legitimize the sacrifice and
blind obedience to the state’s demands. This process occurred
simultaneously to their shift away from the military arena, from its values,
behavior and culture, which eventually created a gap between civilians and
the military.41

40
Lebel, ibid
41
Lebel, 2010, 183
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 85

The leaders of these social movements in Israel eventually forced the


heads of state to work toward ending the First Lebanon War (1985), to
withdraw from the security belt in Southern Lebanon (2000), to disengage
from the Gaza strip (2005), to discontinue Operation Cast Lead (2009)
without occupying the Gaza strip. The state leaders feared for more
casualties as they were afraid of the social repercussions due to society’s
newfound intolerance to the death of soldiers in battle.42 This social
phenomenon reshaped the doctrine of military operations as well as the
defense policy. A variety of decisions were made, among them avoidance
of perpetrating ground invasions of enemy territory, preference for aerial
and artillery warfare, foregoing the principle of a military solution in favor
of limited warfare (also known as -asymmetric warfare) and legitimizing
the avoidance of operations with a high probability of casualties.43

4. The Victimization of Military Loss and Bereavement


The global discourse of bereavement is an attempt to be liberated from
republican arrangements, to undermine adherence to the “hegemonic
model of bereavement” and adopt a discourse which denies the institution
its former legitimacy to interfere with personal rehabilitation and
bereavement. As Ben-Eliezer defined it, there was an “attempt to save
civilian lives from the administrative and regulative invasions of the
state”.44
Thus for the first time, bereaved IDF parents were presented as victims
and as those who were responsible for the anti-national discourse, who
saw the state as an adverse body that needs to compensate them for their
son’s death. They began to work as a private-interests group that does not
aim to serve the general good, while taking advantage of the symbolic
leverage they had as bereaved families. This created an effective form of
emotional manipulation which made it difficult for the public to deny their
demands.

42
Ibid
43
Lebel, 2010
44
Ben Eliezer, 1999, 270
86 Chapter Four

Military Loss vs. Civic Loss:


The battle over the symbolic capital of bereavement –
The Comeback of the Cultural-Militarism Discourse
and the “Victimological Militarism”
of the Israeli Army Bereavement Discourse
The global discourse on bereavement was promulgated both by the
leaders of the representative bereavement organizations and by informal
opinion leaders who gained public status due to their public activity. They
promoted a discourse that emphasized the victimization of bereavement
and challenged the fixed definitions of Israeli grief regime. By the same
token, it is interesting to compare the reactions of those advocating the
global discourse of bereavement and the opinion leaders who led the
discourse on political bereavement, with the families of terrorism victims
who demanded their inclusion in the state bereavement community. This
section will focus on these families’ attempt to gain social recognition and
symbolic esteem. As a response to this attempt, the bereaved IDF families
renewed the hegemonic local-national discourse, the republican anti-
victimization discourse, and became more adamant to exclude the victims
of terrorism from the national “family of the bereaved”.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, over 3,000
civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks, yet neither they nor their
families have been incorporated into what is referred to as the “family of
the bereaved”. The latter not only enjoyed financial and psychological
support, but also ‘symbolic rehabilitation’, i.e., social esteem in the form
of national efforts of commemoration. Those who died like “the old Jew”,
the Jews in the Diaspora who went silently to their death, did not deserve
to be included in the national bereavement ethos. This was kept solely for
the “new Jew”, who went down fighting. The hegemonic model of
bereavement, shaped as part of the local-national discourse, created the
‘hierarchy of Israeli bereavement’ in which a fallen soldier receives greater
public acknowledgement than a civilian who was killed. This was true
even if the latter was killed because of his national affiliation.
Accordingly, the families of military casualties were portrayed as more
deserving of social support than families of civilian casualties.
The strategy for preserving the “bereaved family” in its limited form
conforms to what Parkin, following Weber, calls “exclusionary closure”.45
Weber defined the strategy of restricting access to political resources to a

45
Parkin, 2001, 2
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 87

limited circle of the entitled, as “social closure”, used to maximize


political-cultural benefits.46
Such closure creates two political categories: the “entitled’” and the
“non-entitled”. The former received access to the resource around which
the boundary was created and the latter did not. In this case, the boundary
defined who was to be included in the circle of commemoration and
national memory. The non-entitled were relegated to an inferior status.
However, the concept of boundaries is dynamic, as Erickson emphasized,
and the counter-pressure the latter applied stretched and redefined the
limited boundaries. This change directly affected the civilian-social
hierarchy.47
The new boundaries entitled the families to receiving financial and
psychological assistance for their rehabilitation. This was not paid for by
the Defense Ministry but by the National Insurance Institute. However, the
victims of terrorism were not granted official commemoration on behalf of
the state in addition to the financial-psychological support that they
enjoyed, nor did they receive the same kind of compensation granted by
the Division for the Commemoration of the Soldier – an organization that
is part of the Defense Ministry that has a large budget at its dispense.
Moreover, and contrary to the law requiring the state to create an
orderly list of families of military casualties, no such database exists for
the families of the victims of terrorism. This fact prevents them from
becoming an organized group.48 For this very reason, this paper refers to a
welfare policy focusing on the bereaved individual who refuses to become
a part of the public arena in order to reserve a place for his loved one in
the public memory. By so doing, this refusal prevents the bereaved
families of victims of terrorism from becoming a social category with
class consciousness.
This social battle culminated in the legislation of “The Law of the Day
of Commemoration, (1963)” which was devoted solely to the memory of
the fallen soldiers, and specifically excluded the civilian victims. Over the
years, the families of the victims of terrorism requested that their loved be
included in the national commemoration, but the Defense Ministry
rejected their request. In 1982, Member of Knesset (MK) Yair Zaban
(United Workers` Party), maintained that a person killed by chance in an
act of terrorism should not get the same recognition as one who`s death
was the result of an act of will. MK Beni Shalita (Likud) echoed his

46
Ibid
47
Erickson, 1964, 13
48
Yanai, 2007, 40
88 Chapter Four

testament saying that “people killed as a result of their motivation to serve


in the army, often endangering their lives, is quite a different matter”.49
Therefore, the class division in the Israeli grief regime was preserved
and military and civilian bereavement remained separate, as the latter
deviated from the repertoire of legitimate causes of death.

“Penetrating the National Pantheon”:


Terror Victims’ Families Rhetoric and Activism”
The growing amount of terror attacks occurring throughout the
country, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, drew a focus to the different
attitude toward soldiers and civilians. Suddenly members of both
categories were killed in the same attacks, yet they were still granted
different social status. This motivated the families of the victims of terror
attacks to start a public campaign aimed at entering the Israeli Pantheon.
This activity was reinforced after many families who had lost their loved
ones in the El Aksa Intifada joined the group. An unprecedented amount of
civilians died in the Intifada, to the extent that some people called it the
“Oslo war”, thus defining them as casualties of a war waged in the civilian
arena, unlike the previous Israeli wars. It is important to state that not all
military casualties were killed in “heroic’ actions. In fact, a recent study
showed that in 2005, only 12% of the families recognized as bereaved
military families lost their loved ones in combat or in training accidents. 50
During the Intifada, families of victims of terrorism started to form
various organizations, part of them semi-official, others independent
initiatives that demanded to be considered a part of the public memory and
national bereavement. Their demands amounted de facto to a request to
rename the Day of Commemoration and include their loved ones in the
commemoration books. They also requested that their graves receive
national recognition, like those of the soldiers in military cemeteries, and
to erect memorial monuments in their commemoration. Later, parents of
victims of terrorism complained about the “language of bereavement”
itself, producing hierarchies in which their sons and daughters were
defined officially as “casualties” and not as “fallen” – a term used
exclusively for those who were killed in uniform.51

49
The meeting of the Knesset Committee for Work and Welfare, July 27, 1982,
Protocol 108, Knesset Archive
50
Brodet committee for the examination of the defense budget, Knesset Archive
51
Tsur, 2009, 4
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 89

In the end, it was under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin


Netanyahu that the government decided to appoint a national committee to
examine the status of the victims of terrorism in the collective memory52.
The committee, who`s recommendations were finally adopted by the
government, decided that victims of hostilities and terror attacks were
entitled to a national commemoration ceremony on the annual Day of
Remembrance and to benefit from various national commemoration
activities, including a commemoration site in the form of a national
monument on Mt. Herzl53.
A resolution adopted by the government stated that it “would endorse
the recommendation made by the Committee for the Commemoration of
the victims of hostilities and terror […] to establish a central
commemoration ceremony for the victims of hostilities and terror on the
Day of Remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers […] on the
commemoration site on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem”.54 Indeed, after the report
was approved, the first commemoration ceremony for victims of hostilities
was held on the Day of Remembrance, which was later renamed the Day
of Remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism.

Bereaved military parents


as National Grief Regime Gatekeepers
The battle waged by the families of victims of terrorism was
continuously met with opposition by the representative organizations of
the bereaved families of fallen soldiers. Whoever thought that the
globalized discourse of bereavement would create a fragmentation of
identities and recognition of the other’s suffering was surprised to
encounter a homogeneous coalition aiming to keep the grief regime as it
was – for IDF soldiers alone.
The “globalization of bereavement” is particularly relevant in
describing the processes pertaining to the upper middle class in Israel;
those belonging to the “founding elite” who adhere to liberal values. This
social group is more exposed to processes of globalization and tends to

52
The Malez Committee for the examination of the status of bereaved families as a
result of terror attacks was appointed on April 19th, 1999, by the head of the
Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies, according to government decision 4505
of November 26, 1998, Knesset Archive
53
The report of the Malez Committee, 2000; Government Secretariat, decision No.
1495 of the government of April 2, p.78, Knesset Archive
54
Israeli Government Decision 1495, The Government of Israel, government
meeting, 2 April, 2002, National Archive.
90 Chapter Four

resist the dictates of the national establishment more than others.55 Global
processes that gave rise to a negative attitude toward casualties of war –
particularly with regard to innocent bystanders, especially women,
children and refugees – changed the local ethos of bereavement and the
national narrative.56 It should be mentioned that the new victimization
discourse (in the context of war and armed conflicts), eliminated the
separation between casualties of war and fighters in Israel (Schrijvers,
1999), as well as in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-
Herzegovina and Macedonia. In the international discourse – casualties in
these conflicts are “casualties of war”, as well as the local social policy
(welfare, health, collective identity) so that civilians who were wounded
(physically, financially and sexually) in the war could also benefit.57 This
paper refers specifically to the discourse promoted by liberal civilian
organizations active in exposing the victims who experienced physical and
emotional damage alongside the fighting soldiers. Yet, unlike the latter,
the civilians were helpless and defenseless and remained in the shadow of
public consciousness for years.58
Most of the victims of terror attacks in Israel are either non-Jews or
members of the lower-middle classes. Incorporating them into the ‘family
of the bereaved’ and demarcating the boundaries of Israeli identity, could
have presented a challenge to the Zionist ethos. Whether this was behind
the widespread opposition or not, it is a fact that many of the opinion
leaders in the discourse of bereavement and the heads of the representative
organizations participated in a semi-organized campaign opposing an
alteration of the “social closure” of the “family of the bereaved”. It is
interesting that each of the two groups (opinion leaders and representatives
of the alternative discourse), relied on values which they actively opposed
in order to make their point. This refers to “political bereavement” and
“financial bereavement”.
The opinion leaders of bereavement organizations were mainly
bereaved parents who accused the politicians and military commanders of
sending their sons into a war that could have been prevented.
Unexpectedly, in response to the demands made by families of terrorism
victims to be included in the family of the bereaved, the bereaved military
families began to stress the fact that the discourse of victimization was
alien to the Zionist ethos.

55
Higley & Pakulski, 2007, 20
56
Shalhoub-Kevorkian & Braithwaite, 2010, 1-8
57
ibid
58
Ewald, 2002, 90-97
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 91

One of the more interesting voices on this matter was Raya Harnik,
mother of Goni, who was considered the ultimate casualty of the First
Lebanon War (1982), who fell in the Battle of the Beaufort. The Battle of
the Beaufort became a symbol of the “stubbornness of politicians”, that
exposed the “price of militarism” and revealed the pointlessness of war.
This was mainly due to the doubts concerning the battle’s justification and
to the famous photograph of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon talking to soldiers about conquering the
fort without mentioning the fact that many soldiers had fallen in combat.
Harnik paved the path for other mothers to protest against “the cynical use
made of their son’s death” and to regard themselves as victims of the
Israeli governments and its policy. She can be credited with the
transformation of the model of Israeli “political bereavement“ which led to
the cultural prominence of the victim over that of the hero. She also
protested, however, against the fact that “Israel mourns for the victim more
than the fighter”.59
In light of the establishment’s response to the families of terrorism
victims, she chose to express her opinion indirectly by stating that “one of
the most important values in the Zionist revolution was the shift from a
passive community, in which the only kind of heroism was martyrdom, to
an active one in which we determine our fate. Harnik actually expressed
nostalgic longing for “a society whose purpose was to educate its members
to be heroes […] the new society wanted to eliminate the image of the
victim”.60
In addition the heads of the representative bereavement organizations,
who promoted the discourse of financial bereavement, those who based
their arguments on a free liberal ethos, returned to make pure republican
statements, such as: only those who chose to sacrifice their sons for the
state deserve to be honored by society. They appealed to the Supreme
Court of Appeals, made public statements on the issue, wrote policies and
organized other activities for this end. Thus, for instance, Eli Ben-Shem,
the head of “Yad Labanim” (the military bereaves parents organizations)
argued that “people called to arms, who by their death bequeathed life to
us, were not to be confused with those who, with all the pain involved,
were walking in the street when fate brought death upon them”.61 He
claimed that “nobody intended to educate the youth to follow in the
footsteps of the victims of terrorism, people killed in buses, disco clubs
and event halls […] including all the casualties in one ceremony […] this

59
Harnik, 1995. 74
60
Ibid
61
The Maltz Committee, 1997, Knesset Archive
92 Chapter Four

cheapens the memory of those slain in their military service and


constitutes an offense to the values of the educational heritage”.62 The
head of the organization of IDF Widows criticized in a Knesset debate the
representatives of the civilian bereaved organization, saying that: “The
soldiers were drafted knowing that they might not return home. They went
out to defend our country and nation. In the terror attacks […] innocent
civilians traveled in buses on line 18 or walked on the Street and a terrorist
came and murdered them. How do they fit into the narrative of the
heroism of the soldiers slain in the wars of Israel?”63 Another
representative emphasized the active element in her husband’s death, as
opposed to the passivity in the death of victims of terror attacks: “how can
you compare our casualties to those killed in a café?”64
It is worth mentioning that the opinions expressed in the Knesset on
this issue, did not conform to the existing ideological rifts. Member of
Knesset Tamar Gozhanski (Hadash – Communist party) explained that
“there is a difference between a person who is a fighter and one who is a
victim […] there is an educational message here: did you wear a uniform
or not, did you fall in the name of the state or did you happen to be at the
wrong place and the wrong time and were killed? […] If we blur this
distinction, we are doing our conceptions an injustice”.65 MK Shaul
Yahalom (Mafdal – National Religious Party) echoed her opinion,
claiming that “it is hard to call three women sitting in café-shop –
fighters”.66 MK Yael Dayan (Labor Party) stressed that “none of the
victims of hostilities intended to sacrifice their life”.67 The philosopher
Assa Kasher, one of the major military bereavement spokesmen in Israel,
which his son died in a civil circumstances during a honeymoon – joined
the bereaved IDF parents in their battle against the families of victims of
terrorism and adopted republican terminology: “It is impossible to
compare the person who was a fighter to one who walked in the street and
a terrorist placed a bomb next to him, which caused his death. He did not
volunteer to enter danger, he did not volunteer to serve; he did not devote
his time, energy and thoughts to the defense of his country and its citizens;
he was in a different circumstance and therefore deserves different
consideration”.68

62
Ibid
63
Maariv, May, 5, 2000, 7
64
Ibid
65
Ibid
66
Ibid
67
Ibid
68
Kedar, 2006
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 93

The Families of the victims of terror attacks complained that their loss
remained private, since “there are those who demand exclusive rights to
grief” as complained Smadar Haran, who lost her husband and daughter in
a terror attack in 1974, which said that “to this very day we, the families of
the victims of hostilities, have not found a place in the State of Israel’s
family of the bereaved”.69 She added: “you reprimand us about the
educational value of memory but completely ignore the fact that in
addition to military heroism we arre forced to deal with civilian issues […]
the civilian effort is different from heroism in the battlefield […] many
have encountered the enemy with bare hands and seen their loved ones
torn from them […] we, who did not escape from areas of confrontation,
who continue to travel by bus and walk in the markets, who refuse to
surrender to fear, who understand that if the spirit is not broken it limits
the power of terror; we know that this is the essence of the spirit of civilian
fighting and heroism, that goes hand in hand with, and does not replace,
the soldiers` heroism. This prolonged struggle has not earned us credit nor
was it celebrated in songs and ballads. Has the time not come for us to
recognize that this has educational value? […] on the Day of
Remembrance […] we will stand in the sidelines, alone in our grief”.70

Summary: ‘Grief Regime’ gatekeepers


and the “Victimological Militaristic” Bereavement
In every public space there is a hegemonic culture that is shaped and
reproduced by political entrepreneurs and cultural agents. The cultural loss
is also not unique and it too is an arena controlled by the regime in order
to suit the interests of the ruling elite. As it is in every cultural field of
power, the role of agents is twofold:

• To shape the discourse and behavior, that is, to work to achieve so-
called normal “emotional management”. The discourse of loss
refers to the investments into cultural socialization of the bereaved
families that aim for “normal’ rhetoric and behavior in the public
sphere.
• To serve as gatekeepers of the public discourse of loss. That is, as
illustrated in this paper, to deny certain loss from becoming public
and socially recognized or appreciated. These figures which act as
gatekeepers also reject grievers who do not suit the normative

69
Maariv, 12 May, 2000, 18
70
Maariv, 14 June, 2002, 14
94 Chapter Four

family, for example: the loss of a lover, a same-sex partner or an


illegitimate child will not be recognized. These and other
experiences of grief are rejected from the legitimate category as
they undermine the social grief regime. The abovementioned
grievers will be left to deal with different levels of private loss.71

This study showed that in Israel, although many changes have been
made regarding the attempt for normalization in the public arena, led by
agents who represent the grief regime who enabled the transformation of
the rhetoric, discourse and public behavior of the grievers, the gatekeepers
continued to reject those whose circumstances of loss were
“inappropriate” from the national grief regime. Thus, those who lost their
loved ones in non-military circumstances found themselves outside the
bereavement discourse and the national culture of bereavement. For this
very reason, this article refers to the Israeli culture of grief as one that is
characterized by ‘Victimological Militarism’. On the one hand, it allows
the bereaved parents to take part in a victimized discourse while
highlighting the insignificance of loss, but on the other hand, the privilege
to participate in such a discourse of loss is reserved only for those whose
loved ones fell in the army. Thus, the discourse preserves the Israeli
cultural-militaristic component, which provides a public stage to those
who belong to the military endeavor, both in life – and as this paper shows
– in death.

Acknowledgments
I wish to thank Ms. Danielle Zilberberg for her intellectual insights and
for her enormous help with editing the article – both of which helped to
get it to its current version. Thanks to Dr. Paweł Jędrzejko and to Ms. Julia
Szołtysek, for their feedback and support which encouraged me to
complete the article. Many thanks to the Israeli National Security
Department for the generous stipend for researching the uniqueness of the
civil bereavement political dynamics in Israel.

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Damousi, 1999, 370
The “Grief Regime” Gatekeepers 95

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CHAPTER FIVE

GRIEVING THE LOSS


OF NATIVE AMERICAN CALIFORNIA:
HELEN HUNT JACKSON’S RAMONA

KATARZYNA NOWAK–MCNEICE

On the opposite side of the way, in a neglected, weedy open, stood [Father
Gaspara’s] chapel, – a poverty-stricken little place, its walls imperfectly
whitewashed, decorated by a few coarse pictures and by broken sconces of
looking-glass, rescued in their dilapidated condition from the Mission
buildings now gone utterly to ruin. In these had been put candle-holders of
common tin, in which a few cheap candles dimly lighted the room.
Everything about it was in unison with the atmosphere of the place, – the
most profoundly melancholy in all Southern California.1
Helen Hunt Jackson

When in the mid-nineteenth century John O’Sullivan coined the term


“manifest destiny”, he was responding to the spirit of optimism pervasive
in the country. The nation’s belief in America’s glorious future performed
a double function: it was partly motivated by and simultaneously justified
the unencumbered growth of the nation’s territory. O’Sullivan portrays this
spirit when he claims, “Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage,
where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another”. In
his assessment the American past is spotless, but that only sets the scene
for the future, and the future belongs to America: “The expansive future is
our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with
the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a
clear conscience unsullied by the past”. 2 Such an understanding of the
American destiny led to precisely the kind of excesses that O’Sullivan
praised as lacking in American history. But more importantly, at its basis
lay a set of preconceptions that emptied the imaginary space for the
1
Jackson, Ramona, 232.
2
O’Sullivan, The United States Democratic Review, 427.
Grieving the Loss of Native American California 101

singular narrative of the historical fate of the nation: it was not a jumbled
and difficult mix of paths shared by various groups equally entitled to
inclusion in the official history, but one lucid space, where the direction of
the nation’s fate lay obviously clear. Just as the land was emptied of those
whose right to the official narrative was unrecognized, the historical space
was now free to be occupied by the one nation whose greatness demanded
and justified it.
At the historical moment in which O’Sullivan documented the
American exclusive destiny, other writers were writing texts documenting
the nation’s emergent conscience. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet
Beecher Stowe and The Squatter and the Don (1885) by Maria Amparo
Ruiz de Burton were written with specific aims: that of educating the
public, moving their moral sense, and inspiring change.
The 1884 novel Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was spurred by a
similar impulse, as it was written with the sole purpose of directing public
attention to the deplorable living conditions of California Mission Indians,
who were, in the words of one critic, “systematically stripped of their
lands by Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans during the nineteenth
century”.3 Jackson herself expressed hopes for the book’s ability to amend
the wrongs done to California’s Native American population: “If I could
write a story that would do for the Indian a thousandth part of what Uncle
Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life”.4
Jackson died a year after the novel’s publication, bitterly disappointed.
Errol Wayne Stevens thus estimates the novel’s impact: it “might just as
well have been set in ancient Rome – for all the good that it did to arouse
public awareness of the conditions of Mission Indians”.5 Noble as the
impulse behind its composition might be, it did not change the situation of
the group whose rights it advocated.
The sense of failure that accompanied Jackson at the end of her life is
curiously matched by the spirit of hopelessness pervasive in the novel –
and might help explain the book’s failure. The eponymous heroine moves
from one hopeless situation to another; her life is a series of failures, not
because of who she is or what she does, but because of the external
circumstances which she cannot control. From the beginning of the

3
Sherer Mathes, “Helen Hunt Jackson and Southern California’s Mission Indians”,
262.
4
A letter to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 4 May 1883, qtd. in Moddelmog,
Reconstituting Authority American Fiction in the Province of the Law, 1882-1920,
62.
5
Stevens, “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: Social Problem Novel as Tourist
Guide”, 161.
102 Chapter Four

narrative till its end both personal and socio-political factors conspire to
the protagonist’s doom.
Ramona tells the story of an orphan girl of mixed Scottish Indian
origin, who is raised by a Californio6 family. She experiences racism and
discrimination, and – much like Uncle Tom – suffers with Christian
stoicism. Ramona falls in love with Alessandro, an Indian sheep herder,
and they elope from the ranch to live with Alessandro’s tribe. They are,
however, driven away from their land by Anglo Americans. Experiencing
constant humiliation and deprivation, Alessandro goes mad and dies.
Ramona considers herself emotionally dead and moves to Mexico.
The mood of the novel is best illustrated by the fragment in which
Ramona and Alessandro mourn the death of their firstborn. Ramona finds
consolation in her Christian beliefs; for Alessandro, however, there is no
solace:

“Dear Alessandro”, said Ramona, “it is a sin to always mourn. Father


Salvierderra said if we repined under our crosses, then a heavier cross
would be laid on us. Worse things would come”.

“Yes”, he said. “That is true. Worse things will come”. And he walked
away, with his head sunk deep on his breast.7

Ramona expresses the conviction that interminable mourning is


forbidden within the parameters of her system of belief; thus, mourning is
designated as a process that, when properly structured, should lead to an
ending. If we allow the process to continue inconclusively, then we are
sinning against a higher agency.
The distinction between an acceptable, terminable process of mourning
and an unrelenting mourning that is a transgression in itself corresponds to
the division proposed by Sigmund Freud in a 1917 text. In his essay
“Mourning and Melancholia” Freud explains that the distinguishing factor
of melancholia lies in the unconscious: “melancholia is in some way
related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in
contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that
is unconscious”.8 In melancholia, he suggests, the loss is “of a more ideal

6
Charles Hughes thus explains the term: “It is occasionally necessary to consider a
Californio as any non-Indian with a Spanish surname, and born in California,
Spain, or Latin America. Strictly speaking, however, Californios were those
Mexicans who inhabited California prior to American conquest, and the term also
refers to their descendants” (2).
7
Jackson, Ramona, 311-312.
8
Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, 3043.
Grieving the Loss of Native American California 103

kind;” it may imply “the loss of some abstraction (…), such as one’s
country, liberty, an ideal, and so on”,9 though it can also be, as in
mourning, a reaction to the loss of a beloved person. Perhaps the most
pertinent distinction between the two states is that “in mourning it is the
world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego
itself”.10 However, the impoverishment of the ego, Freud makes clear, is
linked to the emergence of a critical agency, that is, conscience.
The novel I discuss here is, in Hunt Jackson’s assessment, a product of
conscience; it was written to amend the wrongs inflicted on the group that
suffered the ugly side-effects of American expansionism and it was meant
to move the conscience of Americans benefiting from those processes that
left others impoverished. In this sense Ramona is a melancholic endeavor.
Freudian melancholia helps explain the novel’s ambiguous treatment of
its central romantic theme and political agenda: it is the melancholic
conflict at the core of the dominant American identity, caused by its
reluctance to acknowledge the rights of another dispossessed group,
Native Americans, that are lost to history and the official narrative of the
nation, yet remain a powerful influence on its identity.
My reading of Ramona is inspired by the idea proposed by Anne Anlin
Cheng in The Melancholy of Race, in which the critic claims that the
dominant American identity operates melancholically. Cheng refers to
Freud’s 1917 essay, whose important implication is that melancholy is a
necessary prerequisite for identity formation, thus locating loss at the core
of selfhood.
Cheng suggests that melancholia is an especially useful concept to
understand American identity. She states: “American melancholia is
particularly acute because America is founded on the very ideals of
freedom and liberty whose betrayals have been repeatedly covered over”
(emphasis hers).11 I want to argue that the problem becomes acutely
pronounced in the case of California, the territory whose acquisition
marked the beginning of the process of closing the American frontier. The
Californian variety of melancholia is connected to a particular loss of a
loss, the loss of an illusion of the unstoppable expansion, the illusion of an
empty territory forever open to settlement, the fantasy of an unencumbered
liberty and freedom.
When the United States acquired California after the war with Mexico,
its Native American population, already decimated, struggled for survival

9
Ibid., 3041.
10
Ibid., 3043.
11
Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden
Grief, 10.
104 Chapter Four

now against yet another wave of incoming migrants. The Anglo-


Americans’ claim to the land that their country had recently acquired was
questionable from the point of view of the Californios, and in the conflict
between the two groups Native Americans were in a losing position.
The competition for land was triggered by the omission of Article X in
the final draft of the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that was signed after the
U.S.-Mexican war: this article, had it been signed, would have secured the
Californios’ rights to their land. Its deletion from the text of the treaty
meant that the responsibility for proving the validity of the land title rested
on the occupant. The dominant prejudiced approach of the courts to which
the land disputes were taken and the legal costs involved were such that
most Californios ultimately lost their land to the newcomers, American
“squatters”. 12 As James A. Sandos explains, “While the question of private
legal title dragged through the courts, in time-honored frontier tradition,
newcomers squatted on what they regarded as vacant public land, seeking
thereby to establish claim to what they wanted to believe was federally
held property, which would eventually be open to settlement”.13 This trend
is manifest destiny materialized: the future of the nation is glorious, and
nothing can prevent its fruition.
Addressing the racial/ethnic tensions between the Anglo newcomers
and the Californios, Ramona represents Californios as white, at the same
time attempting to “whiten” the Native characters as well: and thus, for
example, the eponymous Ramona is portrayed as having black hair, like
her Indian mother, but with “steel-blue” eyes, like her Scottish father.14
The presentation of the Californios as white, on the other hand, can only
be successful at the expense of Native American characters, whose
position on the ethnic scale is inevitably the lowest. The category of
“whiteness” claimed for the Californios strictly corresponds to the
dispossession of the indigenous inhabitants of the region. The same
category claimed for the indigenous characters, whose aim was possibly to
make them easier to sympathize with by the white audiences, makes the
ethnic difference oblivious, and hence no platform for political action or
ethical charge.
Though in this sense a failure, in other aspects Ramona was extremely
successful. Errol Wayne Stevens calls it “one of the most popular novels in

12
For a detailed discussion of the consequences of the treaty of Guadalupe-
Hidalgo see e.g. Haas, pp. 56-68, Pitt, pp. 26-47, Perez, pp. 54-55.
13
Sandos, “‘Because He Is a Liar and a Thief’: Conquering the Residents of ‘Old’
California, 1850-1880”, 102-103.
14
Jackson, Ramona, 38.
Grieving the Loss of Native American California 105

American history”15 and thus estimates its influence: “The impact of the
book was enormous, although not in the way that Jackson intended”.16 He
adds: “Ramona’s success as a romance undercut its effectiveness as an
exposé of the problems of California’s Indians”.17
The novel, with its charming characters and emotionally involving
romantic plot, not only sparked interest in California missions as tourist
destinations, but also inspired several film versions. “The Ramona
Outdoor Play”, the official play of the state of California, has been
performed annually since 1923.
Contemporary critics, however, did not find the presentation of Native
Americans credible. Some thought it regrettable that “a squat Indian, with
straight, coarse black hair, thick lips and high cheek bones, capable of
sitting all day in a bamboo wickiup and contenting herself with the
weaving of baskets” could be exchanged for “one of the most charming
characters fiction has ever donated to the world of letters”.18 Another
found it hard to believe that ‘lazy, cruel, cowardly, and covetous’ creatures
such as the Mission Indians could produce ‘specimens of physical beauty
and mental sublimity as Alessandro and his father’”.19
Perhaps anticipating such a response and to make the Native characters
more palatable, Hunt Jackson portrays Ramona as blue-eyed. Ramona’s
lover, noble Alessandro, bears an Italian, not a Spanish name. This
cautiousness can be one of the reasons behind Ramona’s failure: its
presentation of Native Americans is so vague that the contemporary
readers might have easily disregarded any signs of racial or ethnic
difference.
Another ambiguity about Ramona is that it removes Native American
characters from present day California. Goldberg and Champagne point
out that Ramona “provided a convenient myth supporting American
settlement in California – the Indians had been so mistreated that they
either died or fled south of the border, leaving behind empty lands for the
Americans to occupy. This myth of the disappearing Indians put them out

15
Stevens, “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: Social Problem Novel as Tourist
Guide”, 158.
16
Ibid., 158.
17
Ibid., 161.
18
Carlyle Channing Davis and William A. Alderson, qtd. in Stevens, “Helen Hunt
Jackson’s Ramona: Social Problem Novel as Tourist Guide”, 162.
19
Elizabeth Baker Bohan, qtd. in Stevens, “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: Social
Problem Novel as Tourist Guide”, 162.
106 Chapter Four

of the consciousness of non-Indian Californians for over a century”.20


Contrary to Hunt Jackson’s design, the novel removed the Native
American population to the romanticized past of California missions. By
its air of melancholic longing of what has been lost forever it suggested
that the future belonged to the whites.
For all its pessimistic assessment of the political prospects of the group
whose rights the novel advocates, the very impulse behind the novel’s
composition is worth noting. The other, the Native American, is falsely
mourned as already gone, yet what this act of mourning signifies is that
this loss is at the same time incorporated into the dominant identity. Judith
Butler makes a similar point in Precarious Life when she discusses the
norms that underlie human constitution: “I am as much constituted by
those I do grieve for as by those whose deaths I disavow, whose nameless
and faceless deaths form the melancholic background for my social
world”.21 As for Freud the lost object of affection that provokes unending
melancholic grieving is incorporated into the melancholic ego, so for
Butler the impossible grief constitutes part of the ego.
In Ramona Native Americans, for whose sake the novel was written,
remain the silent, un-grieved minority. The novel romanticizes the past and
mourns it. It also suggests that the Native Americans belong to the past.
Their loss is presented as enabling the emergence of the critical agency or
conscience to which the texts testify. It is this melancholic process that the
novel documents.

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1882-1920, William E. Moddelmog, University of Iowa Press, 62.
Moddelmog, William E. Reconstituting Authority: American Fiction in the
Province of the Law, 1882-1920, University of Iowa Press, 2000.
Montes, A. M. De la Luz, and A. E. Goldman, eds., 2004, Maria Amparo
Ruiz de Burton: Critical and Pedagogical Perspectives, Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press.
O’Sullivan, J., 1839, The United States Democratic Review, Vol. 0006
Issue 23 (November 1839), 427, http://digital.library.cornell.edu.
Perez, V., “Remembering the Hacienda: Land and Community in
Californio Narratives”, Montes and Goldman, 27–55.
Pitt, L., 1966, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the
Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890, Berkeley, Los Angeles:
University of California Press.
Ruiz de Burton, M. A., 1997 [1885], The Squatter and the Don, edited and
introduced by Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita, Houston, Texas:
Arte Publico.
Sandos, J. A., 2000, “‘Because He Is a Liar and a Thief’: Conquering the
Residents of ‘Old’ California, 1850-1880”, California History, vol. 79
no. 2. (Summer 2000), 86-112.
Sherer Mathes, V., “Helen Hunt Jackson and Southern California’s
Mission Indians”, California History, vol. 78, no. 4 (Winter
1999/2000), 262-273.
Stevens, E. W., 1998, “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: Social Problem
Novel as Tourist Guide”, California History, vol. 77, no. 3 (Fall 1998),
158-167.
CHAPTER SIX

“THEY CALL THIS ‘ORGANIC SHRAPNEL’”:


VIOLENT CLOSENESS BETWEEN “VICTIMS”
AND “PERPETRATORS” IN DON DELILLO’S
FALLING MAN AND MOHSIN HAMID’S
THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

JULIA SZOŁTYSEK

Critics such as Pankaj Mishra1, Ann Keniston2 and Sabine Sielke3 have
drawn attention to the relatively rare presence of fully developed terrorist
figures in 9/11 fiction, arguing that what strikes in a substantial number of
texts dealing with the attacks and their aftermath is either the lack of or the
rather inept representation of the perpetrators. Such omissions, they
continue, are emblematic of the overall failure of the authors to bear up
with the profundity and complexity of the theme they have taken up; I
offer a contesting interpretation, though. The figure of the terrorist, I
contend, forms a particular ghostly presence in the deep structures of texts
devoted to 9/11 themes. With recourse to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant
Fundamentalist4 and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man5, I will endeavour to
establish patterns through which the seeming ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’
are forced into a melancholic and parasitic relationship with one another.

1
See: Mishra, Pankaj, “The End of Innocence”, in: The Guardian Online, May 19,
2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/may/19/fiction.martinamis, retrieved
7 November 2011.
2
See: Keniston, Ann, and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn, eds. Literature after 9/11,
New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 2008.
3
See: Sielke, Sabine, “Why ‘9/11 Is [Not] Unique’, or: Troping Trauma”, in:
Amerikastudien/American Studies Vol. 55 (3) 2010, ed. by Andrew S. Gross and
Maryann Snyder-Koerber, Heidelberg: Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010, 385–409.
4
Hamid, Mohsin, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, London: Penguin, 2007.
5
DeLillo, Don, Falling Man, London, New York: Picador, 2011 (2007).
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 109

Resorting to the notion of the “organic shrapnel” as signifying the


conflicted closeness between the constructs of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’, I
will attempt to dismantle the constituents of this bond, revealing the long-
term impact of the global war on terror and its repercussions, both on an
inter/national and individual level.
What, then, is fundamentalism, and how should it be approached if
recent responses to it might themselves be regarded as instances of
fanaticism and fury? Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist
does not present clear-cut answers to the dilemma; what is more, it seems
to further problematise the issue by defining Changez, the main
protagonist of and the only speaker in the story, as ‘reluctant’, and through
this, automatically introducing a degree of doubt and hesitation with
regard to his identity, motives and convictions. The sense of confusion is
compounded in the very second line of the novel, when Changez, in an
attempt to appease his American interlocutor, addresses him thus: “Do not
be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America“6. This short statement
fuses two elements which in common parlance figure as one another’s
antagonisms – the beard and America, establishing the framework of
ambivalence prevalent throughout Changez’s entire testimony. As the
novel progresses, ambivalence gradually transforms, intensifying from
distrust into anguish and distress, and finally escalating into outright fear
but whether the story can be called a thriller remains for the readers to
decide individually. Although Hamid acknowledges fear as a catalyst for
the thrill, he ascribes it to the universal condition of contemporaneity, thus
withdrawing from making a definite pronouncement in this matter.
The opening of the novel initially appears conversational and
maintained in a style of a friendly camaraderie between speakers caught
whiling away the afternoon hours at a small café in Lahore. Significantly,
it is Changez – the eponymous ‘reluctant fundamentalist’ – who
commences the conversation, treading upon, however gently and
gentleman-like – the unnamed American’s private space when he so
addresses him:

Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you.
Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that
you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to
be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of
your language, I thought I might offer you my services7.

6
Hamid, 1.
7
Hamid, 1.
110 Chapter Six

The brief exchange passes for an apt exposition to the drama soon to
be enacted. The roles and positions, along with their implications, have
been assigned, and initially, neither Changez, nor the American, appear to
be making attempts to destabilize and/or overturn them. The opening
scene introduces balance and a nearly ritualistic harmony into the text,
along the lines of the stereotypically defined ‘Oriental’ chatterbox as
opposed to the rather aloof and withdrawn ‘Western’ traveling subject.
Moreover, Changez already hints at the double-bound character of his
identity by describing himself as a figure negotiating two functions, that of
being of a Pakistani descent and a speaker of English at the same time.
This, however, should not perhaps come as a surprise – America and
Pakistan share the common history of having once been English colonies,
a fact that Changez refers to later on, shedding light on how this chapter of
the two countries’ respective histories is frequently forgotten in the
American context, though by no means in reference to Pakistan.
Having thus set the stage for the ensuing events, Changez draws the
American into what appears as an innocent chat between a friendly native
and an apprehensive tourist. Hamid appropriates this framework in order
to have Changez reveal the painful story of his life to the American. To
this end, Changez employs the form of reminiscences and flashbacks
transporting the two participants in the exchange to the trajectories of
Changez’s earlier American experiences. Simultaneously, however,
Changez develops the ‘real-time’ plane of the plot, as he frequently
incorporates various immediate external interruptions into the
conversation, whose two trajectories twine, approximate, and finally
merge at the end of the novel. This method pertains especially to intrusions
from the waiter who is serving on the two of them, and whose figure
gradually assumes greater significance:

You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and
there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet,
as we will pay him later, when we are done. … There. He has gone. I must
admit, he is a rather intimidating chap. But irreproachably polite: you
would have been surprised by the sweetness of his speech, if only you
understood Urdu8.

The short passage provides also one of the very first hints as to the
nature of the American’s mission; his uneasy gestures, acutely noticed by
Changez, and his nervous reaction to the waiter’s appearance and bearing,
introduce the element of the thriller into the novel which begins to

8
Hamid, 5-6.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 111

overturn the initial impression of being a mere conversation, an elusive


chatter of little consequence. Capped with the fact that the American is
actually reaching under his jacket where Changez only assumes – or
perhaps only pretends to assume – that he is keeping his wallet, the scene
works to unsettle and alert the reader to there existing perhaps a darker
side to the proceedings which he/she is witnessing.
In quite a similar vein, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man turns out to be a
meticulously structured endeavour – its internal logic, both textual and
formal, is guided by the idea of extensive parallelisms, culminating at two
points in the novel, at its end and roughly half-way through the story.
Thematically, Falling Man, in view of many scholars and critics of
DeLillo’s writing, is predominantly a novel of the disintegration of the
American domestic life in the aftermath of the 9/11 crisis. Indeed, the
problematical weight of the novel is carried by the family of Lianne and
Keith Neudecker. At the outset of the novel Lianne and Keith are
separated, and importantly, their parting has occurred well before the
events which open the text. The hearth, along with its extensions,
constitutes also the nexus of the melancholia of the text, which originates,
though, in the external reality of the terrorist attacks.
The technical and thematical planes enhance and complement one
another, with the parallels lending the novel’s paramount motifs and events
acute clarity and expression. Representation of the terrorist – Hammad, the
fictional sword-arm of Muhammad Atta – also partakes of this strategy,
although the question of how effective it is in this case remains disputable.
Falling Man estranges the terrorist but transplants him onto the national
soil, where he is offered but a cursory look, with the main focus centred on
a family suffering the backlash of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Significantly,
through such a strategy, the American family and the ‘Arab’ terrorist are
brought uncomfortably close together; as such, they might be considered
stock characters which represent going through a certain experience.
The novel opens with Keith emerging from the burning towers, but
how exactly he survived the attacks is revealed only at the end. The
account of what happened is apocalyptic, re/creating a sense of chaos,
disorientation and terror that must have taken over the world at that time.
The depiction relies heavily on very plastic and auditory images, the world
as it used to be ceases to exist and descends into a pandemonium, with
only smoke, ash, rumble and roar remaining. Civilization seems to admit
defeat, and its fall is further marked with descriptions of “office paper
flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, whipping past,
otherworldly things in the morning pall” 9. The world and life as they were
9
DeLillo, 3.
112 Chapter Six

once known and then acutely depreciated manifest the Biblical Vanitas
vanitatum et omnia vanitas motif, further accentuated by traces of old
order perishing in the ashen air: “Paper massed in the air, contracts,
resumes blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind”10.
Destruction thus portrayed is total:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and
near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were
people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their
heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in
their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran
and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down
around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the
world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners,
busting about corners, seismic tides of smoke (. . . .)

He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched
from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags
and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups
went bouncing oddly by11.

Keith Neudecker roams this battle-ground landscape, but it seems that


neither he nor any of the people he encounters, or rather – watches
incredulously as he goes by, has the slightest idea of what the battle has
been fought for, why, and what will follow. A sensation of time
indeterminably suspended prevails, freezing individual lives in the
coercion of the inescapable present, urging questions of responsibility and
directing guilt towards the hard-bitten and reckless terrorists.
Whereas in his depiction of the apparent perpetrators DeLillo does
seem to falter, he structures his account of the attacks on World Trade
Center with considerable confidence, placing the event in a textual frame
which opens and ends the narrative, with the two points of the text
forming an extended parallel. The moment of the direct impact is
postponed and takes place near the close of the novel, when Keith and
Hammad, in their violent encounter, nearly literally merge with one
another in but a couple of seconds. Importantly, the whole event occurs
entirely on the level of the text, with the ultimate blurring of the bodily
borders between Keith and Hammad – the significance of which lies in the
symbolic fusion of the victim and the perpetrator – signalled
10
DeLillo, 4.
11
DeLillo, 3-4.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 113

grammatically, in the semantic shift of reference of the personal pronoun


‘he’ from denoting Hammad to applying to Keith.
Significantly, the readers are treated to a revelation of the intimate,
though by large un-wished for, bonding between the two men, already
early on in the novel, when, shortly after the attacks, Keith visits a doctor
who, when treating him, “would use clamps for deeper fragments”12. The
doctor, quite unawares, introduces one of the most ominous symbols of the
post-9/11 traumatic confusion – the organic shrapnel:

Where there are suicide bombings … In those places where it happens, the
survivors, the people nearby who are injured, sometimes, months later,
they develop bumps, for lack of a better term, and it turns out this is caused
by small fragments, tiny fragments of the suicide bomber’s body. The
bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh
and bone come flying outward with such force and velocity that they get
wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range. Do
you believe it? A student is sitting in a cafe. She survives the attack. Then,
months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that
got driven into the skin. They call this organic shrapnel13.

The ‘organic shrapnel’ might serve as a literal embodiment of the


traumatic relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, although the
inability to decide clearly who the villain is remains, along with the
difficulty of placing one’s sympathies and grudges, which escalates along
the progression of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, too. At first, it appears
that it is the American who remains ‘reluctant’ as the novel offers a
depiction of Changez’s repeated efforts to engage him in conversation. On
the other hand, though, Changez does not perceive the American’s
reticence as a deterrent from pursuing his own story, developing into a
form of testimony, seizing on the opportunity to give vent to his conflicted
impressions of and responses to America and his American experience. In
his account, Changez threads a realistic narrative in the line of the
traditional Bildungsroman grounded within the momentum of the
‘American Dream’, yet spiced up with the allure of the ‘exotic’ and
‘Oriental’. His story, at least up to a point, is a record of success, a
depiction of the life of a high-flyer, a golden boy whom the conditions of
American democracy and capitalism have enabled to secure a comfortable
and fully-fledged life, especially when account is taken of the persistent
Western fantasy of the ‘Other’. In this vein, Changez manages to
overcome his background of implied under-privilege and

12
DeLillo, 15.
13
DeLillo, 16.
114 Chapter Six

disempowerment, which is only made possible to him owing to America’s


being a nearly mythical land of plenty and opportunity, a safe haven where
anybody can experience the meteoric rise ‘from rags to riches’, provided
that he/she works hard, remains undaunted by initial obstacles, and whole-
heartedly embraces the American egalitarian ideals of certain ‘inalienable
rights’. Such a perception, though, is but a projection of the paradigm of
the East/West binary, with no legitimization from Changez’s actual
circumstances – he comes from an old and affluent Pakistani family,
residing for generations in an aristocratic mansion located in Lahore’s
most elegant neighbourhood, with a history of employing servants and
regularly sending the children on holiday to Europe:

I am not poor; far from it: my great-grandfather, for example, was a


barrister with the means to endow a school for the Muslims of the Punjab.
Like him, my grandfather and father both attended university in England.
Our family home sits on an acre of land in the middle of Gulberg, one of
the most expensive districts of this city. We employ several servants,
including a driver and a gardener – which would, in America, imply that
we were a family of great wealth14.

How, then, to account for Changez’s apparently overturned fortunes?


The story of success does strike a suspicious cord, accentuated by
Changez’s protracted musings on his own identity and questions of
responsibility, loyalty, and professed sympathies. The first surfacing of
doubt concerning the morality and ethics of his ‘going native’ – that is,
yielding to the demands of Americanization and the paradoxical
requirements it imposes on the ‘foreign’ subjects enjoying America’s
liberties and her plentiful opportunities – occurs when Changez is
preparing for dinner at his American girlfriend’s parents’ house. Unable to
decide what to wear for the occasion, Changez finally chooses to “take
advantage of the ethnic exception clause that is written into every code of
etiquette”15 and settles for “a starched white kurta of delicately worked
cotton over a pair of jeans”16, thus exemplifying what Graham Huggan
defines as answering the Western expectations towards the ‘foreign other’
who should “represent [his/her] respective culture and operate as cultural
representative”17 at the same time. Changez oscillates towards the murky
realm of ‘orientalizing’ himself – becoming a self-professed cultural

14
Hamid, 9-10.
15
Hamid, 48.
16
Hamid, 48.
17
Huggan, Graham, The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London,
New York: Routledge, 2001, 26.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 115

artifact signifying the contained ‘other’ within. He mixes jeans with a


kurta, in this way arriving at the apex of exoticization but one whose
appeal is checked by the unifying and standardizing symbolic of the
American blue jeans.
However, the adopted American overcoat begins to itch, paving the
way for the awakening of insurgent impulses which lead Changez to
realize that he is “a modern-day janissary”18, discovering in the figure of
the janissary a reflection of himself and his dedication to Underwood
Samson, the aggressively capitalist auditing company for which he has
been working:

There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of


the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a
kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own
country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt
torn! I had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the
officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion
for those whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own
gain19.

Underwood Samson also lends itself to being critically investigated for


the purposes of a discussion of peculiar symbolics to which Mohsin
Hamid resorts profusely in his novel. In this light, the name of the
company in its abbreviated form – US – might be perceived, in the wider
dimension, as indeed a metaphor for America, especially once account has
been taken of the rules on which the enterprise operates. With its relentless
capitalism, pursuit of commercial success, and emphasis on the
individual’s performance as contributing to the overall well-being of the
entire organism it appears difficult to resist the temptation of viewing the
company as a depiction of the American democratic geopolitical
apparatus. From a different perspective yet, Underwood Samson and the
abbreviation US could be read as the institutionalization of the
allegorically loaded image of “Uncle Sam” and his stern call for
engagement in expanding the country’s might and power.
Seen from such an angle, Changez growing reluctance to comply with
the demands of US functions on two concentric levels – the more
immediate, personal one, portraying Changez’s accumulating sense of
pointlessness of the duties he is performing in the company, and at the
more ambiguous and perhaps less tangible level of racial and political
grievances, propelled by a realization of the dehumanizing and oppressive
18
Hamid, 152.
19
Hamid, 152.
116 Chapter Six

practices wielded against those whom Changez later on aptly describes as


“collateral damage” in the exorbitant American struggle for hegemony on
the global arena. Thus begins for Changez a painful and conflicted process
of a rediscovery of his Pakistani identity, accompanied by his desire to de-
hybridize and purify himself by means of up-rooting himself from the
arbitrarily imposed American system, and also re-routing, made evident by
his turning away from the US in the direction of his homeland.
The cornerstone for Changez’s evolution is inevitably the day of
September the 11th, 2001, with the events which shook the world and
called into question the so-far held fast global order. The vicissitudes
within the global networks of communication, cooperation and also
control generated by the 9/11 attacks reveal abjected traumas and
silencings in American history which, as both Anne Cheng20 and
Mahasweta Devi21 emphasize, has been right from its very beginning
marked by schizophrenia and constant backtracking on the publicly
professed ideals, in its reliance on exclusion, oppression, and favouring
certain subjects over others. The shock and incongruity of the attacks do
not, however, lead to a reckoning of the past with a view to making the
America of the future a healthier nation, but rather bring about the militant
wave of American patriotism and an outburst of suspicion and hatred
towards that which cannot be fathomed and controlled. Nostalgia and a
melancholic longing for a mythologized golden epoch of well-being, order
and stability descend over political, cultural and literary discourses,
occluding the capabilities of distinguishing where protection and
safeguarding the country and its people end, and where hysteria ensues.
Melancholia assumes the form of unceasing attempts to go back to a
‘better world’, leading to a perpetuation of the practice of ‘retro-fitting’
which, by resorting to the popular discourse of American progressivism,
aims at restoring the shaken-up integrity of the national spirit. As Changez
observes:

It seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a


dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro
about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war
rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honour. I
had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first
time I was truck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was
suddenly like living in a film about the Second World. … What your fellow

20
Cheng, Anne Anlin, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and
Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001, passim.
21
Devi, Mahasweta, Imaginary Maps: Three Stories, ed. and tr. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak, New York, London: Routledge, 1995, passim.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 117

countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned


dominance? Of safety? Of moral certainty? I did not know – but that they
were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt
treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether – if
it could indeed be animated – it contained a part written for someone like
me22.

The media vehemently participate in the process, conditioning people


to constantly feel sad and angry, instilling in those who defy the
mainstream mode of conduct a sense of guilt and shame. So does Changez
feel from the very outset of the developments when in a hotel room he
watches with incredulity the media coverage of the events. His reaction to
what he sees but is at a loss making sense of further deepens his own
uncertainty over who he is and what he should be doing:

I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film [a


common initial response]. But as I continued to watch, I realized this was
not fiction but news. I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin
towers of New York’s World Trade Centre collapsed. And then I smiled.
Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably
pleased.

But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the
attack … . – no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that
someone had so visibly brought America to her knees. Ah, I see I am only
compounding your displeasure. I understand, of course; it is hateful to hear
another person gloat over one’s country’s misfortune. But surely you
cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no
joy at the video clips – so prevalent these days – of American munitions
laying waste the structures of your enemies?23

What follows in this part of the novel, probably the most disturbing
and demanding, for a Western and non-Western reader alike, is a record of
the descending mass hysteria of the ‘terrorist Arab’ – bearded, suspicious,
not to be trusted and potentially carrying lethal weapons in his/her
personal belongings. Changez recounts the experiences of prejudice and
resentment towards those originating from regions now marked as danger
zones, including himself, which shortly acquire a more ominous form of
outright violence and abuse. The tension in Changez’s narrative builds up
dangerously, both on the plane of his reminiscences and the real-time
happenings. The goals of the American’s mission become more sharply

22
Hamid, 114-115.
23
Hamid, 73.
118 Chapter Six

revealed, just as Changez’s ulterior motifs surface with an undeniably


undaunted force. Still, an impression of uncertainty and disbelief prevails,
postponing any possible dénouement which could perhaps, according to
the norms of the thriller genre, alleviate the sense of a lack of proper
closure. The ending does nothing in terms of satisfying the reader’s
expectations leaving the characters at the brink of a decisive and
irreversible turn of action, and the readers – in deadlock.
Mohsin Hamid, when asked to dismantle the final impasse,
compounded the expectant audience by saying that The Reluctant
Fundamentalist is “a trial of trials” in which what is being tried is the
totality of the processes by which we try24. The statement, in the
contemporary post-postmodern context, acquires a deeper purport the
significance of which is all the more symptomatic in recent discussions on
the relocation of global powerlines and, resultantly, on the transposition of
sympathies and nexuses of withdrawal. However, the motivations and the
outcomes of the acts to which they push the characters are at no time
robbed of their unsettling purport. The last paragraph of the novel
strengthens the sense of disbelief, anger, dissatisfaction, anguish,
disappointment pertaining to a lack of definitiveness:

Ah, we are about to arrive at the gate of your hotel. It is here that you and I
shall at last part company. Perhaps our waiter wants to say goodbye as
well, for he is rapidly closing in. Yes, he is waving at me to detain you. I
know you have found some of my views offensive; I hope you will not
resist my attempt to shake you by the hand. But why are you reaching into
your jacket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you and I are now
bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your
business cards25.

Taken at face value, Mohsin Hamid might be interpreted as presenting


an account of an American undercover agent assigned with the task of
annihilating a Pakistani ‘fundamentalist’ – thus, clearly, a potential
terrorist. Chances are, and the novel does not at any point preclude these
possibilities, that the American succeeds in what he intends to – or has to –
do. When reference is made back to the present political war dialectic of
victory and defeat, yet another line of convergence appears to spring up
between the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’, and in this context, Hamid’s novel
might acquire yet graver and perhaps even ‘prophetic’ quality.

24
Hamid, Mohsin, Key-Note Speech at the 2011 EACLALS Conference held in
Istanbul, 26 – 30 April, 2011.
25
Hamid, 184.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 119

In Falling Man, the scene in which Hammad and Keith approach each
other until they almost merge is the culmination point of a parallel
development that has been gradually staged throughout the novel. Keith’s
account is interspersed with the last thoughts of the pilots who crashed the
planes into the towers which gives this section a morbid quality:

Forget the world. Be umindful of the thing called the world. All of life’s
lost time is over now. This is your long wish, to die with your brothers.
Recite the sacred words. Pull your clothes tightly about you. Fix your gaze.
Carry your soul in your hand. Every sin of your life is forgiven in the
seconds to come. There is nothing between you and eternal life in the
seconds to come.You are wishing for death and now it is here in the
seconds to come. He fastened his seatbelt26.

The distinctions between Keith and Hammad are rendered unstable,


and could be read as joined in what Sam Anderson calls “a dangerous
parallel”27. Their clash resembles the forming of the organic shrapnel, the
explosive and destructive potential of which might only reveal itself
months after the instance of impact. DeLillo foreshadows the viciousness
of what enfolds in the story already at the outset of the novel when Lianne
finds herself pursued by signs and beacons which in the context of the
attacks acquire an ominous significance. Such an immobilizing realization
of the of discontinuity of life as it used to be ‘before’ occurs when Lianne
spots a holiday card sent by a friend and read, belatedly, already in a
changed world:

It was the postcard that snapped her back, on top of the cluster of bills and
other mail. She glanced at the message, a standard scrawled greeting, sent
by a friend staying in Rome, then looked again at the face of the card. It
was a reproduction of the cover of Shelley’s poem in twelve cantos, first
edition, called Revolt of Islam. Even in postcard format, it was clear that
the cover was beautifully designed, with a large illustrated R that included
creatural flourishes, a ram’s head and what may have been a fanciful fish
with a tusk and a trunk. Revolt of Islam. The card was from the Keats-
Shelley House in Piazza di Spagna and she’d understood in the first taut
seconds that the card had been sent a week or two earlier. It was a matter of
simple coincidence, or not so simple, that a card might arrive at this
particular time bearing the title of that specific book.

26
DeLillo, 238-239.
27
Anderson, Sam, “Code Red: Don DeLillo, the Literary Master of the Terrorist’s
Imagination, Reaches for the Ultimate Subject”, New York Books Online 7 May
2007. Web. 28 Feb. 2008.
120 Chapter Six

This was all, a lost moment on the Friday of that lifelong week, three days
after the planes28.

That Lianne noticed this particular long-lost card might indeed be a


matter of chance; her ascribing it with the sinister meaning related to
immediate events is no longer so, which the narrator also points out, by
inserting the qualifying “not so simple”. Perhaps it could be assigned to
the trend observed by Jane Smith with regards to the most immediate
consequences of the attacks – following 9/11, Islam, Smith posits, has
been forced out of the margins of cosmopolitan New York society to the
very centre of its attention29. However, what Smith does not mention,
perhaps out of an over-zealous intention to remain ‘politically correct’, is
that the raised awareness of the presence of Islam at the heart of the local
community came hand in hand with the upgrading of the terror alert level
to code orange – high30.
Indeed, it is hard not to notice, just as Lianne does, the omen the
postcard represented. Still, DeLillo’s handling of this trope might come
across as somewhat crude, exploiting a poetics that has already made itself
manifest to the full. Similar postulates have been put forth by critics such
as Birgit Daewes31 and Martin Randall32 with regards to DeLillo’s mode of
representing the perpetrators, finding DeLillo guilty of reductionism and
over-reliance on clichés and stereotypes, a trap which Mohsin Hamid, in
contrast, seems to evade quite effectively. Hamid’s allegoric remark on
standing at the ‘wrong’ side acquires yet a grimmer significance: “Because
I grew up on the other side … I was outside the candy store looking in”33.
This, in turn, introduces the questions of be/longing, further complicated
by the arbitrarily imposed awareness of being of a ‘suspect race’. External
factors such as the symptomatic beard have made it all-too-easy to locate

28
DeLillo, 8.
29
Smith, Jane, Islam in America, New York: Columbia UP, 2010 (1999), 3.
30
Homeland Security Advisory System Scale,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeland_Security_Advisory_System#Threat_level_
changes
31
Daewes, Brigitte, “‘Close Neighbors to the Unimaginable’: Literary Projections
of Terrorists’ Perspectives (Martin Amis, John Updike, Don DeLillo”, in
Amerikastudien/American Studies Vol. 55 (3) 2010, ed. by Andrew S. Gross and
Maryann Snyder-Koerber, Heidelberg: Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010, 495 –
517.
32
Randall, Martin, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP,
2011, passim.
33
Hamid, 71.
“They Call This ‘Organic Shrapnel’” 121

the threat, with grounds for suspicion automatically legitimized by the


labelling apparatus which swiftly perpetuates the mass ‘Muslim scare’.
However, being ‘Arab’ holds yet another tenet – the image of the hard-
bitten terrorist conceals a fragile core. The crackdown on terror – while its
essence cannot be disputed – largely overlooks the human factor which is
acutely noted by Mohsin Hamid in his observation that the lives of
civilians whom circumstance has located in parts of the world marked as
danger zones count merely as “collateral damage”34. In a similar vein,
while the common equation of ‘Arab’ and ‘fundamentalist’ has become
imprinted in everyday discourse, dissenting voices in society pose the
inevitable example of American patriotism, with its frequently theme-park
aesthetics of the American flag installed on toothpicks and stickers, as a
counterweight to ‘Arab’ fundamentalism.
The contact moments, in both novels occurring by the end of the
narratives, conceal a violence played out not physically, through open
combat, but rather signalled internally, inwardly, by way of
understatement, supposition and suspension of action. At the core of these
concerns lies the fear of identification, or, in M. Hamid’s words, the shared
inclination to take for granted that “[Arabs] are all potential terrorists …
[and] Americans are all undercover assassins”35. Evasion of direct
involvement with the ‘terrorist’, conservative representation of the
incontestably violent encounter that was 9/11, distanced, vicarious
engagement with the politics and power play behind the attacks formulate
distinct patterns of literary refashioning of the experience, which make a
close fit to the consolation offered by the status of the victim. Through
assuming this position, America indiscriminately proceeded to exercising
the privileges and benefits resultant from the status quo, making no
discernment between notions such as guilt and (or, vis-a-vis)
responsibility, an ineptitude which echoes the resonant words of Hamid
that sometimes, in some parts of the world, human lives count merely as
“collateral damage”36. The personal has always been interrupted by the
inter/national, with the consequences of the destructive impulses to hurt
those from across the line frequently rebounding on both of the involved
parties. The issue that begs to be addressed is whether it is justifiable to
take sides in a conflict which throughout proves to be a no-gain situation.

34
Hamid, 179.
35
Hamid, 24.
36
Hamid, 179.
122 Chapter Six

References
Anderson, S., 2007, “Code Red: Don DeLillo, the Literary Master of the
Terrorist’s Imagination, Reaches for the Ultimate Subject”, New York
Books Online 7 May, retrieved 28 Feb. 2008.
Cheng, A. A., 2001, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis,
Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Oxford: Oxford UP.
Daewes, B., 2010, “‘Close Neighbors to the Unimaginable’: Literary
Projections of Terrorists’ Perspectives (Martin Amis, John Updike, Don
DeLillo”, in Amerikastudien/American Studies Vol. 55 (3), ed. by
Andrew S. Gross and Maryann Snyder-Koerber, Heidelberg:
Universitaetsverlag Winter, 495–517.
DeLillo, D., 2011 (2007) Falling Man, London, New York: Picador
Devi, M., 1995, Imaginary Maps: Three Stories, ed. and tr. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak, New York, London: Routledge.
Hamid, M., Key-Note Speech delivered at the 2011 EACLALS
Conference held in Istanbul, 26 – 30 April, 2011.
—. 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, London: Penguin.
Homeland Security Advisory System Scale, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Homeland_Security_Advisory_System#Threat_level_changes.
Huggan, G., 2001, The Post-Colonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins.
London, New York: Routledge.
Keniston, A., and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn, eds., 2008, Literature after
9/11, New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.
Mishra, P., 2007, “The End of Innocence”, in: The Guardian Online, May
19, retrieved 7 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/
2007/may/19/fiction.martinamis.
Randall, M., 2011, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh UP.
Sielke, S., 2010, “Why ‘9/11 Is [Not] Unique’, or: Troping Trauma”, in:
Amerikastudien/American Studies Vol. 55 (3, ed. by Andrew S. Gross
and Maryann Snyder-Koerber, Heidelberg: Universitaetsverlag Winter,
385–409.
Smith, J., 2010 (1999), Islam in America, New York: Columbia UP.
CHAPTER SEVEN

DELIGHTFUL DEATHS:
NABOKOV AND THE JOYS OF MORTALITY

ANNA PILIŃSKA

The postmodern age brought about two symbolic deaths: that of the
author and that of the novel. With both those concepts rendered obsolete
by theorists and writers such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag or John
Barth – with the latter authoring the notion of the “Literature of
Exhaustion”1 – the topic of death in literary fiction is back with a
vengeance. Musings on the experience of death become one of the main
topics in the 1950s and 1960s – a period which witnesses a peculiar
rediscovery of death, with sex and death coexisting as two immemorial
taboos2.
As one of the most prominent postmodern authors, Vladimir Nabokov
did not shun the subject of death, too often depriving it of its solemnity.
His treatment of this particular matter was one of the reasons behind
criticisms such as Dale E. Peterson’s, who, in his article titled “Nabokov’s
Invitation: Literature as Execution”, focuses on the novelist’s failure as a
humanitarian:

Although Nabokov enjoys a reputation as a serious artist, his work has


never laid claim to the high seriousness of “moral fiction”. Even when he
was at the height of his fame both as a Russian author and as an English
one, his staunchest admirers have shied away from hailing the brilliant
technical virtuoso as a notably large-hearted or large-minded genius. There
has been, perhaps as a direct result of these reservations, a prolonged crisis
over Nabokov’s disappointing show as a humanitarian. Even those critics
who most keenly appreciate an art that elaborates and then exposes human

1
Lech Budrecki, Piętnaście szkiców o nowej prozie amerykańskiej (Warszawa:
Czytelnik, 1983), 159.
2
Michel Vowelle, Śmierć w cywilizacji Zachodu (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria,
2008), 697-700.
124 Chapter Seven

fabrications have yearned for the missing warmth of a tragedic tone, or at


least the heartbeat of a humming humanism.3

The critics have their reason for underscoring the absence of moral
message in Nabokov’s creation, for the author himself expressed this
attitude numerous times. In the afterword to his own Lolita, he stated
explicitly: “Lolita has no moral in tow”4. In the foreword to Despair we
read: “Despair, in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social
comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth”5. In one of his
interviews for BBC Nabokov revealed: “Why did I write any of my books,
after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have
no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I
just like composing riddles with elegant solutions”6, and in another one,
this time for BBC2: “I have no purpose at all when composing my stuff
except to compose it. I work hard, I work long, on a body of words until it
grants me complete possession and pleasure. If the reader has to work in
his turn – so much the better. Art is difficult”7.
Regardless of the presence or absence of a moral in a given narrative, it
is undeniable that the treatment of the topic of death is quite unusual, since
hardly ever will the reader find characters in mourning, or particularly
touching descriptions of a character passing away. Instead, one shall
encounter descriptions of freak accidents, murders, or suicides. For
Nabokov, death can be a fascinating spectacle or a very involving
experiment. At the same time, some of his major protagonists are killed by
their author in just one sentence. In the following article, I would like to
focus on a few selected works and demonstrate the various ways in which
Nabokov treats the subject of death.
Nabokov’s last, posthumously published novel, The Original of Laura,
bears a subtitle “Dying is fun” and it is the one worth starting with, for it
contains quite a detailed manual on how to erase oneself (with the
possibility of reversing the process). Even though the novel was never
completed and what we now have access to is not even a cohesive solid
fragment, but scraps on index cards that were most probably intended to
be rearranged, the motif of Philip Wild trying to combine ecstasy and self-

3
Dale E. Peterson, “Nabokov’s Invitation: Literature as Execution”, PMLA 96/5
(1981), 824.
4
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 313.
5
Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (London: Penguin Books, 2010), viii.
6
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: Random House, 1990), 16.
7
Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 115.
Delightful Deaths 125

annihilation is prominent and detailed enough to be analyzed here. This is


how the user’s manual begins:

The student who desires to die should learn first of all to project a mental
image of himself upon his inner blackboard. This surface which at its
virgin best has a dark-plum, rather than black, depth of opacity is none
other than the underside of one’s closed eyelids….Now comes the mental
image. In preparing for my own experiments – a long fumble which these
notes shall help novices to avoid – I toyed with the idea of drawing a fairly
detailed, fairly recognizable portrait of myself on my private blackboard.8

The process begins, thus, with imagining oneself. Philip prefers to


imagine himself as the letter “I”, since it happens to be a personal
pronoun, but it also graphically resembles a person standing on their feet.
The feet is what the protagonist hates most and the first item on the list of
things to be erased:

Several months have now gone since I began working – not every day and
not for protracted periods – on the upright line emblemizing me. Soon,
with the strong thumb of thought I could rub out its base, which
corresponded to my joined feet. Being new to the process of self-deletion, I
attributed the ecstatic relief of getting rid of my toes (as represented by the
white pedicule I was erasing with more than masturbatory joy) to the
fact that I suffered torture ever since the sandals of childhood were
replaced by smart shoes, whose very polish reflected pain and poison. So
what a delight it was to amputate my tiny feet!9

“Ecstatic relief”, “masturbatory joy”, “what a delight it was” – Wild


begins with the feet, but soon ventures upwards. However, he reverses the
process every time, forcing his mind to restore the missing parts of his
mental image. On one occasion, he experiments with not restoring it and
testing the results in reality. He is painfully disappointed to see that his
feet are still there once the trance is over, but he realizes he cannot stand
on them, they no longer serve their function, they are numb and lifeless –
actually beginning to rot there and then. Wild reinitiates the whole
process, restoring his feet to their previous condition, for all he wanted at
that point was to test some new possibilities and options. He reflects upon
the experience in the following way:

8
Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura (Warszawa: MUZA SA, 2010), 131-
133.
9
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 139-141; emphasis added.
126 Chapter Seven

That test – though admittedly a trivial affair – confirmed me in the belief


that I was working in the right direction and that (unless some hideous
wound or excruciating sickness joined the merry pallbearers) the process of
dying by auto-dissolution afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.10

Should anyone like to try what this “greatest ecstasy known to man”
feels like, Wild gives further instructions. Control seems to be one of the
keywords, because careless self-deletion without preparation may result in
the actual death of the experimenter – this we do not want, at least not just
yet. Wild warns his potential “students” not to dwell too long on certain
body parts or organs. “Enjoy your own destruction”, he says, “but do not
linger over your own ruins lest you develop an incurable illness or die
before you are ready to die”11. As the text progresses, the reader
encounters phrases such as “luxurious suicide”12, “delicious dissolution”13,
“the sweetest death”14. Wild admits he has “died up to [his] navel some
fifty times”15.
Even though Nabokov disliked Freudian theories greatly and was
always more than frank about his contempt, and even though Freudian
references (meant as a base for parody and mockery, a trick typical of
postmodern literature) are abundant in his narratives, The Original of
Laura is perhaps the clearest and most obvious example of mocking
Freud’s theory on the death drive. In her article titled “Love, Death,
Nabokov: Looking for The Original of Laura”, Marijeta Bozovic analyzes
the parallels between Freud’s musings on the sex drive and death drive,
and Nabokov’s novel. “There is no missing it:” she writes, “sex = death”16.
Freud himself admitted that this particular area of his overall theory was
highly speculative, especially since the death drive was supposed to be
silent and therefore its existence was much harder to prove in any kind of
experiment17. This is what the Viennese psychoanalyst had to say on the
perilous nature of death drives:

10
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 171; emphasis added.
11
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 181.
12
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 243.
13
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 243.
14
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 243.
15
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 267.
16
Marijeta Bozovic, „Love, Death, Nabokov: Looking for The Original of Laura”,
Nabokov Online Journal 5 (2011), 6.
17
David Macey, ed., The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (London: Penguin
Books, 2000), 82-83.
Delightful Deaths 127

The dangerous death instincts are dealt with in the individual in various
ways: in part they are rendered harmless by being fused with erotic
components, in part they are diverted towards the external world in the
form of aggression, while to a large extent they undoubtedly continue their
internal work unhindered.18

Speaking of turning against the external world, there are a couple of


Nabokovian characters who end up destroying their doubles, be they false
or real. The first is Hermann, the protagonist of Nabokov’s Despair.
Hermann is obsessed with a man he met by chance, because he claims
they are absolutely identical. This is their first encounter:

For some time I remained gazing at the road from the slope; then turned,
went on, found a blurry trail running between two humps of bald ground,
and after a while looked about for a place to rest. At some distance from
me under a thornbush, flat on his back and with a cap on his face, there
sprawled a man. I was about to pass, but something in his attitude cast a
queer spell over me: the emphasis of that immobility, the lifelessness of
those widespread legs, the stiffness of that half-bent arm. He was dressed
in a dark coat and worn corduroy trousers….He drew his breath in with a
sharp sniff; his face broke into ripples of life – this slightly marred the
marvel, but still it was there.19

That man, especially when he slept, when his features were motionless,
showed me my own face, my mask, the flawlessly pure image of my
corpse – I use the latter term merely because I wish to express with the
utmost clarity – express what? Namely this: that we had identical features,
and that, in a state of perfect repose, this resemblance was strikingly
evident, and what is death, if not a face at peace – its artistic perfection?
Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus;
thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous
flush of forbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.20

When the yet unnamed man, whose name is later revealed to be Felix,
is motionless – Hermann sees in him his own reflection (or would have
seen his own reflection was he not terrified of mirrors). Any sign of
liveliness in Felix “kills” the resemblance, but otherwise they are the
same. Hermann then comes up with a masterplan of sorts: he will feign his
own death by murdering Felix and commit insurance fraud. The man

18
Freud quoted in Steven J. Ellmann, When Theories Touch: A Historical and
Theoretical Integration of Psychoanalytic Thought (London: Kamac Books, 2011),
155.
19
Nabokov, Despair, 4-6.
20
Nabokov, Despair, 10-11.
128 Chapter Seven

arranges a meeting with Felix, lies to him about being an actor in search of
a double, then he changes the story to something perhaps more plausible
and tells the man that he is in need of an alibi and needs Felix to dress up
as Hermann and show up somewhere. When all is prepared and Felix
changes into Hermann’s clothes, the latter shoots him. Once Felix is dead,
they are once again (in Hermann’s eyes) 100% identical. Unfortunately, as
it soon turns out, nobody but him notices this resemblance and so the plan
does not work, because Hermann has something in common with quite a
few of Nabokovian characters: he is insane. The murder of Felix he treats
like a work of art, for he is a mad artist and since nobody seems to believe
his version of the story, he describes it in a book:

I maintain that in the planning and execution of the whole thing the limit of
skill was attained; that its perfect finish was, in a sense, inevitable; that all
came together, regardless of my will, by means of creative intuition. And
so, in order to obtain recognition, to justify and save the offspring of my
brain, to explain to the world all the depth of my masterpiece, did I devise
the writing of the present tale.21

It is an utterly dehumanizing procedure, for Hermann is refusing to


acknowledge that his victim was a person and not just one of the links in
the long and delusional chain of his plan. In case the reader should wonder
if there would at least be a light at the end of the tunnel and a chance for
Felix to be in a better place, Hermann presents his own view of the
afterlife. Namely, there isn’t any:

I am not master of my life, not sultan of my own being, then no man’s


logic and no man’s ecstatic fits may force me to find less silly my
impossibly silly position: that of God’s slave; no, not his slave even, but
just a match which is aimlessly struck and then blown out by some
inquisitive child, the terror of his toys. There are, however, no grounds for
anxiety: God does not exist, as neither does our hereafter, that second
bogey being as easily disposed of as the first. Indeed, imagine yourself just
dead – and suddenly wide awake in Paradise where, wreathed in smiles,
your dear dead welcome you.22

“I refuse to undergo the tortures of everlasting life”,23 he adds. In


Despair, death may not be as ecstatic as in The Original of Laura, but it is
a freeing experience (Hermann explains for instance that he is not suicidal,
because there are people such as executioners whom the state pays to

21
Nabokov, Despair, 149.
22
Nabokov, Despair, 78.
23
Nabokov, Despair, 78.
Delightful Deaths 129

“help a man lethally”). As far as dehumanizing the victim is concerned,


Hermann goes even further in his madness:

Let us suppose, I kill an ape. Nobody touches me. Suppose it is a


particularly clever ape. Nobody touches me. Suppose it is a new ape – a
hairless, speaking species. Nobody touches me. By ascending these subtle
steps circumspectly, I may climb up to Leibnitz or Shakespeare and kill
them, and nobody will touch me, as it is impossible to say where the border
was crossed, beyond which the sophist gets into trouble.24

Felix ends up being this hairless speaking ape, dressed up in someone


else’s clothes and sacrificed for the sake of a madman’s vision, with not
even a chance for a decent afterlife. Hermann is fascinated with their
resemblance, even though in the end Felix is a false double (which even
Nabokov admitted in one of the interviews). Engelking points out that the
concept of murder being perceived as a work of art is in no way a novelty,
but it is due to how convincingly and skillfully Hermann constructs his
narration that the reader is not shocked at all by the idea of turning a
murder into artistic expression25.
Speaking of very convincing madmen – there are quite a few of those
in Lolita. Out of all the deaths in this particular novel, two are depicted
with more detail. I shall refer to the remaining casualties later on, but for
now let us turn to Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, who dies run over by a
car while rushing to the mailbox to post letters revealing her husband’s
atrocious and sick plans. Humbert relates the scene as if he were a reporter
and not a participant:

Three doctors and the Farlows presently arrived on the scene and took
over. The widower, a man of exceptional self-control, neither wept nor
raved. He staggered a bit, that he did; but he opened his mouth only to
impart such information or issue such directions as were strictly necessary
in connection with the identification, examination and disposal of a dead
woman, the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and
blood.26

Humbert is “a widower” and Charlotte – his wife – is “a dead woman”,


who is to be identified, examined and disposed of. Humbert later on
marvels at this fantastic coincidence which allowed him to eliminate
Charlotte from the picture. Once again, the “victim” (in this case a victim
24
Nabokov, Despair, 161-162.
25
Leszek Engelking, Chwyt metafizyczny. Vladimir Nabokov – estetyka z sankcją
wyższej rzeczywistości (Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego, 2011), 175.
26
Nabokov, Lolita, 98.
130 Chapter Seven

of a coincidence, because Charlotte was not murdered) is deprived of her


name and reduced almost to a road kill, with her head fascinatingly
smashed on the concrete into a “porridge” (here the novelist could not
refrain himself from arranging a nice alliteration). The next death will be
even more spectacular, truly a show. Humbert murders his double, Quilty
– the man who stole Lolita from him:

He was trudging from room to room, bleeding majestically, trying to find


an open window, shaking his head, and still trying to talk me out of
murder. I took aim at his head, and he retired to the master bedroom with a
burst of royal purple where his ear had been.

‘Get out, get out of here’, he said coughing and spitting; and in a
nightmare of wonder, I saw this bloodspattered but still buoyant person
get into his bed and wrap himself up in the chaotic bedclothes. I hit him at
very close range through the blankets, and then he lay back, and a big pink
bubble with juvenile connotations formed on his lips, grew to the size of a
toy balloon, and vanished.27

The whole sad business had taken more than an hour. He was quiet at last.
Far from feeling any relief, a burden even weightier than the one I had
hoped to get rid of was with me, upon me, over me. I could not bring
myself to touch him in order to make sure he was really dead. He looked it:
a quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning
sense of unbelievable luck.28

The villain is unbeatable and just like in a B-class horror movie, he


comes back one last time to make the entire scene even more grotesque:

As the music paused for a moment, there was a sudden noise on the stairs.
Tony and I stepped out into the hall. Quilty of all people had managed to
crawl out on to the landing, and there we could see him, flapping and
heavy, and then subsiding, for ever this time, in a purple heap.29

Quilty rises once again, for the last time – to no effect. His death is the
big finale of Humbert’s story and perhaps for that reason it deserves to be
turned into a full-blown spectacle. Interestingly enough, in a short novella
titled The Enchanter (written originally in Russian), in which Nabokov
introduced the same concept (an older man infatuated with a very young
girl and marrying her mother in order to get close to the girl), we shall find

27
Nabokov, Lolita, 302; emphasis added.
28
Nabokov, Lolita, 303.
29
Nabokov, Lolita, 303-304.
Delightful Deaths 131

another deadly show, when the protagonist throws himself under a truck,
having been caught with the girl:

His desperate need for a torrent, a precipice, a railroad track – no matter


what, but instantly – made him appeal for the very last time to the
topography of his past. And when, in front of him, a grinding whine came
from behind the hump of the side street, swelling to full growth when it
had overcome the grade, distending the night, already illuminating the
descent with two ovals of yellowish light, about to hurtle downward – then,
as if it were a dance, as if the ripple of that dance had carried him to stage
center, under this growing, grinning, megathundering mass, his partner in a
crashing cracovienne, this thundering iron thing, this instantaneous
cinema of dismemberment – that’s it, drag me under, tear at my frailty –
I’m traveling flattened, on my smacked-down face – hey, you’re spinning
me, don’t rip me to pieces – you’re shredding me, I’ve had enough.…
Zigzag gymnastics of lightning, spectrogram of a thunderbolt’s split
seconds – and the film of life had burst.30

This violent death is presented as something fascinating and


enrapturing – even the victim himself welcomes what kills him and dances
with it until he is no more. Death is also a potential show to one of the
characters in the already discussed The Original of Laura:

Adam Lind had always had an inclination for trick photography and this
time, before shooting himself in a Monte Carlo hotel (on the night, sad to
relate, of his wife’s very real success in Piker’s “Narcisse et Narcette”), he
geared and focussed his camera in a corner of the drawing room so as to
record the event from different angles.31

Accidents do happen to Nabokov’s protagonists. Yet, it would be


difficult to find another death quite like the death of Armande from
Transparent Things, a novel published in 1972. Her husband (Hugh
Person) actually strangles her to death in his sleep as he attempts to save
her life in a dream. He dreams of a fire and as she tries to jump out of the
window, he grabs her by the neck to save her from the fall. Since his wife
is sleeping right next to him, he actually does grab her neck and strangles
her:

How they flew! Superman carrying a young soul in his embrace! The
impact of the ground was far less brutal than he had expected. This is a
bravura piece and not a patient’s dream, Person. I shall have to report you.

30
Vladimir Nabokov, The Enchanter (New York: Random House, 1991), 63;
emphasis added.
31
Nabokov, The Original of Laura, 49.
132 Chapter Seven

He hurt his elbow, and her night table collapsed with the lamp, a tumbler, a
book; but Art be praised -- she was safe, she was with him, she was lying
quite still. He groped for the fallen lamp and neatly lit it in its unusual
position. For a moment he wondered what his wife was doing there, prone
on the floor, her fair hair spread as if she were flying. Then he stared at his
bashful claws.32

This death is deprived of brutality due to the dream imagery, which is


positive and which presents Hugh as a hero. Hugh himself later dies in a
fire, which is still a far more picturesque death than that of his father, who
dies half-dressed and deprived of dignity in a changing room, having
suffered a stroke while trying on pants:

Awkward Person Senior had been struggling to push a shod foot through
the zigzag of a narrow trouser leg when he felt a roaring redness fill his
head. He died before reaching the floor, as if falling from some great
height, and now lay on his back, one arm outstretched, umbrella and hat
out of reach in the tall looking glass.33

As Ellen Pifer points out, Armande’s death does not qualify as murder:
“fusing the image of dead Armande with that of the woman ‘flying’ to her
death in Hugh’s dream, Nabokov distinguishes his protagonist’s
‘automatic act’ from cold-blooded murder”34. As for the death of Person
Senior (curiously enough the literary worlds created by Nabokov are
densely populated with unmanly men and Person Senior is one of them) –
even his death is “unmanly”. In this particular case, the death scene may
serve to further emasculate a character.
As has been signaled, not all protagonists and secondary characters
deserve an entire scene or even a paragraph for a death scene. As if their
lives were far more important than the fact they are now gone, the key
characters in Lolita disappear in one emotionless sentence. Humbert
Humbert “had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on
November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was scheduled to start”35,
Lolita “died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day
1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest”36, Annabel Lee

32
Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,
1981), 84.
33
Nabokov, Transparent Things, 20.
34
Ellen Pifer, “Shades of Love: Nabokov’s Intimations of Immortality”. The
Kenyon Review, New Series 11/2 (1989), 81.
35
Nabokov, Lolita, 5.
36
Nabokov, Lolita, 6.
Delightful Deaths 133

(Humbert’s original love whose incarnation the man seeks in Lolita) “died
of typhus in Corfu”37.
To mention briefly a few more of Nabokov’s victims: there is Luzhin
in The Defense who commits suicide to save himself from terrifying
repetitive patterns haunting him all his life, there is the suicidal Hazel
Shade from Pale Fire; even among the characters from Nabokov’s short
stories there are quite a few who die somewhat spectacularly: a woman
dies of a heart attack after her husband puts a skeleton of a hunchback in
their bed, another woman dies in midair while skiing, because a
disturbingly demonic angel breaks all her ribs with its wing; finally, even a
dragon dies of a heart attack after a group of townspeople chases him back
to his cave.
Nabokov’s characters are his puppets and the author never claimed
otherwise; the thought that he might be in any way guided by his own
protagonists and that they might be out of his control he found repulsive.
Perhaps for that reason he does away with them whenever and however he
pleases, and some of them are even loving it. The reader is taught not to
get attached to them, as the characters are often eventually deprived of
human qualities once they are slaughtered for our entertainment. In an
interview for The Paris Review, dated 1967, Nabokov answered a question
about his work habits: “My schedule is flexible but I am rather particular
about my instruments: lined Bristol cards and well-sharpened, not too
hard, pencils capped with erasers”. 38 The novelist may have been very
particular about the vocabulary and phrasing, he may have changed his
mind a dozen times before completing a perfect passage, but the “tools” he
used (and mastered to perfection) to delete his characters were far more
sophisticated than pencil erasers.

References
Bozovic, M., 2011, “Love, Death, Nabokov: Looking for The Original of
Laura”, Nabokov Online Journal 5, 1-19.
Budrecki, L., 1983, Piętnaście szkiców o nowej prozie amerykańskiej.
Warszawa: Czytelnik.
Ellman, S. J., 2011, When Theories Touch: A Historical and Theoretical
Integration of Psychoanalytic Thought. London: Karnac Books.

37
Nabokov, Lolita, 13.
38
Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 100.
134 Chapter Seven

Engelking, L., 2011, Chwyt metafizyczny. Vladimir Nabokov – estetyka z


sankcją wyższej rzeczywistości. Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu
Łódzkiego.
Macey, D., ed., 2000, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. London:
Penguin Books.
Nabokov, V., 1981, Transparent Things. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
—. 1990, Strong Opinions. New York: Random House.
—. 1991, Enchanter. New York: Random House.
—. 1997, Lolita. London: Penguin Books.
—. 2010, Despair. London: Penguin Books.
—. 2010, The Original of Laura. Warszawa: MUZA SA.
Peterson, D. E., 1981, “Nabokov’s Invitation: Literature as Execution”,
PMLA 96 (5), 824-836.
Pifer, E., 1989, “Shades of Love: Nabokov’s Intimations of Immortality”,
The Kenyon Review, New Series 11 (2), 75-86.
Vowelle, M., 2008, Śmierć w cywilizacji Zachodu. Gdańsk: słowo/obraz
terytoria.
CHAPTER EIGHT

REPRESENTING BLACK TRAUMA:


BODIES, PAIN AND HAUNTING IN BELOVED (S)

ANNA IATSENKO

Toni Morrison’s most widely acclaimed novel Beloved celebrated its


twenty-fifth anniversary of publication in 2012. Beloved also received a
great amount of critical and academic attention, and still much remains to
be said about this text. Moreover, Beloved inspired other artistic creations,
such as Jonathan Demme’s filmic adaptation of the same name and,
related to the source of Beloved – the historical character Margaret Garner
on whom Morrison based her protagonist Sethe – is now a well-known
opera created in the joint effort between Morrison and Richard Danielpour.
Indeed, Beloved is a complex example of the neo-slave narrative genre
which deals with the trauma of slavery particularly in the way that the
novel approaches memory and remembering. Rather than presenting
memory as a mental or abstract process, Morrison’s characters show us to
what extent memory is a physical act, thus conferring onto the verb “to
remember” a status of a fully realized action verb. This will be the point of
departure of the present essay in which I will argue that Morrison’s
treatment of memory of trauma as something deeply rooted in the body’s
physicality reveals our current awkwardness in talking about bodies, and
black bodies in particular. This latter fact becomes especially obvious
when we change textual mediums and deal with Demme’s filmic
adaptation of the novel which has been widely criticized precisely for
making Beloved too physical and, therefore, according to critics,
grotesque.
The novel Beloved presents a myriad of different problematics.1 One of
them of particular interest to the ensuing discussion is deeply concerned

1
Indeed, a brief overview of the extensive academic scholarship on Morrison’s
Beloved reveals not only a dense network of wide-ranging themes, but also
discourses. Linden Peach, in his work entitled Toni Morrison, points to a number
136 Chapter Eight

of trajectories to the exploration of the novel which arise out of the “fragmentary”
style of the narrative (102). Peach’s main argument states that Beloved in fact, is a
“text” in Roland Barthes’ sense of the term – ”a point of intersection of different
discourses” (102). Peach attributes the different discourses to the various types of
narratives present in the novel: the slave narrative, the romance and the ghost story.
However, Peach also points to a number of other elements which participate in the
construction of the text: the psychological depth of the characters, the importance
of the community, the unfolding of a trauma narrative, the constructed nature of
hegemonic discourse, the importance of elements of religion, folklore and
storytelling, the ideas of healing and rebirth, re-memory and remembering. Also,
other authors, such as Jean Wyatt, discusses the importance of the body in the text.
Philip Page, in his extremely insightful book Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and
Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels stresses the importance of the
mechanism of “circularity” which participates in the creation of a blurred temporal
chronology as the various characters tell and re-tell their stories, thus creating
“recurrent, circular structures” (134). Although it is not in the intention of this
paper to provide an annotated bibliography of the critical scholarship on
Morrison’s Beloved, the reader may wish to consult the following works for
overviews of different readings of Beloved Matus, Jilll. Toni Morrison.
Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998. 103-20.(On historical approaches to the novel);
Tally, Justine ed. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2007. (Contains a number of interesting articles amongst which
Claudine Raynaud’s “Beloved or the Shifring Shapes of Memory”, 43-58, on the
idea of remembering slavery as well as Justine Tally’s essay on a more bakhtinian
perspective on the novel as part of the trilogy including Jazz and Paradise, entitled
“The Morrison Trilogy” 75-91.); Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni
Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1991. (The third chapter of the volume
entitled “‘The Disremembered and Unaccounted For’: History, Myth and Magic”
61-81, although not exclusively on Beloved offers an interesting reading from a
more feminist perspective and makes connections with the traditions of the African
continent.); Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of ‘Double-Consciousness: Toni
Morrison’s Novels. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press; 1993.
(Although dealing with other novels alongside Beloved the fourth chapter entitled
“The Metaphysical Argument for the Supernatural” 149-186, offers a discussion of
the novel from a rather psychoanalytic point of view with the introduction of the
elements of the “uncanny” within the binary of the double consciousness.); Mbalia,
Doreatha Drummond. Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness. London:
Associated UP, 1991. (The sixth chapter of the work entitled “Beloved: Solidarity
as Solution” pp. 87-102, looks at the importance and function of community in
Beloved.); Peterson, Nancy J. ed. Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical
Approaches. Baltimore and London; The John Hopkins University Press, 1997.
(This collection contains a number of relevant and interesting articles, in particular
Rafael Pérez-Torres’s “Knitting and Knotting the Narrative Thread – Beloved as
Postmodern Novel” pp. 91-109, on the post-modernist aesthetic of the novel, but
one may also want to consider the intertextual essays of Richard C. Moreland and
Representing Black Trauma 137

with memory and in particular traumatic memory of the freed ex-slaves


and the ways in which these various characters put up defense mechanisms
in order to suppress this memory through forgetting. In the foreword to a
later edition of the novel, Morrison talks about the danger of repression of
memory and the quasi-uselessness of this act:

In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things
being both under control and out of control would be persuasive
throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently
disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget
would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render
enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.2

Indeed, in Beloved memory becomes a character of its own in a strife


to stay alive. One of such moments is described by the narrator at the
beginning of the novel via a focalization through Sethe. The passage reads:

“… she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe.


Unfortunately, her brain was devious. She might be hurrying across a field,
running practically, to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap
from her legs. Nothing else would be in her mind. The picture of the men
coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin
buckled like a washboard. Nor was there the faintest scent of ink or the
cherry gum and oak bark from which it was made. Nothing. Just the breeze
cooling her face as she rushed towards water … Then something. The
plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings … or Here Boy lapping

Caroline M. Woidat who engage Beloved via other works such as Mark Twain’s
Tom Sawyer and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter respectively. For a
reader-response perspective consult James Phelan’s article “Toward a Rhetorical
Reader-Response Criticism: The Difficult, the Stubborn, and the Ending of
Beloved 225-44 of the same volume.); Palsa, Carl. Beloved. New York: Columbia
UP, 1998. (This work, exclusively on the novel Beloved offers its readers a
multitude of different perspectives of the novel which range between
representations of the body, intertextuality, post-colonial and psychoanalytic
theories, but also includes interviews with Toni Morrison concerning the novel.);
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee Press, 1991. (The last section of this work is exclusively
devoted to the study of Beloved and, as the title of the book suggests, engages with
elements of African-American folklore.); for a rather short, but pertinent
bibliography of critical writings on Morrison’s novels classified by book and genre
see Carlacio, Jami L., ed. The Fiction of Toni Morrison: Reading and Writing on
Race, Culture, and Identity. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of
English; 2007. A longer bibliography is included in Peach.
2
Morrison, Beloved, XIII.
138 Chapter Eight

in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling,
rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on
that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before
her in shameless beauty … Boys hanging from the most beautiful
sycamores in the world. It shamed her – remembering the wonderful
soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise,
the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive
her memory for that.3

Despite the fact that the first section of the quotation emphasises the
absence of elements which act as memory triggers – no men, no scent of
ink, no oak bark – this absence is only apparent. Indeed, despite the
absence of direct triggers from Sethe’s immediate field of perception, their
presence is immanent because, as shown by the second part of the
quotation, the most trivial of objects can bring about the re-living of the
traumatic past. In fact, it seems that Sethe does not even need the triggers
– the experiences of her trauma are always and already there, waiting to
dart at her. Furthermore, the text provides an interesting parallel between
memory and the body: “The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as
lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a
washboard”. Here, the text positions the immanence of Sethe’s memory as
being an integral part of her mutilated back, deeply rooted in the flesh in
the form of scars and, consequently, as always present more or less
acutely.
The character of Beloved is directly linked to this intense physicality
of memory. With this character, however, Morrison increases the intensity
further and creates a presence that plays on the borders of figuration and
fact. When Morrison talks about the creation of Beloved she says the
following:

I sat on the porch, rocking in a swing, looking at giant stoned piled up to


take the river’s occasional fist. Above the stones is a path through the lawn,
but interrupted by an ironwood gazebo situated under a cluster of trees and
in deep shade.

She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the
gazebo. Nice hat.4

Here, in a few words, mainly through the shift between the first person
and third and the use of strong active verbs, Morrison completely blurs the
ontological levels between fiction and reality. In the quotation above
3
Ibid., 6-7.
4
Ibid., XII.
Representing Black Trauma 139

Beloved is devoid of any sort of abstraction and she is a full-scale person,


rather than a persona. This latter fact is also present throughout the novel.
Indeed, Morrison’s Beloved is ambivalent because she is not only a trope
in the book, but her presence is also incredibly physical and real – as real
as the legacy of slavery that the characters experience in and on their
bodies. This is further reflected on the level of language through the use of
metaphors which have a greater impact on the reader when read literally
rather than abstractly. In her article Jean Wyatt suggests that the novel’s
discourse resists the laws of metaphoric operations. Wyatt rightfully
argues that:

[W]hen the narrative focuses on either the maternal body or the haunted
house, metaphors abandon their symbolic dimension to adhere to a
baseline of literal meaning. For instance, a figure of speech in which
weight usually means “responsibility” turns out to describe only the
physical weight of Sethe’s breasts … The continual shift from the abstract
to the concrete creates the illusion of words sliding back to a base in the
material world, an effect congruent with Morrison’s emphasis on
embodiment – on both the physical process of maternity and the concrete
presence of the ghost: “Usually [slavery] is an abstract concept … The
purpose of making [the ghost] real is making history possible, making
memory real – somebody walks in the door and sits down at the table, so
you have to think about it” (qtd. in Darling 6).5

If we consider Beloved from Wyatt’s perspective on literalisation of


metaphors, a term that I find particularly relevant to describe the presence
of this character in the text on both metaphorical and literal levels is the
verb “to hover”. The OED definition of the verb states that when used
literally, the verb means “to hang or remain suspended in the air over or
about a particular spot, as by flapping the wings, especially when
preparing to dart or swoop in some direction”.6 When used figuratively,
the verb refers to the action of persistently “hanging or lingering about (a
person or place), to wait near at hand, move to and fro near or around, as if
waiting to land or alight; also said of things intangible”.7 Interestingly,
these definitions are also applicable to the presentation of Sethe’s
experience of memory’s constant lingering presence that I have discussed
above. As for Beloved as a character, but also as a concept linking
memory, trauma and pain, Beloved is always already there – she hovers

5
Wyatt, “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s
Beloved474-5.
6
OED, Online.
7
Ibid.
140 Chapter Eight

above her victims waiting to attack. Whereas this presence is conceptual or


ghostly in the beginning of the novel, we only know Beloved as “the one
word that mattered”8 on the tombstone of Sethe’s dead baby, as the novel
progresses this word becomes fleshed out and returns to her mother’s
household. Although we may think that as the fleshed-out concept Beloved
ceases to hover, this is not entirely true, because she continues being
suspended with respect to assignation of meaning – different characters
respond differently to her. It is this hovering, more than haunting, that is
crucial to the understanding of the novel. Interestingly, however, most of
the critical academic attention which Beloved attracts prefers to treat this
character as something abstract, as a trope. This is particularly noticeable
when we begin to deal with the visual adaptation of the novel by Jonathan
Demme and his fleshed-out character of Beloved performed by Thandie
Newton. Demme’s filmic adaptation of Morrison’s novel has been
criticised precisely for giving Beloved a visible, human body. This,
however, does not automatically imply that Demme’s Beloved becomes
less enigmatic, but for some obscure reason seeing her body on screen
does not inspire in critics and scholars a favourable response.
One of the possible reasons why Demme’s work was not as successful
as one would like to imagine may reside in the fact that Hollywood
mainstream cinema does not inspire trust in academic and critical spheres.
Indeed, despite the attempts of contemporary intellectuals and artists to
challenge racial stereotypes or even attempt to “write themselves out” of
the racial paradigm,9 mainstream Hollywood cinematographic
representations are embedded in the very impossibility of doing so.
Although we may like to think that in our post-slavery, post-Civil Rights
society the stereotypes of racial representations have ceased to exist, this is
not the case – the stereotypes are simply transformed or “updated” to suit
the current cultural norms and demands. Even though the stereotypical
figures of blackness such as “Toms”, “Coons”, “Mammies”, and others10
are no longer overtly exploited by the mainstream Hollywood cinema,
recent films like The Constant Gardener (2005) or Blood Diamond (2006)
although well-meaning at first glance, continue to infantilize black heroes

8
Morrison, Beloved, 5.
9
See Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif” In Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka eds.
Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women. New York: Quill, 1983.
243-61.
10
See Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the ‘Other’” In Hall, Stuart ed.
Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: The
Open University, 1997. 223-90, for a thorough illustration and discussion of the
formation of the black representational stereotypes in visual media.
Representing Black Trauma 141

by robbing them not only of agency, but also of mere presence by


positioning the white hero as the only one capable of saving the African
continent. When considered as a vehicle of the ideological hegemonic
apparatus, Hollywood industry spoon-feeds its audience Western ideology
propagated by stereotypes of the “other” throughout the world.
Unfortunately, the few Hollywood film-makers who attempt to deviate
from or critically explore racial representational stereotypes often fail to
do so due to the financial demands imposed upon them by the industry
itself. The expectation of a high profit is not a minor constraint in the film-
making reality and in order to meet such financial expectations, a film
must attract the maximum viewers. In her article Mia Mask points out that:
“… as the product of commercial culture (and society) the Hollywood
commodity must earn profit. To make a profit, it must entertain consumers.
Where a novel can sell 20,000 volumes and yield a reasonable return, the
film must reach millions”.11 Thus, in the name of mass entertainment,
certain attempts at thinking about and representing race differently are
simply lost under the cover of the sensational, the shocking, and the
arousing experience that average movie-goers are not only looking for, but
are prompted to demand. This, to a large extent, is the case of Jonathan
Demme’s film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. However,
when we begin to look closely at the film and think critically about the
composition of shots and sequences, the soundtrack and the photography,
we begin to see to what extent Demme deeply understands the character of
Beloved and the concept of “hovering“ that is so important in the
appreciation of this character and the discussion of memory that Morrison
provides in her novel.
According to critics and reviewers, it seems that Demme’s adaptation
of Morrison’s novel really fails at all possible points of comparison. The
representation of the character of Beloved on screen also provokes
immense dissatisfaction. One of the reviewers, John C. Tibbetts writes:

Another major problem is the characterization of Beloved… in the film her


appearance is immediately grotesque, her body crookedly splayed against a
tree trunk, her twisted limbs and grimacing face crawling with insects.
What was unsettling in Morrison is simply monstrous here…Morrison’s
prose always keeps us off balance about Beloved’s physical presence. Solid
and substantial she is, to be sure, but there is always the implication she is
about to disintegrate… The concrete imagery of the film allows for no such

11
Mask, “Beloved The Adaptation of an American Slave Narrative”, 273.
142 Chapter Eight

subtlety. The character of Beloved is no longer a meaningful metaphor in a


poignant ghost story but a freak on display in a sideshow.12

Tibbetts’ idea of a freak show was more recently taken up by Anissa


Janine Wardi, who in her article argues that the cinematic representation of
Beloved is “nothing short of a spectacle”.13 “With the film bereft of the
novel’s metaphoric power”, Wardi continues, “watching the resurrected
baby on film becomes a voyeuristic exercise as viewers gaze in horror,
interest, and curiosity”.14 In her article, Wardi takes the idea of voyeurism
into the domain of the freak-shows – indeed, Beloved’s appearance in the
film is framed by an outing to a carnival of Sethe, Paul D. and Denver.
Moreover, her strongest point of attack on Demme’s film is the too close
proximity of Beloved to the elements of nature – in the film Beloved rises
from a pond and spends some time leaning against a tree covered with
crawling insects. Indeed, throughout the film her proximity with insects
becomes more and more apparent and her presence is often accompanied
by the sound of insects. Wardi comments on this by saying that:

In addition to Beloved’s physical appearance and vocal performance, the


film makes use of wildlife imagery to connote her presence. Scattered
scenes of wild animals punctuate Beloved’s appearance, which further
implies her inhumanity… This retreat to nature, though beautiful,
reinforces the feral nature of Beloved. Because “animalization” is a key
trope of colonization, a discourse that, “for Fanon, always resorts to the
bestiary” (Shohat and Stam 137), it logically follows that Beloved is the
only character connected to the wild; the others are shown with only
domesticated animals. Like other “natives”, she is associated “with the
vegetative and the instinctual rather than with the learned and the cultural”
(Shohat and Stam 138).15

Wardi’s analysis of Beloved’s portrayal in the film is anchored in the


old dichotomy of Nature/Civilization. But there is more. A few pages
further in her article Wardi says:

In short, the film bankrupts the text of its complexity, and becomes,
explicitly in the case of Beloved’s portrayal, pornographic. Beloved
graphically urinates, vomits, chokes, screams, and sexually assaults Paul
D. While these unseemly behaviours are understood on the page,

12
Tibbets, “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved”. Online.
13
Wardi, “Freak Shows, Spectacles, and Carnivals: Reading Jonathan’s Demme’s
‘Beloved’”, 513.
14
Ibid., 514.
15
Ibid., 520.
Representing Black Trauma 143

literalizing these metaphoric conceptualizations closes down their


rhetorical value.16

In her criticism of the film Wardi’s comment displays concern with the
discursive practices where language has been subverted so as to become a
tool of oppression of the African American community. Indeed, the
hegemonic discourses which so often ascribe black bodies as being in
close proximity to nature, to the uncivilized wilderness are a source of
racist ideology. However, to rob Beloved of bodily functions of waste-
disposal and sexuality by labelling her portrayal as being “pornographic”
sanitises her body and consequently denies Beloved’s physical immanence
as the embodied ghost. As stated in the discussion above, the physicality
of the character must not be side-stepped because, otherwise, we run the
risk of rendering completely abstract not only the process of remembering
but also the very reality of the experience of slavery. As I will shortly
demonstrate via the close readings of selected scenes from the film,
Demme perfectly understands this problem but also the complex
mechanics of the character of Beloved and, consequently, there is a greater
depth in his representation of the character on screen than Wardi’s
interpretation of it suggest.
When the ghost of Beloved first appears in the film, its presence is
only suggested by the graveyard setting of the shot. The opening of the
film starts with a camera fade-in and then a tracking shot with a low level
of framing. The camera moves quickly but remains very close to the
ground as it takes us through the graveyard. From the level of framing and
the pace of movement of the camera, one can infer that the point of view
shown is not that of an adult. It is interesting to observe that the first
human we see is a child – one of Sethe’s sons. Within the next few
seconds, the opening scene and the following one become connected as
the spectator is shown a dog being freely spun in the air by an unseen
force and suggests that the destructive force in the house is certainly
linked to the tombstone in the cemetery.17 If the audience does make the
link between the two scenes, the idea of hovering begins to develop – from
the quiet of the cemetery where a presence is located by the camera to the
attacks on the humans in the house a lingering, unseen presence of a ghost
implicitly accompanies the images shown on the screen.
Following this scene, the second appearance of the ghost occurs when
Paul D. arrives at 124 Bluestone Road. In this extract, the hovering of the
ghost becomes extreme to the point of forcing a variety of frightening

16
Ibid., 522.
17
Demme, Beloved, 00:00:33-01:22.
144 Chapter Eight

images upon Paul D. He feels the presence of the ghost with such intensity
that he is forced to step into the house twice, as if refusing to trust his own
feet. As Paul D. re-steps into the house, the camera begins to tilt. Here
Demme is using the technique of Canted Framing which gives the effect of
a rocking boat. His face lit from below by a red light, Paul D. continues to
advance in the narrow corridor while the walls, which no longer carry their
initial grey/blue colour but are now red, begin to swerve. Paul D. closes
his eyes, turns away and forces himself through into the kitchen.18 When
we juxtapose the two scenes, we begin to understand that the ghost does
not only throw dogs and furniture around – it does something more. It
communicates with the characters by invading their perceptual fields with
its presence because Paul D. begins to hallucinate when he encounters it.
Before her fleshed-out appearance at 124 Bluestone Road, there are
two more instances when the ghost lets her presence be known. Both of
these instances occur when Paul D. and Sethe are remembering certain
traumatic experiences from their pasts. The ghost makes her presence
known precisely at the moments when Paul D. attempts to do something in
order to understand and soothe Sethe’s painful memories.19 This should
make the audience more attentive to the moments of appearance of the
ghostly presence. Indeed, it seems that what Demme tries to show to his
viewers is that the ghost manifests itself when prompted by a particular
behaviour from the characters. An attentive spectator will begin to pick up
the difference between the suspended, almost passive daily lingering of the
ghost and when this lingering begins to vibrate menacingly within the
household and physically assault its inhabitants. Although we still do not
see Beloved in the flesh – we know that she is there and that she inflicts
great harm onto those who come in contact with her.
Beloved finally appears in the flesh when Sethe, Paul D. and Denver
attempt to construct a family life. Before the camera cuts to Beloved’s
emergence from the pond, we witness a conversation between Sethe and
Denver where Denver expresses her longing for the ghost. Denver is
weary of the fact that by fighting the ghost, Paul D has disposed of her
only playmate. This exchange is also accompanied by night-time insect
sounds. Before cutting to the next scene, the two women say the
following:

18
Ibid., 00:09:00-10:04.
19
Ibid., 00:14:36 and 00:19:33.
Representing Black Trauma 145

Denver: “I think the baby ain’t gone. I think the baby got plans”
Sethe answers: “Maybe. Maybe so”.20

It is in between these two sentence fragments that the camera cuts to


the forest, and the noises which Wardi correctly labels as “animalistic”
become amplified. We hear birds and crickets and certainly a multitude of
other insects impossible to identify from a soundtrack. There is also
another sound – a stifled breathing like that of a person suffering from
asthma, and it takes a while for the audience to find the source of this
sound. It is then that a figure appears coming out of the water and
painstakingly making her way onto the bank. As the figure, accompanied
by butterflies, rises from the misty pond, she stumbles and practically falls
against a tree and continues to breathe heavily. The camera, then, cuts to a
different time of day – perhaps night time judging by the quality of the
light. Starting from the ground, at the base of the tree where one can barely
identify a pair of shoes protruding from under a dress, the camera begins
travelling upwards. Although the viewer may be tricked and confuse the
body with the tree, he/she soon realises that the bug-infested surface is the
dressed body of the woman who walked out of the pond a few seconds
ago. The camera continues travelling upwards to the woman’s face to
reveal its beauty. Indeed, the creature that has just come out of the pond is
not a zombie as the wheezing sound and the presence of insects may
suggest, but a beautiful young woman. The camera cuts again, the time of
day switches once more and we see the woman’s face exposed to sunlight,
now almost completely covered in what looks like ladybugs. Another
aspect that the camera exposes is the scar on the neck of the woman. The
camera cuts to the carnival scene.21
In this particular scene, Beloved’s proximity to the natural world
indeed becomes apparent, however and contrary to Wardi’s proposal, by
creating the link to the natural world Demme does not attempt to
“animalize” Beloved nor to colonize her. Rather, the presence of insects
simply makes the link with the reality of death – the insects emphasise the
decomposition of the physical body when in a grave. Demme needs to
make the transition between the tombstone, the ghost and the fleshed out
Beloved readable to his audience and this is transition is done through the
use of insects. Moreover, the sounds of the hovering insects recall the
ghostly presence of the beginning of the narrative. However, the insects
serve not only as transitions between the grave, the ghost and the woman,
nor point exclusively to the uncanny related with death and decay, but they

20
Ibid., 00:28:49-29:03.
21
Ibid., 00:29:00-30:38.
146 Chapter Eight

also reinforce the very physicality of the now-embodied ghost. The insects
echo and accompany her physical rising from the grave and at the same
time, remind the viewers that she is no longer exclusively a ghost – but a
real, tangible, physical body prone to decomposition and decay. In short –
the insects are there not because Beloved is black, but because she has or
has had a body which is subjected to the same laws as all bodies are after
death.
By emphasizing Beloved’s physicality rather than her race, Demme’s
film underlines the universality of Morrison’s work and the importance
that bodies play in the working-through of traumatic experiences. Indeed,
the choices that Demme makes in representing Beloved’s fleshed-out
presence may appear disturbing when we become accustomed to reading
this character through political, social and racial lenses that are often used
in the African American context. In an attempt to assign meaning to
Demme’s representation of the character and Thandie Newton’s
impressive performance of Beloved, critics often over-invest the character
with political, social and racial meanings to the detriment of the other
aspects of the character. Thus, for example, Beloved becomes hyper
visible as a metaphor of slavery, but invisible as a process of recovery
from the traumatic past. It is interesting to note that the dichotomy
visible/invisible partakes not only in the novel Beloved but also in
Morrison’s earliest novel The Bluest Eye where Pecola, while buying
sweets from Mr. Jakubowski encounters the following reaction from the
shop-owner: “Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and
view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time
and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does
not see her, because for him there is nothing to see”.22 As much as Pecola
is invisible to Mr. Jakubowski, so is Demme’s Beloved a little too visible
for the critics and they attempt to subdue her into the stereotypical
readings of blackness. Demme’s work, however, resists such restrain and
displays an acute and well-informed understanding of Morrison’s project.

References
Beloveddir. Jonathan Demme. Touchstone Pictures, 1998.
Carlacio, J. L., ed., 2007, The Fiction of Toni Morrison: Reading and
Writing on Race, Culture, and Identity. Urbana, Illinois: National
Council of Teachers of English.

22
Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 41-2.
Representing Black Trauma 147

Hall, S., ed., 1997, Representation: Cultural Representations and


Signifying Practices. London: The Open University.
Harris, T., 1991, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Heinze, D., 1993, The Dilemma of ‘Double-Consciousness: Toni
Morrison’s Novels. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.
Matus, J., 1998, Toni Morrison. Manchester: Manchester UP.
Mbalia, D. D., 1991, Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness.
London: Associated UP.
Morrison, T., 2005, Beloved. London: Vintage Books.
—. 1999, The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage Books.
Oxford English Dictionary Online. Second edition, 1989; online version
November 2010. http://www.oed.com; 10 December 2010.
Page, P., 1995, Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni
Morrison’s Novels. Mississippi, Jackson: UP of Mississippi.
Palsa, C., 1998, Beloved. New York: Columbia UP.
Peach, L., 2000, Toni Morrison 2nd ed. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Peterson, N. J., ed., 1997, Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical
Approaches. Baltimore and London; The John Hopkins University
Press.
Rigney, B.H., 1991, The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State
UP.
Tally, J., ed., 2007, The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Tibbetts, J. C., 1999, “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved”. Literature/Film
Quarterly 27.1. Literature Online. 02 November 2010. http://gateway.
proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&
res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R01520799:0.
Wardi, A. J., 2005, “Freak Shows: Spectacles, and Carnivals: Reading
Jonathan Demme’s ‘Beloved’” African American Review 39.4 JSTOR.
19 July 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/40033690.pdf.
Wyatt, J., 1992, “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in
Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. PMLA 108.3 JSTOR. 07 November 2010.
CHAPTER NINE

IN SEARCH OF THE LOST HARMONY:


EXISTENTIAL GRIEVANCES IN THE FICTION
OF CARSON MCCULLERS

JUSTYNA RUSAK

Labeled as a writer of the Southern grotesque, Carson McCullers


creates a fictional world inhabited by mutes, cripples, dwarfs and giants,
hunchbacks, tomboys or cross-dressers. As Sarah Gleeson-White points
out, McCullers’s freaks symbolize existential angst,1 and according to
Virginia Spencer Carr, “[t]hroughout the author’s canon, freakishness is a
symbol of a character’s sense of alienation, of his being trapped within a
single identity without the possibility of a meaningful connection with
anyone else”.2 Existential anxiety thus has its roots in the inability to
establish contact with another person. Solipsism understood as a state of
extreme egocentricity and self-reliance is in fact a trap that eventually
results in anguish and despair. McCullers herself seems to confirm the
existential interpretation of the recurrent themes in her fiction:

Spiritual isolation is the basis of most of my themes. (…) Love, and


especially love of a person who is incapable of returning or receiving it, is
at the heart of my selection of grotesque figures to write about – people
whose physical incapacity is a symbol of their spiritual incapacity to love
or receive love – their spiritual isolation.3

Spiritual emptiness of McCullers’s characters might stem from their


inability to accept themselves and their aberrant identities. The problem

1
Sarah Gleeson-White, Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers
(Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003), 3.
2
Virginia Spencer Carr, Understanding Carson McCullers (Columbia: University
of South Carolina Press, 1990), 38.
3
Carson McCullers, “The Flowering Dream: Notes on Writing”, Esquire 52
(1959): 162-64, http://www.carson-mccullers.com/html/flowering.html.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 149

with ascertaining the wholeness of their own selves appears to be


connected with the inconsistent nature of self-development. Fluidity and
incompleteness of one’s identity evokes the Bakhtinian definition of the
grotesque, which “seeks to grasp in its imagery the very act of becoming
and growth, the eternal incomplete unfinished nature of being. Its images
present the two poles of becoming: that which is receding and dying, and
that which is being born”.4
The binary nature of human existence with its incompleteness and
suspension between two contradictory extremes of finitude and infinitude
is illustrated in McCullers’s poem “Father, Upon Thy Image We Are
Spanned”. The discrepancy between the assumed essence patterned on
God’s image and an imperfect existence of a mortal “[t]urning helpless in
the garden of right and wrong/[m]ocked by the reversibles of good and
evil”5 breeds the anguish of existential abandonment in the world of
uncertainties and appearances. Deceived by the apparent completeness of
the process of creation, man is continuously being molded in an
everlasting synthesis. With the process being incomplete, “[w]e suffer the
sorrow of separation and division”6 from the core of our existence, which
McCullers perceives to be Christ. “Deviously natured” and “dual-
planned”, man is trapped in the process of becoming, unable to grasp one’s
wholeness or comprehend one’s vocation.
The tendency to persistently portray protagonists with split selves in
McCullers’s fiction points to the artist’s preoccupation with the search of
wholeness and self-discovery on an intimately personal level. McCullers’s
quoting Kierkegaard’s statement from Sickness unto Death in Clock
without Hands seems to prove this point:

The greatest danger, that of losing one’s self, may pass off as quickly as if
it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife,
etc., is sure to be noticed.7

This slightly ironical assertion reflects the writer’s concern with the
process of searching for one’s genuine identity. Most of McCullers’s
characters seem to possess an enhanced existential sensitivity that
becomes the source of anguish and personal discomposure. Spiritual
4
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1984,) 52.
5
Carson McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart: Selected Writings (New York: Mariner
Books, 2005), 292.
6
Ibid., 292.
7
Søren Kierkegaard quoted by J. T. Malone in McCullers’s Clock Without Hands
(New York: First Mariner Books, 1998), 157.
150 Chapter Nine

evolution towards self-discovery is a turbulent process, yet indispensible


in the philosopher’s view, if aspiring to attain wholeness and a sense of
authentic experience.
Frankie Addams, the twelve-year-old protagonist from The Member of
the Wedding is an example of such a fluid personality. Her developing
identity is a source of existential anxiety and a battlefield of contradictory
feelings and sensations. Being on the verge of puberty, Frankie is torn
between the world of childhood and adulthood, which eventually results in
the split self and a sense of failure. The awareness of her own grotesque
and androgynous appearance arouses the horror of alienation:

This summer she was grown so tall that she was almost a big freak, and her
shoulders were narrow, her legs too long. (…) Her hair had been cut like a
boy’s. (…) The reflection in the glass was warped and crooked. (…) She
stood before the mirror and she was afraid. (…) And what would be a lady
who is over nine feet high? She would be a Freak.8

Frankie’s morbid fear of being associated with the Freaks stems from a
broader problem of her urgent need for acceptance and a sense of
belonging. Bearing close resemblance to Mick Kelly from The Heart is a
Lonely Hunter, who “wasn’t a member of any bunch”,9 Frankie Addams
“belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world”.10 The
fear of being an “unjoined” person is tantamount to the morbid fear of
being associated with the class of Freaks, once secretly observed at the
local exposition, who seemed to “connect their eyes with hers, as though
to say: we know you”.11 The moment of illumination grants Frankie the
possibility of ascertaining her own self by means of the collective Other,
namely her brother and his fiancée. Considering herself an inseparable unit
of the couple, she repeats: “They are the we of me”.12 The extension of the
self from the single “I” to the collective “we” is both the source of
satisfaction and a deepening anxiety. The realization of Frankie’s
separateness from a part of her own self made her feel “queer” and
isolated, “while she was left all by herself; the hull of the old Frankie there
in the town alone”.13

8
Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding (New York: Bantam Books,
1978), 2, 16, 17.
9
Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000),
104.
10
McCullers, The Member, 1.
11
Ibid., 18.
12
Ibid., 39.
13
Ibid., 40.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 151

Keith E. Byerman perceives Frankie’s queer longing for the triangular


marriage of the “we of me” as the desire for self-expression “that would
transcend all restrictive boundaries, including race, nationality and
gender”.14 Emphasizing Frankie’s transition from childhood to adulthood
by the symbolic refusal of her father to be allowed to continue sleeping in
the same bed, Byerman points to the significance of the emergence of
female sexuality as vital to the ascertaining of her identity. The altered
relationships in her father’s house are the source of Frankie’s destructive
behavior and disturbed self-perception. Before her ejection from her
father’s bed, the girl belonged to the centre of the household structure,
where, as a child, she used to have an ascribed place in the social
hierarchy. The moment of rejection disturbed the order, pushing Frankie to
the margins of the house. As an unmarried woman, she is “the outside, the
excess” and must be “gotten out of the house in order to serve her social
purpose: marriage”.15 Only “being given” to another man may guarantee
the restoration of relative security in a masculine household.
McCullers seems to emphasize the protagonist’s deeply rooted
dissatisfaction with her own self which undergoes an ungraspable
metamorphosis from a bright childhood to a dark and complex femininity.
This transformation becomes the primary source of anxiety and self-
aversion for the young girl. Frankie’s last name of Addams, as Robert S.
Phillips suggests, “indicates her archetypal function in her initiation into
worldly knowledge”,16 which implies the interpretation of the
protagonist’s fear as the universal fear of all human beings. Yet
McCullers’s choice of a character who is in a transitory period of growing
up to adulthood seems to exceed the scope of analysis limited purely to the
maturation process. Frankie’s disapprobation of her own self triggers off
the death wish, which is an emanation of the existential terror of
powerlessness in the face of the encompassing fluidity of change. As if
echoing Kierkegaard, Frankie exclaims: “I am sick unto death”.17 Richard
M. Cook perceives Frankie’s experiences during the transitory period of
her life as “a teenage version of existential dread – terribly serious to

14
Keith E. Byerman, “The Daughter as Outlaw in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
and The Member of the Wedding”, in Reflections in a Critical Eye: Essays on
Carson McCullers, ed. Jan Whitt (Lanham: University Press of America, ®Inc,
2008), 25.
15
Ibid., 26.
16
Robert S. Philips, “The Gothic Elements”, in Bloom’s Guides: Carson
McCullers’ ‘The Member of the Wedding’, ed. Harold Bloom (Philadelphia:
Chelsea House Publishers, 2005), 66.
17
McCullers, The Member, 14.
152 Chapter Nine

Frankie but slightly absurd to everyone else”.18 Absurd as it may seem,


however, the essence of the existential experience lies in its subjectivity
and goes beyond the scope of human evaluation. Moreover, as it turns out
later, Frankie’s numerous encounters with the deaths of her acquaintances
and relatives serve her spiritual growth and existential self-awareness
characteristic of a grown-up person.
Suspended by the opposite forces within herself, Frankie loathes the
incomprehensibility of the new predicament, subconsciously defending
herself against imminent change. Omnipresent fear is the condensation of
an unuttered anxiety originating from the disintegration of the modern
world plunged in World War II, as well as the newly-arising awareness of
sinfulness and complexity of life, all resulting in a progressing
separateness between her own self and the surrounding world:

She was afraid of these things that made her suddenly wonder who she
was, and what she was going to be in the world, and why she was standing
at that minute, seeing a light, or listening, or staring up into the sky: alone.
She was afraid, and there was a queer tightness in her chest.19

The adoption of the new feminine identity embodied in the romantic


name F. Jasmine instead of Frankie, which carries connotations of the
monstrous Frankenstein, marks the symbolic initiation into womanhood.
The superficiality of the newly adopted identity is reflected in the
grotesque encounters with strangers and criminals during Jasmine’s
symbolic journey to town. The secret roaming around the forbidden
places, initiation into sexuality and the feeling of secret communion with
the passers-by grant the protagonist the semblance of independence and
self-importance. Yet, spiritually immature, Jasmine/Frankie seems to
evade the bitter truth pointed out by Berenice. In a fit of fever, the girl
realizes the limitations of her own self and its fixedness in the given
circumstances:

Yet always I am I, and you are you. And I can’t ever be anything else but
me, and you can’t ever be anything else but you.20

The futility of transcending one’s own self and forming communion


with everybody in the world makes Frankie/Jasmine realize the
contradictory nature of the human condition. On the one hand, one is

18
Richard M. Cook, “Identity and Coming-of-Age”, in Bloom’s Guides…, ed.
Harold Bloom, 72.
19
McCullers, The Member, 22.
20
Ibid., 109.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 153

“caught” and unable to break free from the limiting circumstances of one’s
existence; on the other hand, people are “loose” and disjointed, aimlessly
passing each other and not able to form lasting ties with anybody. This
suspension between two countering forces seems to be an obstacle for
Frankie to embracing her own fleeting personality. The girl expresses her
concern about the value of time in the following excerpt:

Here we are – right now. This very minute. Now. But while we’re talking
right now, this minute is passing. And it will never come again. Never in
the world. When it is gone it is gone. No power on earth could bring it
back again. It is gone.21

The passage of time indicates the finalization of the transformation


process in the protagonist’s life. The impending breakdown of the girl’s
immature expectations at first brings her to the abyss of spiritual despair.
Its cleansing properties, however, ultimately contribute to the dissolution
of her former self and the acceptance of the newly-discovered identity of
Frances Addams. Nevertheless, whether the transformation process is
ultimately completed remains a point of speculation. According to Sarah
Gleeson-White, The Member of the Wedding is an example of a
masquerade, where Frankie, with her final identity of Frances Addams
“parodies any notion of a fixed identity”. Peeling away a mask after
another, she misleads the reader with the hope of exposing her true self. In
the critic’s view there is no “bottom of identity”, as the ceaseless
masquerade reveals the problem of gender, which is “mobile, contingent,
and performative”. Frankie with her androgynous nature remains a riddle,
evoking a sense of suspension and uneasiness when dealing with the
problem of incompleteness and lack.
Leaving the character of Frankie Addams aside, Mick Kelly from The
Heart is a Lonely Hunter is another example of an unformed identity. No
longer a child and not yet a woman, with a lanky, awkward figure of an
overgrown girl, she feels the queerness of her grotesque appearance:

Five feet six inches tall and a hundred and three pounds, and she was only
thirteen. Every kid at the party was a runt beside her, except Harry, who
was only a couple of inches shorter. No boy wanted to prom with a girl so
much taller than him.22

Mick’s androgynous nature reveals itself in favoring boyish clothes


and her nonconformist attitude towards conventions imposed by the

21
Ibid., 115.
22
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 111.
154 Chapter Nine

patriarchal order, which she manifests in the words: “I wear shorts because
I don’t want to (…) be like either of you and I don’t want to look like
either of you. (…) I’d rather be a boy any day (…)”23 She feels an outcast
deliberately alienating herself from the surrounding world, becoming the
embodiment of the ‘Sea Gull with Back Broken in Storm’, a picture
painted at art classes. Keith E. Byerman stresses the impact of the
patriarchal order or the symbolic Law of the Father on the daughter’s quest
for a sense of self. Mick’s tomboyish behavior and attitudes, considered
unimaginable for a properly trained Southern lady, according to the critic,
classify her as an outlaw in an ordered structure of patriarchal
domination.24 On the other hand, stepping in men’s roles grants the sort of
power an average girl and woman would be otherwise deprived of.
As a form of self-defense, Mick escapes into the “inside room” of
music or dreams. Misunderstood by her relatives, she wonders “how
lonesome a person could be in a crowded house”.25 Torn between
extremes, namely the desire to encapsulate herself in a private room of her
own, and the extravert wish to socialize and be accepted by her peers, the
girl finds herself misplaced and restless. The symbolic passage from
childhood to adulthood is a turbulent process marked by subsequent stages
of advancing and reversing. “I want – I want – I want – was all that she
could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know”.26
Limitations of the external conditions turn out to be a hindrance to
personal ambitions. Obeying moral obligations, Mick gives up her
freedom of existential independence. Stuck in a dead-end job, she is
denied access to the “inside room”, unable to fulfill her true identity. Just
like Frankie Addams, Mick Kelly must sacrifice selfhood by giving up her
creative self in order to survive in the world defined by her father.
Apart from the personal dimension of self-development with the
discussed problems of queerness, androgyny and the grotesque, The Heart
is a Lonely Hunter unfolds also the social aspect of existential anxiety.
Dissatisfaction with social inequality, oppression of the poor and Blacks,
and huge discrepancies between property owners and the representatives
of the lowest social strata lie at the heart of an anger accumulating in the
minds of Jake Blunt and Dr Copeland. Seemingly united by the common
goal and propagating Marxist ideas of the new order, they fight lonesome
battles each confirmed in their own stubbornly defended convictions.
Considering themselves messengers of truth, they preach their

23
Ibid., 42.
24
Byerman, “The Daughter as Outlaw”, 20-22.
25
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 53.
26
Ibid., 53.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 155

revolutionary ideas with religious frenzy characteristic of fanatical


prophets. Their missions are grounded in the socially-conceived identities
categorizing each man as “slave”. The prism of the Hegelian Master-Slave
dialectic allows one to perceive the characters as constructs of the social
order dominating the early-twentieth-century American South. As
representatives of the repressed social stratum, they recognize themselves
through the confrontation with the oppressors – the rich and white
inhabitants of the region. “The life-and-death struggle”27 of the two
contrasting, yet interdependent consciousnesses, finally leads to a steady
disintegration of the lonely individuals overwhelmed by the collective
power of their opponents and the fossilized social order. Despair and a
sense of abandonment of the rebels perversely bolster their conviction
about the redemptive significance of their heroic mission, bringing the
men to the verge of madness.
Disillusionment with God’s indifference towards its creation may give
rise to ideological obsessions of creating utopian states of paradise on
earth within history, which connotes Eric Voegelin’s ideas expressed in
Order and History, The New Science of Politics, or Science, Politics &
Gnosticism. In The People of God28 the philosopher assumes that one may
draw an analogy between the rising of revolutionary movements and the
appearance of ancient Gnostic beliefs within Christianity, pointing to
alienation as the source of both. The increasing dissatisfaction with the
social order and the condition of man throughout history used to spark off
active rebellion aiming at the dissolution of the former order and
introducing new, perfected systems. Modern times with their existential
and social turbulences appear to be no exception to such tendencies. Thus
social revolution towards Communism indirectly refers to the Biblical
myth of building the new Jerusalem on the ruins of the Babylonian empire.
With moral dichotomy of good and evil suspended, any violence seems
justified by way of revenge of the proletariat against their wealthy
oppressors. “Eschatological violence” explicable in the light of the
functioning of the Holy Spirit transcends the human perception of morality
until man’s rebirth in the new structure of order. Voegelin points here to
the problem of evil, which has always been the fundamental problem of
human existence. Questioning Marxist arguments, he claims that evil
cannot be eradicated nor can human nature be improved. Hence the belief
in social paradise appears to be a mere utopia.

27
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, in The Norton
Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent B. Leitch, ed., (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), 632.
28
Eric Voegelin, Lud Boży (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1994).
156 Chapter Nine

In the light of the above rhetoric, Jake Blount and Dr Copeland seem to
be portrayed as modern messiahs, each believing in their own
exclusiveness of truth. Freedom from the “yoke of submission and
slothfulness”29 heralded by Dr Copeland is a type of freedom where the
external power of God is rejected.30 Voegelin’s theory finds reflection in
Dr Copeland’s belief in the divinization of the humans, whose “lives were
holy and for each one of them there was this real true purpose”.31 Self-
imposed power and knowledge32 is to guarantee liberation from enslaving
social and racial subordination of a historically conditioned order. Jake
Blount’s understanding of freedom is that of “a great freedom made
possible only by the sense of justice of the human soul”, achievable
through “action”. Considering Jesus and Karl Marx as his equals in their
revolutionary aspirations, Blount epitomizes the dissenting power of
Gnostic movements mentioned by Voegelin in his work. Dr Copeland’s
emphasizing Karl Marx’s “mission for the living” instead of pinning one’s
hopes on Jesus’ “Heaven or the future of the dead”33 echoes the
philosopher’s notion of the sectarian aspirations to build the new eon, or
“the Third Realm”34 of perfect equality in the terrestrial existence. The
belief in the historical evolution towards the perfect social order and
“salvation from evil” is depicted by Voegelin as one of the features
characterizing Gnosticism, as opposed to Christianity, the latter pointing
out the moment of death as exclusive and revelatory in terms of human
29
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 80.
30
The “God is dead” movement, popularly associated with Nietzsche and Hegel,
as well as being the core issue of gnosis, according to Voegelin, particularly
manifests itself in the modernist phenomena of urbanization and alienation.
Finding oneself in a chaotic and disintegrated world, man attempts to “understand
the meaning of human existence”. The world, experienced as “an alien place” and
a trap, triggers off the escapist mechanisms, either through some “alien”, “hidden
God” or through the liberated, modern “superman” (the self-appointed God).
Voegelin points out the analogy between the condition of “having-been-flung” and
the desire for deliverance with Heideggerian “flungness” of human existence. [Eric
Voegelin, Science, Politics & Gnosticism (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004), xxii,
7,8,9].
31
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 80.
32
Voegelin perceives knowledge as the prerequisite for salvation, as opposed to
ignorance (agnoia). The knowledge, or the awareness of the human entanglement
in the world functions as a liberating factor that guarantees the escape from the old
order. (Voegelin, Science, Politics…, 10).
33
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 188.
34
Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics & Gnosticism (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004),
70; The New Science of Politics. An Introduction (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1987), 111.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 157

cognition and perfection.35 In the context of the novel, the rebuilding of


the current order of things, however universal it might sound, should
originate in the American South, perceived by Jake as “the strangled
South. The wasted South. The slavish South”.36 The birth of the new
identity of the region might entail the sprouting of the new identity of its
inhabitants.
The eventual failure at conveying their individually perceived truths
instills a feeling of increasing madness in both Jake Blount and Dr
Copeland. Powerlessness and ineffectiveness of the communication
process is the source of alienation of the characters:

Alone Jake felt himself sink downwards, slowly in wavelike motions


downward into a shadowed ocean. In helplessness and terror he strained
his eyes, but he could see nothing except the dark and scarlet waves that
roared hungrily over him.37

Left with a sense of failure, Doctor Copeland realizes that his


ideological aspirations are of no lasting value. The feeling of homelessness
plunges him “into the regions of death” where “murderous darkness”
exhausts his spiritual strengths. With the vanishing of the cherished values,
existential emptiness stifles the freedom with inertia and passive
withdrawal.
According to Carson McCullers, the anguish of individuals searching
for acceptance and integration with the power transcending their own
capabilities of cognition reflects the regional consciousness of the lost
sense of self-approval. She mentions the interrelationships of the
characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the Southern spirit in the
following confession:

The human heart is a lonely hunter – but the search for us Southerners is
more anguished. There is a special guilt in us … a consciousness of guilt
not fully knowable or communicable. Southerners are the more lonely and

35
Voegelin, Science, Politics…, 64. In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin
points to the threats triggered off by Gnosticism. According to the philosopher,
perception of human nature as exclusively fulfilled within the terrestrial existence
engenders the problem of “immanentization of the eschaton” and its total
eradication. The Gnostic movement with its assumption of denying the purpose of
life beyond the terrestrial existence, in Voegelin’s view, entails “the destruction of
the truth of the soul, and its disregard for the problem of existence”. [Eric
Voegelin, The New Science of Politics. An Introduction (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1987), 178.]
36
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 296.
37
Ibid., 159.
158 Chapter Nine

spiritually estranged, I think, because we have lived so long in an artificial


social system that we insisted was natural and right and just – when all
along we knew that it wasn’t.38

Recurrence of the words “lonely”, “loneliness”, “sad”, “empty” infuses


the novel with a sense of existential alienation where characters suffer
their lonely sorrows of misplacement and abandonment. Consciousness of
the Deep South shapes and defines the community’s perception of
themselves and their existence. With traditional values challenged and
undermined, they search for self-expression in a world devoid of God,
where each of the main characters tries in vain to realize their individual
vocations. The freedom of choice, however, does not absolve McCullers’s
characters of the anguish of their empty existence. The illusion of
“togetherness”, or “Mit-Sein” through the seeming relationships between
Mick, Brannon, Blount, Dr Copeland and Singer in fact does not allow for
creating genuine bonds between them. Each is plunged in their individual
existence, where Heideggerian “Sorge” is explicated by means of such
notions as uneasiness, anxiety, guilt and loneliness. The need for the Other
in the process of self-affirmation initiates the search for transcendence,
exceeding the scope of the human potential. Unable to persevere in a
world of spiritual emptiness and existential nothingness, the protagonists
find their personal gods who would impose order on their chaotic lives. As
James Brown sums up Heidegger’s existential thought, “[t]he absolute
devaluation of all absolutes is the only absolute left to us”.39 With God
dead and objective morality eliminated, one is free to “create our own
absolutes, temporary and provisional as they must be, conditional and
determined by the set-up of our circumstances, personal and social”.40
Subjectivity without an Object thus appears to be pure Nothingness, hence
God once rejected is now replaced with pseudo-gods tailored to the
individual needs of the protagonists.
Singer turns out to be the figure that encompasses this inner need for
religion. The mute functions here as a Christ-figure fitting the individual
images of personalized gods mirroring the characters’ own selves. In
Understanding Carson McCullers, Virginia Spencer Carr argues that
Singer becomes “a repository of their own illusions and stored-up
anguish”.41 He is perceived simultaneously as a Jew, a very rich man, a

38
Ralph McGill, The South and the Southerner (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959), 217.
39
James Brown, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber & Barth: A Study of Subjectivity
and Objectivity in Existential Thought (New York: Collier Books, 1967), 87.
40
Ibid., 87.
41
Spencer Carr, Understanding…, 21.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 159

lone Turk, or an heir to the finest tobacco crop. Known around town by all
its inhabitants and claimed to be “walking and going nowhere”,42 Singer
seems to be the incarnation of Everyman, uniting universal sorrows and
anguish of the Southern townsfolk. Singer’s superhuman qualities mainly
lie in the grotesque of his muteness, which makes him “downright
uncanny” and “not … quite human”,43 as if “he knew things that ordinary
people couldn’t know”.44 Mick openly alludes to God when addressing
Singer. The condensation of ecstatic emotions evoked while listening to
Beethoven’s third symphony results in a spiritual illumination of her self-
questioning confession:

Now she felt good. She whispered some words out loud: ‘Lord forgiveth
me, for I knoweth not what I do’. Why did she think of that? Everybody in
the past few years knew there wasn’t any real God. When she thought of
what she used to imagine was God she could only see Mister Singer with a
long, white sheet around him. God was silent – maybe that was why she
was reminded.45

Singer’s attraction stemming from his alleged omniscience and inner


radiance emanating peacefulness is incomprehensible to the hero himself.
The third-person narration allows the reader to uncover Singer’s tragic
existence of loneliness, emotional barrenness due to separation from
Antonapoulus and alienation in a foreign land among crowds of talkative
strangers: “He had been left in an alien land. Alone. He had opened his
eyes and around him there was much he could not understand. He was
bewildered”. 46
Indifference of the main characters to Singer’s own existence and their
self-centeredness only reinforce the sense of abandonment and loneliness
in the protagonist. The condition of the misunderstood and abandoned
prophet evokes the condition of Christ in the course of his earthly
existence, as reflected in the Gospels. But, as Jan Whitt aptly observes,
unlike Jesus Christ who was considered by his followers as a “living
signpost to the kingdom of God”, Singer “has no destination, no sense of
mission”.47 Being one of “the loneliest hunters” of McCullers’s

42
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 200.
43
Ibid., 25.
44
Ibid., 179.
45
Ibid., 119, 120.
46
Ibid., 204.
47
Jan Whitt, “‘Simple Stories and the Inward Mind’: Conclusions and New
Beginnings”, in Reflections …, ed. Jan Whitt, 146.
160 Chapter Nine

protagonists and eventually breaking down under the burden of his own
sorrow, he appears to be more human than divine.
With all Christ-like allusions visible in the figure of Singer, Virginia
Spencer Carr points to the character of Biff Brannon as a typical Christ-
figure. To her, Brannon – unlike Singer – accepts and endures his
suffering.48 In fact, Singer, unable to bear the burden of lonesomeness after
the death of his friend, commits suicide, revealing the ungodly weakness,
which, according to Heidegger, is a contradiction to authentic existence. It
is the figure of Biff Brannon, with his queer complexity and capability of
psychological insight into human suffering, that closes the novel with a
hopeful outlook on a seemingly pitiful existence:

… In a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle


and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless
time. And of those who labor and of those who – one word – love. His soul
expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of
terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. (…) between radiance
and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. (…)49

The suspension between two infinitudes alludes to the existential terror


of realized nothingness lurking in Pascal’s, Heidegger’s or Sartre’s
philosophies. Obtaining Heideggerian perspective, Being-towards-Death,
which entails the unavoidability of death, should not obscure the
importance of concentrating on life, despite its transience. Brannon seems
to accept his loneliness and state of suspense, courageous enough to
“await the morning sun”.50
With vivid existential undertones in the novel, Jan Whitt perceives the
theme of the book as an allegory of the human search for self. Far from
being classified as a Christian writer like O’Connor, McCullers, being
herself immersed in the religious spirit of the South where she was born
and raised, doubtlessly points out the “emptiness of self-reliance”,51
revealing the tension between the competing Humanism and
fundamentalist Christianity. Mick Kelly, Dr Copeland, Jake Blount or Biff
Brannon, all derive their strength from Singer, the modern messiah. His
death deepens their solitude, leaving them “grieving at an empty tomb”.52
Helplessness in the face of solitude reveals “the deep need in man to

48
Spencer Carr, Understanding…, 32.
49
McCullers, Lonely Hunter, 359.
50
Ibid., 359.
51
Jan Whitt, “Simple Stories…”,147.
52
Ibid., 150.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 161

express himself by creating some unifying principle of God”,53 as


McCullers herself argues in The Mortgaged Heart. McCullers further
maintains that “[a] personal God created by man is a reflection of himself
and in substance this God is most often inferior to his creator”.54 If God is
dead as Nietzsche heralds in his nihilistic philosophy, then men must
create their own gods in their own images and likeness. Self-deception
turns out to be the method of approaching crude reality, where personal
gods being mere reflections in the mirror tend to assuage the anxiety and
partly help shoulder the burden of responsibility in the process of self-
definition.
To counterpoise the crude realism of the aforementioned novel, the
flicker of hope in the world of the existential malaise seems to appear in
the Coda to The Ballad of the Sad Café where “twelve mortal men who are
together”55 (italics mine) sing in unison, thus escaping solitude and
alienation of the physical and spiritual imprisonment. In their song, as
Klaus Lubbers observes, being “both somber and joyful, which arouses
ecstasy and fright in the listener, we hear the music of mankind imprisoned
in its suffering, working and enduring, comparable to the final vision of
Biff, but more hopeful of man’s indestructibility”.56 Nevertheless, the
pervading gloom of the town’s atmosphere striking the reader at its most
in the prologue and the epilogue matches the melancholic and sentimental
character of the ballad as a musical genre.
The sense of sadness and existential loneliness that returns again in this
work, permeating most of the novella, arises from two sources. The
stifling dullness of the small-town Southern atmosphere, reminiscent of
McCullers’s early days in Georgia as apparently reported in her own
confession sketches the town in both the opening and the ultimate section
of the story: “The town is dreary (…), lonesome, sad and (…) estranged
from all other places in the world. (…) There is absolutely nothing to do in
the town”.57 Moreover, the feeling of repulsion towards the existential
inertia is only deepened by the sense of entrapment in the grotesque
otherness of the individual characters. Miss Amelia Evans, like Frankie
Adams or Mick Kelly, falls outside the typical classification of a woman:

53
Carson McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart, ed. Margarita G. Smith (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 124.
54
Ibid., 124.
55
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (London: Penguin Books, 1963),
85.
56
Klaus Lubbers, “The Necessary Order”, in Carson McCullers, ed. Harold Bloom
(New York: Chelsea House, 1986), 48.
57
McCullers, The Ballad…, 7, 84.
162 Chapter Nine

She was a dark, tall woman with bones and muscles like a man. Her hair
was cut short and brushed back from the forehead, and there was about her
sunburned face a tense, haggard quality. She might have been a handsome
woman if, even then, she was not slightly cross-eyed.58

According to Sarah Gleeson-White, McCullers’s characters, like Mick


Kelly, Frankie Addams, Miss Amelia or Biff Brannon, are “masqueraders”
who are suspended between artificial and authentic selves59. Cross-
dressing and tomboyish behavior tend to reflect the protagonists’ unstable
selves not only as exposed to the Look of the Other, but also to
themselves. The apparent masculinity hidden behind the warped shape of a
female body is the source of Amelia’s personal misplacement in the
conformist Southern society embodied in the unified narrative voice of the
collective critical spectator. The protagonist’s repulsion towards sexuality,
reflected in her inability to treat female complaints, at the mere mention of
which “her face would darken with shame” as if she was a “great, shamed,
dumb-tongued child”,60 exhibits her tomboyish nature and the apparent
immaturity, like that of Mick Kelly or Frankie Addams. According to
Louise Westling, the rejection of the sexual advances of her ten-day
husband, Marvin Macy, and at the same time her infatuation with the
crippled hunchback Lymon Willis, sexless and impotent as he might seem,
safeguards the masculine power dominating Miss Amelia’s personality and
thus allows for the inversion of traditional roles of male and female.61
The principle of “Power”, however, seems to be the mask to deeply
hidden complexes and emotional barrenness inhabiting the woman’s
psyche. Uncomfortable with her own androgynous self, Miss Amelia is
also “not at ease” with people. According to Richard Gray, by accentuating
Miss Amelia’s spiritual isolation, McCullers attempts to depict the human
condition and the universality of lonesomeness. “Like an image seen in a
carnival mirror”, claims the critic, “she is meant to offer us an
exaggerated, comically distorted, and yet somehow sadly accurate
reflection of ourselves”.62 The grain of sympathy towards the seemingly

58
Ibid., 8.
59
Sarah Gleeson-White, “A ‘Calculable Woman’ and a ‘Jittery Ninny’: Performing
Femininity in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Ballad of the Sad Café”, in
Reflections …, ed. Jan Whitt, 47-55.
60
McCullers, The Ballad…, 23.
61
Louise Westling: “Carson McCullers’s Amazon Nightmare”, in Carson
McCullers, ed. Harold Bloom, 113, 114.
62
Richard Gray, “Moods and Absences”, in Carson McCullers, ed., Harold Bloom,
82.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 163

grotesque and repulsive figure thus might derive from the hidden
recognition of the self constituting the universal self of mankind.
The unexpected falling in love with the physically deformed stranger
marks the moment of the steady dissolution of an illusionary power that
has so far guaranteed the makeshift unity of Miss Amelia’s identity. With
her love spurned by Cousin Lymon and simultaneously rejecting the love
of Marvin Macy, Miss Amelia finds herself caught in a vicious circle
gradually converted into a triangular contest of power. Love becomes the
source of suffering, and increases the sense of loneliness, placing the lover
in a sort of cul-de-sac:

(…) And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his
love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it
is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for
the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best as he can; he
must create for himself a whole new inward world – a world intense and
strange, complete in itself.63

Love, being the source of pain and inwardness if unrequited,


concurrently affords relief from man’s solitude. As Oliver Evans argues, in
the modern world, where verbal communication seems to be obstructed,
men manage to “escape from their cells” only through the “ideal
communication” which is love.64 Like the transforming power of the
Mute’s wordless love from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Miss Amelia’s
love allows her to break the tight armor of solipsism and self-reliance. The
resulting prosperity of the café bustling with social life symbolizes Miss
Amelia’s temporal opening of her enclosed self to the Other. However, the
violation and betrayal of her fragile interiors result in the subsequent
collapse of the café with no hope for future revival.
As one can observe, McCullers’s fiction exposes a multi-layer
dimension of existential grief. A sense of pervading loneliness and a lack
of inner harmony of individual protagonists are embedded in an inherited
consciousness of guilt of the Southern community. Since personal freedom
and superficial togetherness guarantee no salvation from existential
emptiness and inner disintegration, the characters subconsciously search
for some uniting force that could provide meaning to their miserable lives,
temporarily consoling themselves with art, pseudo-gods or ideological
endeavors. When interpreted biographically, this desperate search for
Transcendence or Absolute in McCullers’s fiction seems to correlate with
63
McCullers, The Ballad…, 33.
64
Oliver Evans, “The Achievement of Carson McCullers” in Carson McCullers,
ed. Harold Bloom, 24.
164 Chapter Nine

the writer’s personal dilemmas stemming from her discordant identity and
a turbulent life. The obsessive fear of social estrangement and separation
that, according to biographers, characterized most of her life and
apparently found an outlet in her fiction is expressed in the following
excerpt:

To the spectator, the amateur philosopher, no motive among the complex


ricochets of our desires and rejections seems stronger or more enduring
than the will of the individual to claim his identity and belong. From
infancy to death, the human being is obsessed by these dual motives.
…After the first establishment of identity there comes the imperative need
to lose this new-found sense of separateness and to belong to something
larger and more powerful than the weak, lonely self. The sense of moral
isolation is intolerable to us.65

The need to find communion with an entity transcending human


finitude which could assuage the inner guilt of otherness indirectly
instigated the dialogue with the Absolute. As Virginia Spencer Carr noted
in her biography of Carson McCullers, the writer acutely felt the loss of
God especially at the moments of creative impasse, e.g. waiting for some
divine illumination while struggling with The Member of the Wedding.
“I’ve lost the presence of God!”66 she would cry out suddenly in the
presence of a group of artists during one of her stays at Yaddo. The
awareness of divine deprivation, the sense of abandonment by God
seemed to have haunted her throughout her whole life.

References
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Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Brown, J., 1967, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber & Barth: A Study of
Subjectivity and Objectivity in Existential Thought. New York: Collier
Books.
Cook, R. M., 2005, “Identity and Coming-of-Age”. In Bloom’s Guides:
Carson McCullers’ ‘The Member of the Wedding’, edited by Harold
Bloom, 70-75. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.

65
Carson McCullers, “Loneliness…An American Malady”, This Week, Herald
Tribune, December 19, 1949, 18-19, quoted in Virginia Spencer Carr, The Lonely
Hunter. A Biography of Carson McCullers (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,
inc., 1985), 14.
66
Spencer Carr, The Lonely…, 195.
In Search of the Lost Harmony 165

E. Byerman, K., 2008, “The Daughter as Outlaw in The Heart is a Lonely


Hunter and The Member of the Wedding”. In Reflections in a Critical
Eye: Essays on Carson McCullers, edited by Jan Whitt, 19-31.
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Performing Femininity in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The
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Carson McCullers, edited by Jan Whitt, 47-59. Lanham: University
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—. 2003, Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers.
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York: Chelsea House.
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of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 630-636. New
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York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, inc.
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McGill, R., 1959, The South and the Southerner. Boston: Little, Brown,
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Phillips, R. S., 2005, “The Gothic Elements”. In Bloom’s Guides: Carson
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66-69. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers.
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166 Chapter Nine

—. 1990, Understanding Carson McCullers. Columbia: University of


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America, ®Inc.
CHAPTER TEN

“THE MANY STRANGE FRUITS


IN THE CORNUCOPIA OF GRIEF”:
FIGURES OF GRIEVING
IN SEBASTIAN BARRY’S RECENT FICTION

LESZEK DRONG

It is not true that, despite what Eureka Street’s narrator claims, “[a]ll
stories are love stories”.1 Some are not; and some stories are more than
just love stories. Instead, by pitting individual passions against larger
social commitments or national causes, some narratives centre on
suffering, personal renunciation, and martyrdom. In Irish literature the
national issues have always been in the limelight. Even those writers, like
James Joyce, who were determined to transcend them, could not help
defining their artistic agenda by proclaiming their (mostly negative)
attitude to Ireland, this “old sow that eats her own farrow”.2 It would seem,
however, that recent Irish fiction should no longer be haunted by the
spectres of the nation’s traumatic history. After all, the last two decades
have been marked by rapid and wide-ranging economic, social, political
and cultural transformations. To all appearances, it has been a time of
healing the wounds and completing the work of mourning over the
departed – not only in Northern Ireland but also in the South, which, until
the final years of the twentieth century, nurtured political resentment and
promoted an aggressively nationalist model of Irish identity.3
Consequently, one might expect the new Irish literature to reflect the mood
of national reconciliation and relinquish its predominantly sombre tenor

1
Robert McLiam Wilson, Eureka Street (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 1.
2
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in: James Joyce, The
Essential James Joyce (London: Paladin, 1991), p. 386.
3
Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002 (London:
Harper Perennial, 2004), pp. 397-398.
168 Chapter Ten

with regard to the past. At least in fiction, it should be possible to let


bygones be bygones.
And yet at the turn of the century a pronounced interest in history
continued to manifest itself in the pages of Irish novels. It is just that the
representations of history underwent a distinct revision in relation to
earlier writings, and so did the perspectives of the authors. As Terence
Brown notes, the last decade of the twentieth century was conducive to the
sort of writing in which “diverse voices recalled individual experience as it
had been affected by history to a degree that had scarcely occurred
before”.4 Eve Patten associates the new developments in the Irish fiction
of the 1980’s and 1990’s with revisionist tendencies in Irish historiography
which captured many writers’ attention and resulted in their rejection of
the received notion of the nation’s past. Patten, too, registers a shift from
large-scale narratives, which seek to encompass a panorama of Irish
history, to works which foreground an individual’s fate determined by
historical circumstances. As she puts it, “the historical novels of the 1980s
and 1990s introduced a methodological self-consciousness to the profiling
of Irish historical experience, gaining impetus from revisionism’s scaling
down of broad national narratives towards the micro-histories obscured by
summary and generalisation”.5 It is precisely this focus on the micro-
histories that will be a primary concern in my discussion of Sebastian
Barry’s recent fiction.6 This fiction, though published about a decade after
the period discussed by Brown and Patten, clearly engages in a dialogue
with the tendencies which marked their presence in earlier Irish writing.
The focus on the personal dimension of history creates a potential for
exploring the emotional burden connected with past traumatic experiences.
In the context of twentieth-century Irish novel, history all too frequently
resembles “a nightmare from which [individual characters are] trying to
awake”,7 to invoke an epigram articulated by Stephen Dedalus from
Joyce’s Ulysses. It comes as no surprise, then, that Irish fiction abounds in
representations of grief and grieving. The scroll of Irish history is scarred
with descriptions of loss, and Barry’s recent writings are particularly

4
Brown, Ireland, p. 403 (my own emphasis).
5
Eve Patten, “Contemporary Irish Fiction” in: John Wilson Foster, ed., Cambridge
Companion to the Irish Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),
p. 260.
6
The revisionist thrust of the fiction which is concerned with “personalized”
history is clearly evident in the title of an interview with Sebastian Barry:
“Recovering Ireland’s Hidden History” – see http://www.themanbookerprize.com/
perspective/articles/1137 (accessed July 12, 2012).
7
James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 28.
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 169

sensitive records of the experience of bereavement. A hundred years ago


John Millington Synge, in his famous one-act play Riders to the Sea,
portrayed a mother who loses all her sons to the invincible and ruthless
force of nature, but in more contemporary Irish writings parents lose their
children to human violence, wars, and internecine conflicts.8 Also, when
children grieve for their parents, social deprivations and economic
stringencies often constitute a disturbing background largely responsible
for the bleak images of the past, like in Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
At the beginning of his career, Sebastian Barry received both local and
international recognition as a playwright, although he also penned poetry
and fiction. His most successful play, The Steward of Christendom, is
based, like so much of his later prose writing, on family history. In fact,
both the play and all Barry’s novels published since 1998 revolve round
the lives of the members of two Irish families: the McNulties and the
Dunnes. Characteristically, Barry is not ashamed to reveal what many Irish
people would see as the dark secrets of the past: ancestors who loyally
served the British King, the Black-and-Tan members who turned out to be
on the wrong side of the political divide after the establishment of the Free
State, as well as apparently misguided beliefs about duty, alliances and
patriotic commitments on the part of individuals who were incapable of
accurately anticipating the course of Irish history in the twentieth century.
By exposing the skeletons in their own closets, Barry’s characters reclaim
a part of Irish history which has been effectively marginalized and
disenfranchized. 9 At the same time, his recent fiction revisits another
burning issue – that of the victimization of women – which was so
superbly uncovered in Julia O’Faolain’s novel of 1980 This Is No Country
For Young Men. Incidentally, O’Faolain’s book was also instrumental in

8
Like every sweeping generalization, this one can be countered by adducing the
examples of such novels as The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín, The
Testament of Mary (by the same author) and The Mermaids Singing by Lisa Carey,
where characters die, respectively, of natural causes (illnesses), due to religious
persecution, and as a result of accidents at sea. In this respect, particularly the latter
book, set in the west of Ireland, on a small, sparsely populated island, is
reminiscent of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Nevertheless, those exceptions
notwithstanding, the tendency to “politicize” death, bereavement, and grief has
clearly predominated in recent Irish fiction.
9
R. F. Foster, in his The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland,
notes the significance of Leland Lyons’s book Culture and Anarchy in Ireland
(1979) for the reinterpretation of Irish history, which has involved the coexistence
of “several distinct ‘cultures’: … sometimes overlapping, more often sealed into
separate, self-justifying compartments”. R. F. Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales
and Making It Up in Ireland (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 38.
170 Chapter Ten

bringing attention to another crucial problem which informs Barry’s latest


novels: the ineradicable tension between radically differing visions of
Ireland’s past and present and their over- and underrepresentation in
mainstream culture.
In what follows I want to discuss two novels by Sebastian Barry: The
Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. Both are narrated (or co-narrated)
by old women; both rely on the conventions of confessional discourse and
yet they also raise larger social and political issues to do with Irish history.
In both novels, grieving mothers are central figures who produce their
narratives motivated by a sense of loss and bereavement. In both cases, the
women are haunted by memories which are firmly inscribed in the context
of Ireland’s painful past. In order to vent their grief they take up writing
which proves to be not only an immediate relief but an endeavour to
amend their personal history as well. By expressing their suffering, the
women put a name on their unique experiences and also call attention to
what is common about their fates. Consequently, in my discussion of
Barry’s novels, I am going to underline the significance of verbalizing
grief as well as the particular tropes and descriptions which the characters
employ to portray all its shades and hues. The representations of grieving
in Barry’s fiction will serve, then, as samples of cultural evidence which
illustrate Irish people’s characteristic modes of coming to terms with their
historical traumas.
The Secret Scripture is set in contemporary Ireland which seems to
have moved past the bleakest period of its history. A very old woman
(aged about 100) is confined in a mental institution although her exact
condition eludes the doctors who are supposed to assess her. She has been
there for several decades and, in the absence of any relatives, the woman
has no place to go even if the assessment proves to be positive. The
psychiatrist responsible for Roseanne realizes that her confinement is no
longer a predicament she would find objectionable. His interest in this
particular patient coincides with his own personal crisis after the death of
his wife. The novel focuses alternately on their clandestine confessions,
which they produce in the form of two different narratives. Roseanne’s is a
story of a woman who was once young and beautiful but her father
happened to support the wrong kind of people in the tumultuous years
after the establishment of the Irish Free State. Even though she married a
good guy (i.e. a republican), his family and the local priest soon turned
him against the girl. Her husband abandoned her and, forced to live on her
own, she eventually succumbed to another man (incidentally, her
husband’s brother). When she got pregnant, the village where she lived
ostracized her and Roseanne was left to her own devices. Completely
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 171

exhausted and barely alive, she gave birth to a son in the middle of a
storm, far away from any human habitation. When she recovered
consciousness, her child was no longer with her. Her husband’s family
arranged for her to be institutionalized for the rest of her life and she was
not supposed to set eyes on her baby ever again. In the final episodes of
the novel, when Roseanne is already dying, it turns out that her son has
tendered her for many years without either of them knowing that they are
related by blood. Dr Grene eventually finds out that the old patient to
whom he feels so much attached is his biological mother but it is too late
to share this news with Roseanne. She dies peacefully, having completed
her story while the psychiatrist is given an opportunity to resolve his own
personal traumas with the help of his mother’s secret testimony.
On Canaan’s Side revolves almost exclusively round an old Irish
woman (aged 89) who is mourning her grandson. The boy has just
committed suicide, having returned from the Gulf War, an American
soldier born to an American father who lives in the United States
completely unaware of his (or, more properly, his mother’s) Irish heritage.
Lilly Bere, now comfortably settled in the Hamptons, was born in Dublin,
one of three daughters of the chief-superintendent of the Metropolitan
Police before the Irish Civil War. Engaged to a man who soon becomes a
target for the IRA, she has to flee Ireland and seek her fortune, by her
fiance’s side, in the United States. When they seem to find a safe place,
Lilly’s fiance is assassinated and she realises that she has a death warrant
on her head, too. Luckily, she manages to escape but from now on she will
keep hiding her true identity and looking behind her shoulder for fear of
being tracked down by the IRA people. Even when she gets married and
settles down in Cleveland, she prefers to keep her story to herself.
Eventually, following her husband’s disappearance and the birth of their
son, she finds herself in the Hamptons. Having secured a position as a
cook, she befriends an old Irishman who helps her around the house.
Ironically, after many years of genuine devotion he confesses on his
deathbed that he is responsible for the death of her Irish fiance. He was
ordered to kill Lilly, too, but he did not have the heart to do so. Instead, he
decided to find a job near her and take care of the woman whose life he
made miserable for a foggy idea of doing right by one’s native country. A
ruthless assassin, miraculously turned guardian angel, has been determined
to do penance by Lilly’s side, and now she must bear the sight of his dying
body. That is why his demise is a relief and a pain at the same time. Soon
afterwards the news about her grandson’s suicidal death arrives and Lilly’s
decides to commit suicide, too. Her son left her alone to live in the woods
a long time ago so the only explanation she can produce is in writing. The
172 Chapter Ten

novel is thus a protracted suicide note; however, whether Lilly follows


through with her plan to put a drastic end to her grief remains an open
question.
It is fair to identify both novels as exercises in narrativizing grief. At
the same time, we must bear in mind that the accounts provided in the
pages of The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side are fictional and the
characters who issue them differ substantially (and substantively) from
human beings.10 Accordingly, their psychology may not conform to the
standard models and theories concerned with grief therapy.11 Nevertheless,
the novels may be read as figurations of certain universal human
experiences which compel us to communicate with others in the hope of
alleviating our suffering. And that is exactly what Barry’s characters do:
they choose the medium of words to unburden themselves of their grief.
Ultimately, their testimonies serve as testing-grounds for the usefulness of
writing in verbalizing and sharing their pain. That is why, alongside the
stylistic grandeur of Barry’s fiction, it is the tropological dimension of his
narrators’ discourse that merits particular attention. The power of their
imagery crucially depends on the inventiveness and adequacy of the
strategies which they use to translate human emotions into words. And the
more successful those strategies, the easier it is for the reader to
experience what Coleridge called ‘a willing suspension of disbelief’, a
temporary defiance of the rules which define the borderline between the
fictive and the real.
After all, it is only by reading narratives – whether purportedly
fictional or not – that we can get an insight into other people’s minds. For

10
For example, Shlomith Rimmon Kenan, in his discussion of the semiotic
approach to literary characters, emphasises the importance of distinguishing
between flesh-and-blood human beings and verbal phenomena in the text. He
claims that the realistic approach, which sees characters as imitations of people,
“fails to discover the differentia specifica of characters in narrative fiction”.
Shlomith Rimmon Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 2nd edition
(London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 34.
11
One of the most popular schemata of grieving is to be found in Elizabeth
Kubler-Ross’s work On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors,
Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families (New York: MacMillan Publishing,
1969). For a concise discussion of this work, see J. Shep Jeffries, Helping Grieving
People: When Tears Are Not Enough (New York and Hove: Brunner-Routledge,
2005). Recently, Kubler-Ross’s model of five stages of grief has been critically
reassessed by George A. Bonanno in his The Other Side of Sadness: What the New
Science of Bereveament Tells Us About Life After Loss (New York: Basic Books,
2009) and Ruth Davies Konigsberg in The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five
Stages and the New Science of Loss (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 173

some reason, which seems to have an evolutionary foundation,12 we find


that desirable and useful. It is a cliché to say that another person’s mind is
an open book to us; it is more difficult to reach a definitive conclusion that
someone’s writing reflects the actual state of their minds. Barry’s narrators
seem to open themselves to the reader and yet their confessions are fraught
with minor and major pitfalls. This is especially true of Roseanne’s story,
which unfolds slowly and hesitatingly. Therefore it requires a patient and
benevolent reader who will understand that the figures of grieving
Roseanne employs must be wrought of understatements and innuendoes.
To make her story clearer, Barry introduces another narrator, Dr Grene,
who complements the information about her past, thereby providing an
ostensibly reliable background to her narrative. All the same, it is
Roseanne’s testimony that is truly personal and engrossing, and Grene’s
factual counterpoints are only valuable inasmuch as they illuminate the
workings of her memory and lay bare the mechanisms of denial.
Dr Grene is well aware of the sensitive nature of his explorations. He
realises that Roseanne’s life is more than just a story and that is why he is
not determined to find out the truth about her past at all costs. Whatever
she has done, Roseanne appears to him in the first place as a vulnerable
human being who deserves mercy, rather than judgement.13 In a telling
passage which is indicative of his personal involvement in her case, Dr
Grene grasps the enormous depths of history and local geography sealed in
her body but he resists the urge to extricate their representation and tattoo
his patient’s biography on her skin: “Her skin is so thin that you can see
the veins and whatnot, like roads, rivers, towns, and monuments on a map.
Something stretched for purposes of writing on it. No monk however
would have risked the nib of a pen on such thin parchment”.14 He believes
that he could ask for her story and he would get it but he respects her
reticence and abstains from further interrogation. After a long session with
Roseanne, he thus explains the reasons for his discretion: “Well I knew it,
my advantage, and if I had pressed it, I would have gained a great deal but,
maybe, lost something. Today was the day she might have told me

12
See Michael Austin, Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of
Literature (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), p. 84.
Austin claims, following Richard D. Alexander and Robin Dunbar, that human
beings obtain a substantial advantage from the exploration of other people’s
thinking and emotions because their survival depends largely upon successful
social interactions with other representatives of the homo sapiens.
13
See Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p.
207.
14
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 205.
174 Chapter Ten

everything, and today was the day I opted myself for her silence, her
privacy”.15 Little does he realise that his respectful attitude prompts
Roseanne to produce an elaborate narrative for the benefit of her doctor.
Towards the end of the novel he is to be rewarded for his tactful behaviour,
although by that stage Roseanne is too emaciated to hand her writing to
him personally.
Roseanne’s narrative reconstitutes the umbilical cord which used to
connect her with her own child. Interestingly, in her testimony she
describes herself as an old midwife to her own story.16 Also, she refers to
herself as a cailleach, an old woman, a hag or a sorceress, associated in
Celtic mythology with the Earth and wintertime.17 The midwifery that she
practices implies a passive role on her part, although when she sets about
narrating her biography, Roseanne realises that it is possible to actively
influence the shape of one’s own life. The vocabulary which she chooses
to describe the new insight is inextricably interwoven with her narrative
project: “The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was
young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did
not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and
mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and
be the author therefore of themselves”. 18 Consequently, she decides to
author her own story in the hope of leaving an account, a “brittle and
honest-minded history“19 of herself. Originally, her testimony is supposed
to be a stronghold against time, a repository of volatile memories and
images which she has no one to share with. Eventually, it turns out that
Roseanne’s life, both present and past, is a source of distraction,
consolation and, most significantly, a psychological and emotional
recovery for her own son, who has grieved over the loss of his wife.
It is Dr Grene who finds it easier to vent his grief, yet what he does is
mostly poeticize it. His own narrative, which is identified as a
commonplace book, abounds in figurative representations of mourning
and desolation. He describes himself as “worn out, finding a tatter here
and a tear there in the cloth of myself”,20 a clear reference to the aged man

15
Barry, The Secret Scripture, pp. 206-207.
16
See Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 102.
17
See Patricia Monaghan, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore
(New York: Facts on File, 2004), pp. 68-69 and Gienna Matson and Jeremy
Roberts, Celtic Mythology A-Z, Second Edition (New York: Chelsea House, 2010)
p. 24.
18
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 4.
19
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 5.
20
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 46.
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 175

who can no longer face mundane reality in William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing
to Byzantium”.21 Elsewhere, overwhelmed by grief after the death of his
wife, Dr Grene yields to a nigh suicidal mood which is conveyed through
a powerful elemental imagery:

Every nuance of her, every turn of the head, every moment of tenderness
between us, every gift, every surprise, every joke, every outing, holidays in
Bundoran and later Benidorm, every kind word, helpful sentence, it all
gathered together like a sea, the sea of Bet, and rose up from the depths of
our history, the seabed of all we were, in a great wave, and crashed down
on the greying shore of myself, engulfed me, and would that it had washed
me away for good.22

On some occasions, he resorts to botanical similes, comparing his head


to a pomegranate stuffed with the red seeds of grief.23 Another metaphor
which he uses to diagnose his condition is “a wailing of the soul”.24
Strangely enough, what is missing from his vocabulary is a distinctly
medical idiom, which clearly indicates that he is still incapable of
distancing himself from the emotional upheavals connected with the
demise of his wife.
Lilly Bere, the narrator and chief protagonist of On Canaan’s Side,
begins the story of her life with a reminiscence of loss which she
subsequently analogizes with her present condition of bereavement. As a
four-year-old girl she broke a beautiful porcelain doll, a precious gift
connected with her mother who had died at childbirth. Now, aged 89, Lilly
has lost her beloved grandson, the only person who mattered in her life.
Just as her heart broke for the first time the moment she realised that her
favourite toy was smashed into pieces, at the beginning of her narrative
Lilly is overpowered by despair and helplessness in the face of her present
calamity. Her grief, again, makes her identify with the shattered doll, the
implication being that her heart is damaged beyond repair: “It is as if
someone, some great agency, some CIA of the heavens, knew well the
little mechanism that I am, and how it is wrapped and fixed, and has the
booklet or manual to undo me, and cog by cog and wire by wire is doing
so, with no intention ever to put me back together again, and indifferent to

21
See William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” in William Butler Yeats,
Selected Poetry, edited with an introduction and notes by A. Norman Jeffares
(London: Pan Books, 1990), p. 104.
22
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 124.
23
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 172.
24
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 157.
176 Chapter Ten

the fact that all my pieces are being thrown down and lost”.25
Paradoxically, the story of her life, which she eventually describes in terms
of a confession, succeeds in putting the scattered episodes of her
biography into a coherent whole, an epic tale of hardships and
perseverance in exile, marked by the disappointment with her native
Ireland and reluctance to embrace her new American identity.
For a lonely woman, stranded in a foreign country, the past is like a
homeland. Lilly is agitated by dwelling on her personal history: she
describes her project in terms of “raking up old coals” or “[d]redging up
the past”.26 And yet she cannot help acknowledging that reminiscing gives
her pleasure and an illusion of revisiting the Ireland of her childhood
years. Her memory is largely of a photographic kind: not in the sense that
she can remember every single minute detail of the view but Lilly’s
recollections seek to immobilize time like in a movie still which captures a
particular moment for eternity. This is evident in her inspection of the
snapshot of her grandson Billy taken before he departed for the Gulf War;
the photograph proves to be possessed of a depth of associations which
lead Lilly back to her brother who died in the Great War at the beginning
of the twentieth century and, at the same time, it is a magic charm which
has the power to annul the future. 27 Likewise, in her retrospections, static
images of the past, like tableaux of personal history, predominate over
action and dialogue.
In both – Lilly’s and Roseanne’s – cases, recollecting and writing are
wedded for ever. Roseanne calls her narrative a testimony of herself; Lilly
describes her text as a confession. Either way, their discourses are
autobiographical by dint of the focus on their own personal histories; they
also conform, in large measure, to the Bildungsroman format, as both
novels portray the transformation of adolescent girls into adults.28 In
contradistinction to traditional (i.e., non-fictional) confessional narratives,
like Augustine’s or Rousseau’s, The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s
Side have much more in common with Robinson Crusoe or Tristram
Shandy in that they feature a fictional narrator, rather than an author who
tells the story of her/his own life. In such texts the very existence of the
teller of the tale is predicated on the narrative which s/he verbalizes. In
fact, they are mutually constitutive: without the narrator the story will

25
Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p. 4.
26
Barry, On Canaan’s Side, p. 41.
27
See Barry, On Canaan’s Side, p. 232.
28
Eve Patten notes the widespread use, in recent Irish fiction, of autobiographical
and Bildungsroman constructions for representations of an abused subjectivity –
see Patten, “Contemporary Irish Fiction”, pp. 268-269.
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 177

never unfold but simultaneously the story itself provides her/his sole
raison d’etre. Since in works of fiction the narrator’s ontology is
intratextual, to authenticate her/his biography in the eyes of the audience
s/he must skilfully appeal to their emotions.
An appeal to emotions is an old communication strategy, described in
detail in Aristotle’s On Rhetoric.29 It relies on what he calls pathos, a mode
of persuasion which is supposed to evoke the audience’s pity and
sympathy.30 In the Greek language, pathos (πάθος) is also connected with
pain and suffering, an etymology which seems particularly relevant to
those who are working through the trauma of loss and bereavement.
Consequently, an account of one’s painful past – whether fictional or not –
may be classified as autopathography. Although the term is already in use
in medical discourse,31 I want to expand its semantic field here in order to
explore two parallel meanings that the notion may encompass. In the
context of discursive representations of grieving, autopathography refers
to the content of the narrative (its locutionary level, so to speak) but it also
describes the effect that particular descriptions of suffering may have on
the reader (the perlocutionary level). Because Barry’s narrators create
credible and moving accounts of their traumatic experiences, they succeed
as story-tellers whose lives resonate with the reader. After all, as Richard
Kearney claims, we all feel the need to relate to other people through
narrative: “From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole
within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great
unanswerable questions of existence …”32 Therefore it should come as no
surprise that the exceptionally well-wrought appeals produced by Lilly and
Roseanne in their fictional autopathographies have the power to evoke
actual emotions in their readers.
It is not incidental that both narratives are written in the first person
singular and follow the crucial conventions of autobiographical discourse.
In the context of fiction, the confidential tone of the narrator’s personal
29
Aristotle was likely the first one to advance a complex theory of rhetoric but the
power of discourse to move an audience was already noted in the “Encomium of
Helen” by Gorgias of Leontini – see James L. Kastely, “Rhetoric and Emotion” in:
Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted, eds, A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical
Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 222.
30
See Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A.
Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 39 and 116-
149 (especially 139-141).
31
See, e.g., Jeffrey K. Aronson, “Autopathography: the patient’s tale”, British
Medical Journal, December 23, 2000; 321 (7276), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
pmc/articles/PMC1119270/ (accessed on 18 February 2013).
32
Richard Kearney, On Stories (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 6-7.
178 Chapter Ten

confessions must counterbalance the reader’s realisation that the story is


not necessarily based on facts. The same logic seems to operate within the
intratextual world of Barry’s writing: when Lilly confides in her husband,
she tells him about her past but her account involves significant omissions
and modifications which Joe is not supposed to be aware of. Just as
Roseanne finally rejoices in the power to author her own biography largely
against available documents, Lilly cautiously tailors her narrative to the
expectations of her audience. In both cases, retrieving the personal past
yields to refashioning it according to the vital needs of the narrators. As a
result, the notions of testimony and confession function largely as
rhetorical ploys which the two story-tellers resort to in order to prevent
their audiences from questioning their veracity.
Perhaps it would be too harsh a judgement to conclude that Lilly and
Roseanne, like so many fiction-writers, seek to pull wool over their
readers’ eyes. Roseanne, for one, is suspicious about the reliability of her
memory. In her account, there is no insistence on the solidity of external
facts; instead, she claims to be faithful to “what is in [her] head”. 33
Therefore, some of her memories seem to carry very little epistemological
value:

I must admit there are ‘memories’ in my head that are curious even to me.
… Memory, I must suppose, if it is neglected becomes like a box room, or
a lumber room in an old house, the contents jumbled about, maybe not
only from neglect but also from too much haphazard searching in them,
and things to boot thrown in that don’t belong there. It makes me a little
dizzy to contemplate the possibility that everything I remember may not be
– may not be real, I suppose. There was so much turmoil at that time – that
what? I took refuge in other impossible histories, in dreams, in fantasies? I
don’t know.34

In other words, if the reader is led to believe something that does not
correspond to recorded history, it is because the narrator, over the years,
has been confused about its factual status. Still, in Roseanne’s narrative,

33
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 209. Her claim is reminiscent of Jean Jacques
Rousseau’s famous caveat from his Confessions: “it will be strange if, amongst so
many comings and goings, amongst so many successive moves, I do not make
some confusions of time and place. I am writing entirely from memory, without
notes or materials to recall things to my mind. … I may therefore have made
mistakes at times, and I may still make some over trifles … But over anything that
is really relevant to the subject I am certain of being exact and faithful”. Jean-
Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (London: Penguin Books, 1953), p. 128.
34
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 209.
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 179

this is not just an excuse for rewriting the past. She humbly accepts her
fallibility by acknowledging that “no one has the monopoly on truth”35 –
not even herself. Her memories are not meant to compete for the reader’s
attention as an alternative version of the marginalized aspect of Irish
history. There is a personal truth about them, a truth which arises from the
transhuman experience of inhabiting someone else’s mind, a truth which
only fiction is capable of unveiling.
Other, larger truths may be simply too monstrous to confront. From a
psychological point of view, Roseanne’s denial of the facts about her
father’s and her own role in the momentous events at the cemetery during
the Civil War is a symptom. Dr Grene may think that she has developed a
defence mechanism to withstand the overwhelming burden of the past.
However, Roseanne does realise that what she records in her testimony is
not tantamount to an objective account of history. Or, rather, her notion of
history involves a necessary amount of confabulation: “history as far as I
can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth,
but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner
against the assault of withering truth”. 36 Gradually, Dr Grene comes to
understand that repression and confabulation are Roseanne’s self-
administered medications for the pain of dwelling on the past. Moreover,
he himself becomes skeptical of ‘factual truths’.37 That is why he spares
her the trauma of being exposed to the knowledge of what actually
happened when she was a young girl. All things considered, fictions,
imaginings and self-delusions may even prove to be life-sustaining.38
Faced with raw, unrelenting facts about their existence, many people
would likely collapse and refuse to cope with their problems. By and large,
it is the (fabulous) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that keep us
alive.
In Roseanne’s biography, there is a story which shall never reach the
light of day, a subterranean narrative which constitutes a tragic
culmination of her lonely life in Sligo. In her case, it is this narrative
lacuna, a telling ellipsis connected with what happened to her after she lost
her child, that represents one of the crucial authorial interventions in the

35
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 134.
36
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 56.
37
See Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 291.
38
The very title of Martin Austin’s work, Useful Fictions, seems to imply that
human beings may find untruths advantageous in their struggle for survival (see
Austin, Useful Fictions, p. xii). The claim is clearly indebted to Friedrich
Nietzsche’s famous essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” although
Nietzsche’s idiom is markedly less Darwinian.
180 Chapter Ten

record of her past. Dr Grene intuits that there is a dark secret behind the
period of Roseanne’s original confinement which was arranged for by her
husband’s family and Father Gaunt, a truly diabolical figure according to
her account. Cognizant of the fact she had been institutionalized elsewhere
before she was moved to the mental hospital in Roscommon, Grene
suspects that “somewhere in the distant past, in just such an institution as
this, she suffered in some way at the hands of her ‘nurses’”.39 Roseanne
recalls that, before she was incarcerated, Father Gaunt diagnosed [sic!] her
as suffering from nymphomania which he identified with a form of
madness. It is quite likely, then, that what remains an unspoken episode in
her biography is her stay in a Magdalen laundry, an asylum for
promiscuous women and prostitutes. In Ireland those institutions, run by
the Magdalen nuns, were used for detaining, without due process or
appeal, all those young women who were perceived as a threat to the
moral backbone of society.40 The girls were usually sent there on request
of one of the men in their family but Roseanne was an orphan so a
clergyman who claimed to know her very well had the power to pronounce
on her moral integrity.
For Roseanne, silence is a balm for the severest wounds of memory. In
narrating her life, she completes the work of grieving for her nearest and
dearest (mostly her father and the McNulty brothers) but she can never
come to terms with the loss of her son and that is why from his birth on
her biography is a gaping hole. By contrast, Lilly, the narrator of On
Canaan’s Side, seems to succeed in finalizing her project. She reaches a
resolution about her own fate and concludes the story of her exile,
suffering and misery with a well deserved relief: “To remember sometimes
is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes
afterwards a very curious peacefulness. Because you have planted your
flag on the summit of the sorrow. You have climbed it”.41 The
mountaineering metaphor implies an effort and a victory; also a sense of
fulfilment. Lilly has gone through the rites of mourning although her
grandson is not the only person she has grieved for. In fact, the bulk of her
narrative is concerned with her own life, which she decides to part with.

39
Barry, The Secret Scripture, p. 123.
40
For a detailed discussion of the issue, see James M. Smith, Ireland’s Magdalen
Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment (Notre Dame: University
of Notre Dame Press, 2007). The films which expose this shameful aspect of
Ireland’s recent history include: The Forgotten Maggies (2009, dir. Steven
O’Riordan) and Magdalene Sisters (2002, dir. Peter Mullan).
41
Barry, On Canaan’s Side, p. 217.
“The Many Strange Fruits in the Cornucopia of Grief” 181

One of the fundamental questions which arise in the course of both


narratives (and also, to a considerable extent, with reference to Dr Grene’s
reflections) is concerned with the addressee of Lilly’s and Roseanne’s
writings. Both women might think of God as the ultimate reader of their
confessions and yet they realise that the Almighty already knows
everything about them.42 Roseanne could possibly have her own son in
mind while composing her testimony but she cannot even be sure whether
he is still alive. Consequently, it seems reasonable to conclude that the two
women pen their narratives for their own benefit, as a form of grieving
over their own irredeemable past. Lilly describes her efforts as “telling my
tale to myself”,43 a phrase which gives away her desire to finally contain
and claim the copyright for her own life, so far scripted by other people.
Likewise, Roseanne wants to author herself and thereby come to terms
with her own history – not so much relive it as rewrite it in order to attain
a degree of equanimity. They both seek a sense of closure, a kind capstone
to their sorrowful existence, an experience which will put at least a
temporary end to their grief and misery, and tey both find it in writing.

References
Aristotle 2007, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George
A. Kennedy, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aronson, J. K. December 23, 2000, “Autopathography: the patient’s tale”,
British Medical Journal, 321 (7276), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc
/articles/PMC1119270/ (accessed on 18 February 2013).
Austin, M. 2010, Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of
Literature, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.
Barry, S. 2008, The Secret Scripture, London: Faber and Faber.
—. 2011, On Canaan’s Side, London: Faber and Faber.
Bonanno, G. A. 2009, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science
of Bereveament Tells Us About Life After Loss, New York: Basic
Books.
Brown, T. 2004, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-2002,
London: Harper Perennial.
Davies Konigsberg, R. 2011, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five
Stages and the New Science of Loss, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Foster, R. F. 2001, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in
Ireland, London: Penguin Books.

42
See Barry, The Secret Scripture, pp. 227-228.
43
Barry, On Canaan’s Side, p. 131.
182 Chapter Ten

Joyce, J. 1986, Ulysses, London: Penguin Books.


—. 1991, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in: James Joyce, The
Essential James Joyce, London: Paladin.
Kastely, J. L. 2004, “Rhetoric and Emotion” in: Walter Jost and Wendy
Olmsted, eds, A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism,
Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Kearney, R. 2002, On Stories, London and New York: Routledge.
Kenan, S. R. 2005, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 2nd edition,
London and New York: Routledge.
Kubler-Ross, E. 1969, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to
Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, New York:
MacMillan Publishing.
Matson, G. and Roberts, J. 2010, Celtic Mythology A-Z, Second Edition,
New York: Chelsea House.
McLiam Wilson, R. 1998, Eureka Street, London: Vintage.
Monaghan, P. 2004, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore,
New York: Facts on File.
Patten, E. 2006, “Contemporary Irish Fiction” in: John Wilson Foster, ed.,
Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Rousseau, J.-J. 1953, The Confessions, London: Penguin Books.
“Recovering Ireland’s Hidden History” (interview with Sebastian Barry),
http://www.themanbookerprize.com/perspective/articles/1137
(accessed July 12, 2012).
Shep Jeffries, J. 2005, Helping Grieving People: When Tears Are Not
Enough, New York and Hove: Brunner-Routledge.
Smith, J. M. 2007, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s
Architecture of Containment, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Press.
Yeats, W. B. 1990, “Sailing to Byzantium” in: William Butler Yeats,
Selected Poetry, edited with an introduction and notes by A. Norman
Jeffares, London: Pan Books.
CHAPTER ELEVEN

OF DEATH AND GRIEF, JOHNE THE SAVAGE,


ALDOUS HUXLEY AND D.H. LAWRENCE

GRZEGORZ MOROZ

In Chapter XIV of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World John the Savage
visits his dying mother, Linda, in the Park Lane Hospital for the Dying, “a
sixty-story tower of primrose tiles”.1 Chapter XIV is crucial in the novel’s
construction as it directly leads to the climatic Chapter XV, which depicts
the Savage’s final disillusionment with “the beauteous mankind”
inhabiting “the brave new world” and the riot he causes during the
distribution of the daily dose of soma, and his arrest. What follows in
quick succession is the dissolution of the plot in the final three chapters:
the key conversation with Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, the
forced exile of Helmoltz Watson and Bernard Marx (mentors of John the
Savage in the World Society) and finally, to John the Savage’s voluntary
retreat to the lighthouse in Surrey and his suicidal death.
The Savage’s rebellion is spurred first by the indifference with which
his mother’s death is treated by both the medical staff and the group of
young, uniformed visitors to the hospital undergoing a session of “death
conditioning” and later by the physical proximity of a crowd of similarly
uniformed, twinned, identical, grown up Deltas who are shown from the
Savage’s perspective, and through Huxley’s use of free indirect speech, as
maggots: “Like maggots they had swarmed defilingly over the mystery of
Linda’s death. Maggots again, but larger, full grown, they now crawled
across his grief and his repentance”. 2
The Savage’s grief, which is tied to such emotions as repentance and
remorse, as well as his ability to perceive the death of his mother as “the
mystery”, make him definitely more human and humane than the

1
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. London:
Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 177.
2
A. Huxley, Brave New World … , p. 188.
184 Chapter Eleven

indifferent “khaki mob”3 of the World State citizens. Yet, at the same
time, the manner in which he handled the Savage’s grief, shows the extent
to which Huxley was critical of the “primitive” alternative to the
“pneumatic bliss” of the World State. The Savage’s grief makes him more
human, but at the same time it makes him as far removed from Huxley’s
ideal of “sanity” as the dystopian brave new world. The analysis of the
presentation of Linda’s death and the Savage’s ensuing grief could and
should be placed in the context of Huxley’s personal and literary
development in areas which were crucial to him throughout his life and his
literary career: fear of death and trying to overcome it through ars
moriendi, the art of dying.
In the foreword to Brave New World in 1946, fourteen years after the
novel’s first edition was published, Aldous Huxley remarked that the most
serious defect of his story was that the Savage was offered only two
alternatives: “an insane life in Utopia or the life of a primitive in an Indian
village, a life more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer
and abnormal”. 4
In 1946 Huxley suggested “a third alternative” that he would offer the
Savage if he were to re-write the novel:

Between the utopian and the primitive horns of his dilemma would lie the
possibility of sanity – a possibility already actualized, to some extent, in a
community of exiles and refugees from the Brave New World, living
within the borders of the Reservation. In the community economics would
be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropetkinesque and co-
operative […] Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of
man’s Final End, the unitive knowledge of the immanent Tao or Logos, the
transcendent Godhead or Brahman. And the prevailing philosophy of life
would be a kind of Higher Utilitarianism, in which the Greatest Happiness
principle would be asked and answered in every contingency of life being.
How will this thought or action contribute to or interfere with, the
achievement, by me and the greatest possible number of other individuals,
of man’s Final End?5

This is perhaps the most succinct description of the main foundations


of what Huxley was to refer to as the “Positive Utopia“ (to differentiate it
from the “Negative Utopia“ of the World Society; Huxley did not use the
term “dystopia”, which is “standard” these days in Anglo-Saxon literary
criticism). Huxley had already included some elements of the Positive

3
A. Huxley, Brave New World …, p. 185.
4
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 5.
5
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, pp. 6-7.
Of Death and Grief, Johne The Savage, Huxley and Lawrence 185

Utopia in his earlier novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939),
while portraying William Propter’s attempts to set up his little community
in California. But it was only in his last novel Island (1962) that this
project was drawn in detail and in multi-dimensional perspective.
One important dimension of the Positive Utopia depicted in Island is
the way the society of Pala copes with the problem of death and dying.
Huxley’s presentation of the death of Lakshmi might be viewed as the
model enactment of ars moriendi, the art of dying of a person in
“conscious and intelligent pursuit of man’s Final End”.6
Lakshmi’s death scene in Island, similarly to Linda’s in Brave New
World, comes in the climatic Chapter XIV, but it leads not to grief, despair
and the suicidal death of John the Savage, but to Will Farnaby’s
embarking on the path to spiritual Enlightenment. Unlike soma drugged
Linda, Lakshmi dies in full consciousness; she is helped by her husband
Robert and her daughter-in-law Susila. Robert encourages her: “Let go
now, let go. Leave it here, your old worn-out body, and go on. Go on, my
darling, go on into the Light, into the peace, into the living peace of the
Clear Light…”7 While Susila explains to Will Farnaby:

Going on being aware – it’s the whole art of dying […] We help them to go
on practicing the art of living even while they’re dying. Knowing who in
fact one is, being conscious of the universal and impersonal life that lives
itself through each of us – that’s the art of living, and that’s what one can
help the dying to go on practicing. To the very end. Maybe beyond the
end.8

The last six chapters of This Timeless Moment (1968) written by


Aldous Huxley’s wife, Laura Archera Huxley, provide a testimony of how
strongly Aldous himself followed what he had been preaching in Island,
when he was dying of cancer in the course of the year 1963. The
presentation of Lakshmi’s death might also be viewed as Huxley’s “third
alternative” on dying and grief (or its lack) to the “utopian and primitive”
ones tackled in Brave New World, the alternative he was not able to
provide in 1932, when he was writing this novel.
The issues of death, fear of dying and grief were central in most of
Huxley’s novels written in the period of thirty years between 1932 and
1962, between Brave New World, the negative utopia and Island, the
positive utopia. Apart from the two “perennial philosophers”, William
Propter in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Bruno Rontini in Time
6
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, pp. 6-7.
7
Aldous Huxley, Island. New York: Perennial Classics, 2002, p. 321.
8
A. Huxley, Island, p. 295.
186 Chapter Eleven

Must Have a Stop (1944), the characters were totally unprepared for the
experience of death, dying in fear, self-pity and self-grief: Linda in Brave
New World, Brian Foxe in Eyeless in Gaza, Eustace Barnack in Time Must
Have a Stop, Kate Martens in The Genius and the Goddess, Will
Farnaby’s aunt Mary in Island. While in After Many a Summer Dies the
Swan, the main theme of the novel is Jo Stoyte’s fear of death, which
pushes him to spend his millions on desperate projects to avoid it; even if
it means following the Fifth Earl of Gonister in his diet of raw carp’s guts,
living in a dungeon and devolving into a big monkey.
Interesting possibilities for the interpretation of Huxley’s critical
attitude to both “the utopian and primitive” horns of the dilemma in
Chapter XIV of Brave New World, the chapter describing Linda’s death
and her son’s grief, open up when the parallels between the character of
John the Savage and the person of David Herbert Lawrence, the celebrity
novelist, are revealed and exposed. William York Tindall, back in 1956,
attested that “The savage from New Mexico who dies a martyr to H.G.
Wells in Brave New World (1932) is Huxley’s […] portrait of Lawrence”. 9
But it was only recently that Jerome Meckier, the renowned Huxley
scholar, threw more light on these issues in his article “On D.H. Lawrence
and Death, Especially Matricide: Sons and Lovers, Brave New World, and
Aldous Huxley’s Later Novels”.
Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence met for the first time for tea in
London in 1915; at that time they were both aspiring members to the
“Garsington Group”. The meeting was in fact suggested by Lady Ottoline
Morrell, the mentor of the group and owner of Garsington Manor. But
their closer acquaintance and later friendship came only in the second half
of the 1920’s in Italy, where both the Huxleys and the Lawrences were
leading the wandering lives of voluntary, artistic exiles. The two couples
met regularly, spent winter holidays together in the Italian Alps and
finally, in February 1930 the Huxleys came to help in Vence, on the
French Riviera, where D.H. Lawrence was dying of tuberculosis. (He died
on March 2, 1930). In the first phase of the friendship Huxley was
impressed by D.H.L’s boundless energy and his “philosophy of blood”,
with its claim of the supremacy of body over soul, of instinct over
intellect, and of primitive state of (pre)consciousness over modern
spirituality. The character of Mark Rampion in Huxley’s major novel
Point Counter Point (1928), who is the only man of (any) integrity in this
panoramic novel – not excluding the introvert novelist Peter Quarles,
Huxley’s porte parole – is thought by the majority of Huxley scholars to
9
William York Tindall, Forces in Modern British Literature 1885-1956. New
York: Vintage Books, 1956, p. 173.
Of Death and Grief, Johne The Savage, Huxley and Lawrence 187

be based on D.H. Lawrence. Huxley himself admitted that “Rampion is


just some of Lawrence’s notions on legs. The actual character of the man
was incomparably queerer and more complex than that”.10 In contrast,
D.H. Lawrence thought that Mark Rampion was “a gas-bag and a bore”.11
Jerome Meckier argued that Huxley’s anti-Lawrentian, satirical bias in
the handling of Linda’s death and the Savage’s grief in Chapter XIV of
Brave New World was mostly the result of Huxley’s disillusionment with
the discrepancy between Lawrence’s life philosophy and his miserable and
ignoble death in Vence, which Huxley witnessed. Huxley was writing this
chapter in the summer of 1931, almost a year and a half after Lawrence’s
death. Before his death, at one point, Lawrence allegedly “grabbed” the
wrists of Maria, Huxley’s wife, and exclaimed: “don’t let me die”, as
related by Meckier12 quoting Brenda Maddox from her book D.H.
Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage. In fact, these words were quoted first
by Sybille Bedford, Huxley’s first biographer. They come from a letter to
Rosalind Rajogopal of 27th February 1943. “Lawrence grasped my two
wrists with his hands and said, ‘Maria, Maria, don’t let me die’”13 It
should be noted, though, that the part of her letter that immediately
followed (also quoted by Bedford, but not referred to by Meckier) contains
a different image of D.H.L’s death: “But he was more peaceful a little
later; he was interested in the material phenomenon, I think. He told me he
saw himself, his head, just there, next to me, and that he knew he would
die”.14 Bedford also quotes from a letter written by Aldous to his brother
Julian on March 3, 1930, a day after D.H.L’s death: “and he settled off to
sleep – to die quietly at 10.15 […] He went so quietly at the last”.15
Jeremy Meckier has perceptively analyzed parallels between the death
of Linda, and the grief of the Savage, and the death of D.H. Lawrence’s
mother Lydia, the fictional rendering of it in Sons and Lovers as well as
the corresponding grieving of D. H. Lawrence himself and Paul Morel,
respectively. What I would like to suggest is an alternative explanation of
Huxley’s critical attitude to D.H. Lawrence and his philosophy of blood.
In fact, Huxley expressed it explicitly in the ending of his 1934 travel

10
Sybille Bedford,. Aldous Huxley: A Biography, Volume I. London: Chatto &
Windus, 1973, p. 202.
11
Bedford, Aldous Huxley, p. 202.
12
Jerome.Meckier, “On D.H. Lawrence and Death, Especially Matricide: Sons and
Lovers, Brave New World, and Aldous Huxley’s Later Novels”. Aldous Huxley
Annual, Volume 7, 2007, p. 192.
13
Bedford, Aldous Huxley, p. 224.
14
Bedford, Aldous Huxley, p. 224.
15
Bedford, Aldous Huxley, p. 225.
188 Chapter Eleven

book Beyond the Mexique Bay. There in the final passage, on board a ship
returning home, Huxley’s persona rereads Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent.
The persona points to Lawrence’s “extraordinary powers”16 of description
but mostly to the following discrepancy: in the ending of The Plumed
Serpent, the main character Kate “stayed immersed in the primitive blood
of Mexico, but Lawrence went away”.17

Lawrence deliberately cultivated his faith in the blood; he wanted to


believe. But doubts, it is evident, often came crowding in upon him. The
questioning voices had to be shouted down. But the louder he shouted the
less he was able to convince his hearers. Art is convincing only when it
springs from conviction18.

In Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), also in Chapter XIV, Paul


Morel gives his mother, who is dying of cancer, her remaining morphia
pills “crushed to powder” in her milk.19 Brenda Maddox called Sons and
Lovers “a story of matricide. Paul Morel kills his mother”20. In reality,
Lawrence begged the family doctor to give his mother “something to end
it”. The doctor left behind the sedative bottle and Lawrence and his sister
fed their mother an overdose”.21 Whereas Linda in Brave New World is
overdosed on soma, the World State’s improved version of “morphia and
cocaine”. When the Savage was taken to her bed in a Galloping Senility
ward, he “shuddered as he looked”22.Linda was watching the semi-finals
of the South American Riemann-Surface Championships, “vaguely and
uncomprehendingly smiling. Her pale, bloated face wore an expression of
imbecile happiness”.23
Jerome Meckier observed that whereas “Gertrude Morel’s agonies are
pitiful: Huxley makes Linda’s grotesque”. Meckier presented an
intertextual and Freudian angle to the influence of D.H. Lawrence and
Chapter XIV from Sons and Lovers on Huxley’s Chapter XIV in Brave
New World.

16
Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Volume III, 1930-1935. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,
2001, p. 605.
17
A. Huxley, Complete Essays, Volume III, p. 605.
18
A. Huxley, Complete Essays, Volume III, p. 605.
19
D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995,
p. 444.
20
Brenda Maddox, D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1966, p. 65.
21
Meckier, “On D.H. Lawrence and Death…”, p. 185.
22
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 178.
23
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 178.
Of Death and Grief, Johne The Savage, Huxley and Lawrence 189

In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude, Mrs Morel’s namesake, inadvertently poisons


herself by drinking from the cup that Claudius, her husband, intends for her
son. The prince suspects that his uncle murdered his brother (Hamlet’s
father) and married his brother’s widow (Hamlet’s mother) to become king.
Deep down, he resents his uncle for doing what he would like to have done
himself: kill his father and sleep with his mother. When Paul Morel gives
his mother a fatal “sleeping draught”, Lawrence wants readers to think that
Paul’s Oedipus complex is on a par with the Prince of Denmark’s mother-
fixation.24

When John the Savage lived with his mother at Malpais (in the
Reservation located by Huxley in the area in the south-west of the U.S.A
inhabited by Pueblo Indians, so prominent in Lawrence’s fictional and
non-fictional writings), he was given by Popé, his mother’s lover, a copy
of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. John learned the book by
heart and followed the advice from Hamlet: he waited till the mother’s
lover is “drunk asleep […] in the incestuous pleasure of his bed”, and then
grabbed the meat knife and stabbed Popé. “At the climax of Shakespeare’s
revenge tragedy, four corpses litter the stage; “two cuts on Popé’s left
shoulder” are all John can inflict. Huxley undercuts Lawrence’s tragic
conception of Paul Morel as a modern Hamlet with John’s childish attempt
to imitate the pensive prince”. 25 In a Galloping Senility ward the dying,
hallucinating Linda thinks she is in bed with Popé. “‘Popé!’ She
murmured, and closed her eyes. Oh, I do so like it, I do…”26 John tries to
explain to his mother who he really is, but she repeats: “Pope!”.27 It is then
that:

Anger suddenly boiled up in him. Balked for the second time, the passion
of his grief had found another outlet, was transformed into a passion of
agonized rage.

‘But I’m John!’ he shouted. ‘I’m John!’ And in his furious misery he
actually caught her by the shoulder and shook her.28

At this moment Linda recognized him, uttered the word “John!”29

24
Meckier, “On D.H. Lawrence and Death…”, p. 186.
25
Meckier, “On D.H. Lawrence and Death…”, pp. 186-187.
26
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 182.
27
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 182.
28
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 182.
29
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 182.
190 Chapter Eleven

Her voice suddenly died into an almost inaudible breathless croaking: her
mouth fell open; she made a desperate effort to fill her lungs with air. But it
was as though she had forgotten how to breathe. She tried to cry out – but
no sound came: only the terror of her staring eyes revealed that she was
suffering. Her hands went to her throat, then clawed at the air – the air she
could no longer breathe, the air that, for her, had ceased to exist.30

John summoned the nurse shouting: “Quick! Quick! […] Quick!


Something happened. I’ve killed her. […] then fell on his knees beside the
bed and, covering his face with his hands, sobbed uncontrollably”.31
Linda’s death and John’s grief may at first glance appear more human
than the indifference of the citizens of the brave new world with which
they are surrounded, but in the end these two alternatives turn out to be
equally removed from the ars moriendi practiced by Huxley’s fictional
perennial philosophers and, later, by Huxley himself. Aldous Huxley died
of cancer in his home in Hollywood, California on November 22, 1963,
the very day on which John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Austen, Texas
and Clive Staple Lewis died in The Kilns, his house on the outskirts of
Oxford. Huxley’s wife, Laura, guided him to death and later recounted this
experience in her book celebrating her life with Aldous:

Aldous died as he lived, doing his best to develop fully in himself one of
the essentials he recommended to others: Awareness… He seemed-
somehow – I felt he knew – we both knew what we were doing, and this
had always been a great relief to Aldous. I have seen him at times during
his illness upset until he knew what he was going to do, then, decision
taken, however serious, he would make a total change. This enormous
feeling of relief would come to him and he wouldn’t be worried at all about
it. He would say let’s do it, and we would do it, and he was like a liberated
man. And now I had the same feeling, a decision had been made. Suddenly
he had accepted the fact of death; now, he had taken his moksha –
medicine in which he believed, Once again he was doing what he had
written in Island, and I had the feeling that he was interested and relieved
and quiet […]

Light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward
and up; you are going toward the light. Willingly and consciously you are
going, willingly and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully; you
are doing it so beautifully – you are going toward the light – you are going
toward the light – you are going toward the greater love – you are going
forward and up. It is so easy – it is so beautiful. You are doing it so
beautifully, so easily. Light and free. Forward and up. You are going

30
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, pp. 182-183.
31
A. Huxley, Brave New World…, p. 183.
Of Death and Grief, Johne The Savage, Huxley and Lawrence 191

toward Maria’s love with my love. You are going toward a greater love
than you have ever known. You are going toward the best, the greatest
love, and it is easy, it is easy and you are doing it so beautifully.32

Aldous Huxley’s transformation from a Pyrrhonic sceptic to a mystic


took place over two or three years in the middle of the 1930’s. The process
can be traced in his novels – Eyeless in Gaza, After Many a Year Dies the
Swan and Time Must Have a Stop – as well as in his non-fiction,
particularly in Ends and Means and in Perennial Philosophy. This
transformation was a long and complex process; at the same time
intellectual and spiritual. Central to it were Huxley’s earlier experiences of
the death of members of his family and friends; deaths that were filled
with fear, terror and grief. These experiences spurred Huxley on in search
of ars moriendi and led to his abandoning philosophical scepticism and
embarking on a path towards his own version of perennial philosophy.
From this perspective, D.H. Lawrence’s experiment with the “philosophy
of blood“ may be seen as one of the hypotheses explored by Huxley –
albeit only in the intellectual dimension – but eventually found severely
wanting, not least because of his, and his wife Maria’s, assistance at
Lawrence’s deathbed in Vance.

References
Bedford, S. 1973, Aldous Huxley: A Biography, Volume I. London: Chatto
& Windus.
Huxley, A. 1987, Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited.
London: Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press.
—. 2001, Complete Essays, Volume III, 1930-1935. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
—. 2002, Island. New York: Perennial Classics.
Huxley, L. 2000, This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous
Huxley. Berkeley, Toronto: CelestialArts.
Lawrence, D.H. 1995, Sons and Lovers, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Maddox, B. 1966, D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage. New York:
Simon & Schuster.
Meckier, J. 2007, “On D.H. Lawrence and Death, Especially Matricide:
Sons and Lovers, Brave New World, and Aldous Huxley’s Later
Novels”, Aldous Huxley Annual, Volume 7, 2007, pp. 185-222.
Tindall, W.Y. 1956, Forces in Modern British Literature 1885-1956. New
York: Vintage Books.

32
Laura Huxley, This Timeless Moment: A Personal View of Aldous Huxley.
Berkeley, Toronto: CelestialArts, 2000, pp. 295-306.
CHAPTER TWELVE

GRIEVING OR DENYING GRIEF?


PHOTOGRAPHY AND LITERARY REALISM
IN GRAHAM SWIFT’S OUT OF THIS WORLD

SŁAWOMIR KONKOL

In many ways, Out Of This World (1988), is highly representative of


Graham Swift’s primary interests as a novelist. It touches upon most of the
motifs which can without any doubt be described as central to the writer’s
fiction: trauma, melancholia, mourning, imperialism, madness,
compulsion, obsession, terror, violence. The struggle to cope with a
trauma, to recover from a life-shattering crisis, is common to all of Swift’s
novels. Faced with tragedies of private and public histories, his
protagonists search for ways to mourn their losses and to make sense of
their lives. The stakes are high, since the consequences of a melancholic
failure to come to terms with the past range from alienation of family
members (present to a greater or lesser extent in all his texts), through
psychosis (Shuttlecock (1981) and Waterland (1983)), to suicide (Sweet
Shop Owner (1980) and Ever After (1992)). The major mechanism
employed by Swift’s narrators in imposing order on the terrifying chaos of
reality is unsurprisingly – and self-referentially – storytelling. Indeed, one
of the main strains in criticism concerned with the work of the author
focuses precisely on his prose as metanarrative, affirming the value of
narrativisation while carefully examining its limitations and costs. Writing
from a predominantly postmodern and post-imperial stance, Swift focuses
on the devastating consequences of the violence of grand narratives and a
search for their more ethical alternatives. It is thus safe to say that his
fourth novel, Out of this World (1988), retraces and expands on topics
immediately recognizable to Swift’s readers. The dual first-person
narrative of Harry Birch, a retired war photographer, and his estranged
daughter Sophie, recounts a history of their troubled family “against a
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 193

backdrop of armed conflict, from World War I to the Falklands”.1 In a


manner typical of the writer’s work, the tales of the protagonists are
motivated by a desire to resolve a sense of personal disaster, but in their
considerations include much broader implications of the traumatic
transition from the safety of familiar – and obsolete – modernist ideologies
to the anxiety-ridden promise of new possibilities, both individual and
social. Extending the Swiftian range of methods for dealing with these
destabilising transformations, photography is added to narrativisation in
storytelling and historiography, and scrutinized with equal distrust. The
intention of this study is to consider the validity of strategies adopted in
the narratives of Out of this World in terms of the tension between the
categories of the real and the symbolic as a model of functioning of the
subject in the context of the novel’s ostensibly – and therefore suspiciously
– traditional realist techniques.
In the criticism concerning Out of this World, accusations appear of
excessive traditionalism of the narrative’s form, along with its reliance on
cliché in forming its characters. Malcolm David notes that this is mostly
attributed to the author’s “being overschematic in story material, too
interested in ideas, and not sufficiently concerned to give his characters
substantial life”. 2 Arguably, the manifestly conservative style is
characteristic of Swift’s prose in general and requires – or at least invites –
sceptical readings, as pointed out by Stef Craps in his insightful analysis of
the novel and critical responses to it.3 Craps’s interest lies primarily with

1
Linda Grey Sexton, “The White Silence of Their Lives”, The New York Times
Book Review (11 Sept. 1988), 14.
2
Malcolm David, Understanding Graham Swift (Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 2003), 111.
3
Craps focuses on two texts: Susan Mecklenburg’s Martin Amis und Graham
Swift: Erfolg durch bodenlosen Moralismus im zeitgenossischen britischen Roman.
(Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 2000) and Catherine Bernard’s Graham
Swift: La parole chronique. (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1991). He
also mentions Adrian Poole’s “The Mourning After” (in An Introduction to
Contemporary Fiction: International Writing in English since 1970. Ed. Rod
Mengham. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. 150-67) and Wendy Wheeler’s
dissertation (From the Sublime to the Domestic: Postmodernism and the Novels of
Graham Swift and Peter Ackroyd. University of Sussex, 1994), from which he
quotes: “As with Shuttlecock, there is a sense that in Out of this World of
something closed too soon, and of too quick and easy resolution in which quite
evident dangers are repressed”. (in Craps, 201) One might also consider Sexton’s
review with its questionable observation that Sophie Birch, one of the novel’s
protagonists, “is characterized without cliché” or Barry Fisherman, who remarks
that the happiness of her father Harry is derived from “his photographer’s ability to
194 Chapter Twelve

the ethical dimension of the work. As implied by the very title of his study
– ”Cathartic Fables, Fabled Catharses”4 – he is clearly distrustful about the
effectiveness of the modes of domesticating trauma dominant in the book.
At the same time, in stark contrast to certain other commentators, he
argues convincingly that the ideas and attitudes presented by the novel’s
narrators and their discourses should by no means be taken to correspond
straightforwardly to those of the author – nor, to a large extent, of the
speakers themselves. Critical distance to patterns which Swift employs to
structure his text is shared at many points by those who find themselves
inside this structure.
The overall agenda of Out of this World fits into the liberatory politics
of Swift’s oeuvre at large. Craps observes this in his discussion of the
parallels between the two discourses organising the text ideologically as
well as formally: photojournalism and conventional realistic prose.

put distance between himself and his subjects”, and that “Harry applies this
distancing technique [borrowed from photography] to his own life so effectively
that he is able to view past disasters with a cool and journalistic eye”, but then
concludes with surprising firmness that “Harry Beech has accomplished the
impossible for a Swift character -- has actually achieved happiness”. (Barry J.
Fisherman, “Why Isn’t Anybody Happy Here?” http://www.postcolonialweb.org/
uk/gswift/otw/happy.html) On the other hand, there are critics who undeniably
offer ways of reading closer to Craps’s. Peter Widdowson argues that Out of this
World questions both photography and itself in terms of realism of representation
and sees its conclusion as anything but unambiguous: “The irony is that what the
novel ‘confers’ is not, of course, ‘reality’, but a way of perceiving how notions of
‘reality’ are foisted upon us. The notion of ‘a true story’ is a fiction, just as is ‘the
camera cannot lie’, for there is always another image behind the photograph,
another story behind the story, another history behind the history – it all depends
on who the ‘witness’ is. The bottom line, here, is that there is no bottom line: we
construct narratives as narratives construct us. But an historiographic metafiction
like Out of this World helps us to see how this happens, not least in its self-
consciousness of complicity in the fashioning of narratives”. (Peter Widdowson,
Literature. London: Routledge, 1999. 162-3.) David Malcolm’s approach could be
said to represent a middle ground: for him, among Swift’s novels, “The Sweet-Shop
Owner and Waterland lie at the grimmer end of the scale, with Shuttlecock ending
on a moment of balance, an epiphanic moment of happiness and insight. In this
regard, Out of This World is closer to Shuttlecock than the others”. At the same
time, Malcolm speaks of a “partly optimistic ending” (110-1) rather than an
undeniable achievement of progress.
4
“Cathartic Fables, Fabled Catharses. Photography, Fiction and Ethics in Out of
this World”, in: Stef Craps, Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift: No
Short-Cuts to Salvation (Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2005),
104-19.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 195

Initially, it appears that the experience of the narrators demonstrates the


invaluable contribution of both photography and narrativisation to their
struggle with their past. The photographer, Harry Birch, declares a
profoundly ethical motivation for taking up his professional activity.
Driven by guilt about his family’s arms factory, he felt obliged to show to
the world the consequences of using its products, in all the objectiveness
presumably offered by his medium. According to his account, his career
was for some time based precisely around this achievement and Birch
claims that he felt he was indeed fulfilling the functions frequently
presumed to be crucial to reportage photography. John Berger sums them
up in the following manner: “Many people would argue that such
photographs remind us shockingly of the reality, the lived reality, behind
the abstractions of political theory, casualty statistics or news bulletins.
Such photographs … are printed on the black curtain which is drawn
across what we choose to forget or refuse to know. [War photography]
serves as an eye we cannot shut”.5 Harry’s own declarations mirror these
opinions: “No art. Just straight photography. Avoid beauty, composition,
statements, symbols, eloquence, rhetoric, decorum, taste. All that is
painting. But just hold open the shutter when the world wants to close its
eyes”.6 Berger distances himself from these assumptions and with time
Birch also becomes increasingly sceptical about both the ethics and the
effectiveness of his work. In turn, his daughter Sophie learns to relate to
her close ones and overcome her predicament through the narrativisation
of even the most disturbing of its episodes in the course of therapy.7
Prejudiced as she is towards photography due to her disgust with her
father’s professional habits, she declares a profound faith in the ethical
potential of language: “I can still quote you, in the original, the first five
lines of the Odyssey … And I still think that no one ever got it better, no
one said it better. I mean, all that stuff – Odysseus and Penelope, Orpheus
and Euridice – it still gets to you, doesn’t it? It still breaks you up”.8
Unlike the protagonists of Shuttlecock or Ever After, Sophie and Harry do
not turn straightforwardly to written language, but their prolonged
confessions perform a function analogous to that of writing in the other
two novels. In both cases, honestly facing the anguish is inevitable – and
presumably successful – in dealing with its aftermath and enables the
creation of new, healthier discourses. Some reviewers took this triumph of

5
John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 38.
6
Graham Swift, Out of this World (London: Picador, 1988), 92.
7
Harry’s monologue, addressed to Sophie, also helps him come to terms with their
past.
8
Swift, 125.
196 Chapter Twelve

narrativisation at face value, awarding Out of this World the title of the
most optimistic of Swift’s novels to that date.9 Linda Gray Sexton for
example quotes an aphoristic formulation by Sophie’s psychoanalyst:
“Life is a tug of war between memory and forgetting … To remember –
that can be bad, Sophie. And to forget – that can be bad too. Isn’t that the
problem? … But the answer to the problem is to learn how to tell. It’s
telling that reconciles memory and forgetting”.10 This reflection leads
Sexton to conclude that “[b]y the book’s culmination, both father and
daughter have begun to master this art. Mr. Swift’s achievement is that the
important story of their self-education has been told with such simple,
startling beauty”.11 However, as emphasised by Craps, both photography
and narrative techniques of traditional realist fiction may be used to
propagate narcissistic patterns of confronting the world rather then a
search for alternatives to those.12 Craps’s essay points to the capacity of
both for neutralising disquieting encounters with trauma, referring, among
others, to Susan Sontag’s remark on photography as a medium which
“celebrates the imperial self”,13 in offering the subject a position of
authority in its relation to the world or Roland Barthes’ notion of studium
as precisely the taming function of photography, serving to subjugate the
effect of the image of raw reality to the demands of social conventions.
John Berger’s objections to the previously proposed social function of war
photography also offer an interesting perspective here. Berger points out
that images captured in extreme situations are “doubly violent” since the
traumatic experiences presented in them not only in themselves stand
outside a normal flow of time but are additionally ripped from their
context by being captured on film. The result is that their audience, unable
as they have to be in such circumstances to relate to the suffering of those
portrayed in the photographs, assume individual responsibility for the
failure of the image to move them. In fact, says Berger, “[t]he truth is that
any response to that photographed moment is bound to be felt as

9
“Out of this World is the grimmest of Swift’s novels in the images of violence and
destruction it invokes. But it is also the most willfully optimistic about the
possibilities of healing, reparation and revival for the damaged male figure”.
(Poole, 160)
10
Swift, 74.
11
Sexton, 14.
12
In the light of an interview with Swift quoted by Craps, in which the author
states a desire to examine critically utopian visions of the future with the
disappointments of the past in mind, one might indeed be considerably more
distrustful of the characters’ achievement.
13
Craps, 107.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 197

inadequate”.14 This in turn accounts for the failure of the ethical function
ascribed by the young Harry Birch to reportage photography, since the
sense of morally inappropriate individual response to the photograph
overshadows even the shock of the horrifying image and, more
significantly, depoliticises the situation: “The picture becomes evidence of
the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody”.15
Writing’s potential for moving its audience is also problematised in Out of
This World, since narrativisation is shown to have a similar capacity for
neutralising the shocks of trauma. This capacity is ostensibly and
categorically rejected by the protagonist of Out of This World: Craps draws
a parallel between Hannah Arendt’s refusal as a journalist reporting on the
Nuremberg trials to yield to “the temptation to make a shocking,
outrageous reality comprehensible in terms of reductive commonplaces”16
and Harry’s own stance as a photographer participating in the same
process. Birch insists, much like Arendt, to “show that monsters do not
belong to comfortable tales”.17 If one considers in addition the increasing
doubts of the photographer about his professional mission, it appears that
the text is by all means informed when it comes to the risks involved in
turning experience into narrative and formulates this awareness explicitly.
It is in this context that Craps discusses the paradox of the traditionally
realist technique of Out of this World, which seems to undermine the
pseudo-catharsis of photography, therapy and historiography or political
discourse, while ignoring the applicability of the same reservations to
literature. Craps states that a number of the novel’s readings overlook the
irony of the text, whose excessive reliance on clichés in itself serves to
question them. The claim is further validated by examples of the
characters’ objections to their own perhaps too conveniently conventional
lots: “The way in which the novel goes about debunking business is by
ironically mimicking the conventional model for dealing with trauma, and
by having its characters loudly dispute the theoretical premises of this
approach and subsequently express their bemusement at being caught up
in its clutches”.18 Before I move on to look at the novel itself for
illustrations of its treatment of both literary realism and photography in
their violent neutralisation of alterity, I would like to complete the
theoretical background for my reflection by introducing a psychoanalytic
consideration of the two as analogous models of subjecthood and

14
Berger, 39.
15
Berger, 40.
16
Craps, 111.
17
Swift, 102.
18
Craps, 115-6.
198 Chapter Twelve

representation based on Lena Magnone’s informative text devoted to these


issues.19
Magnone opens her argument by proposing two ways of understanding
realism: either as a referential or as a self-referential style. A work of art
may thus be taken to represent the external world or to relate exclusively
to other representations, becoming a simulacrum. A third conception is
then added, one proposed by Hal Foster based on Jacques Lacan’s
juxtaposition of reality as a social construct to the category of the real as
that which underlies it but can never be fully incorporated into its
symbolic structures. In Foster’s “traumatic realism”, representation is
taken to express the wish to return to a state before loss, irreversibly
involved with the subject’s entry into the symbolic order of language. In
this, however, art in fact bears testimony to the loss, the trauma of
abandoning the “ubiquitous undifferentiated mass from which we must
distinguish ourselves, as subjects, through the process of symbolization”.20
In this sense, realism is an expression of Freud’s repetition compulsion,
where language circles around the trauma of the real, never able to capture
it, but striving to incorporate it into the symbolic order. In Lacan’s theory,
the renewed attempts to remove the split between the real and the
symbolic and their inevitable failure, expressed in the complementary
categories of automaton and tuché, constitute the basis of all human
endeavour. The split itself is not seen as a source of pathology; in fact,
Lacan’s model of constitution and functioning of the subject is built
precisely on the irremovable tension between the real and the symbolic.
Magnone argues that in Aristotelian tradition of mimetic art, the
repetition is not a reproduction of the trauma of the real (which, having
been defined by Lacan as a lack, an absence rather than a positive entity,
cannot be represented or reproduced) but rather a screen covering it over.
Following Foster’s assertions about hyperrealistic painting, Magnone
applies this understanding of representation to literary realism. The aim of
the artist is here to produce an image hiding what cannot be faced. The
uncanny effects of both photography, hyperrealism and realist fiction point
to the paradoxical nature of this process: the very act of creating a screen
to conceal the trauma testifies to its presence, while the repressed real
itself returns in disturbances of the suspiciously smooth, excessively
lifelike surface of the work.
Art which chooses to face trauma or indeed to stage it may do so only
by representing an absence. This, according to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, is

19
Lena Magnone, “Traumatyczny realizm”, in Rewolucja pod spodem, ed.
Przemysław Czapliński (Poznań: Poznańskie Studia Polonistyczne, 2008), 27.
20
Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan (London: Routledge, 2005), 83.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 199

precisely what photography does. His notion of punctum – the piercing,


disturbing effect of photographs, analogous to Lacan’s tuché21 – is
explained as the consequence of the consciousness of mortality triggered
by the images of inevitably lost objects, which, after all, “testify to the
reality of that which has died or is going to die … a process in which what
is lost is found again only to be lost again”.22 One can clearly see here
another inspiration for Harry Birch’s outlook on his profession. In a
childhood memory, he reveals the source of his fascination with
photography to be uncannily reminiscent of Barthes’ own inspiration for
writing Camera Lucida: as a nine-year-old, Harry discovered a photograph
of his mother, who had died giving birth to him, carefully hidden by his
grieving father. The memory of this discovery leads to an arguably very
Barthesian reflection:

Fact or phantom? Truth or mirage? I used to believe – to profess, in my


professional days – that a photo is truth positive, fact incarnate and
incontrovertible. And yet: explain to me that glimpse into unreality.

How can it be? How can it be that an instant which occurs once and once
only, remains permanently visible? How could it be that a woman whom I
had never known or seen before – though I had no doubt who she was –
could be staring up at me from the brown surface of a piece of paper?

From a time before I existed. From a time before, perhaps, she had even
thought of me and when she was undoubtedly ignorant of what I would
mean to her.23

In another of the chapters which he narrates, Harry recalls his


fascination with the possibility of capturing traumatic events and his
erstwhile declarations “that photography should be about what you cannot
see. What you cannot see because it is far away … [o]r what you cannot
see because it happens so suddenly or so cruelly there is no time or even
desire to see it, and only the camera can show you what it is like while it is

21
“In the Photograph, the event is never transcended for the sake of something
else: the Photograph always leads the corpus I need back to the body I see; it is the
absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the
This (this photograph and not Photography), in short, what Lacan calls the Tuché,
the Occasion, the Encounter, the Real, in its indefatigable expression”. (Roland
Barthes, Camera Lucida. transl. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
4.)
22
Graham Allen, Roland Barthes (London: Routledge, 2003), 130-1.
23
Swift, 205.
200 Chapter Twelve

still happening”.24 John Berger, in his reflections on Susan Sontag’s On


Photography, points out that the invention became a replacement of
memory, replicating its processes and superseding its function. Like
memory, photography is a record of what is lost, implying an
exceptionally close link to what it represents, since “a photograph is not a
rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a
trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its
subject in the way that a photograph does”.25 The crucial difference
between photography and memory is not so much the former’s ability to
fix the image (after all, traumatic memory may be presumed to be doing
precisely that) but rather its inability to contain meaning, which, as Berger
observes, relies on understanding functions of events and as such is
grounded in observing the passage of time. Due to its tendency to preserve
“a set of appearances from the otherwise inevitable supercession of further
appearances”, photography by its very nature is thus unable to narrate or
interpret.26 This may easily lead to misapplication of photographic images,
since incorporating them into linear, verbal narratives goes against their
nature. What Berger proposes is that the non-linear character of memory
should be respected and, instead of employing it for purposes of strictly
teleological narratives, we should “put a photograph back into the context
of experience, social experience, social memory”.27
Once again, Berger’s doubt about the ethics of employing photographs
to support pre-written scenarios finds its counterpart in Birch’s questions
about the nature of news photography: “People want stories. They don’t
want facts. Even journalists say ‘story’ when they mean ‘event’. Of the
news photo they say: Every picture tells a story – worth two columns of
words. But supposing it doesn’t tell a story?”28 His own approach to the
visual, however, undeniably involves introducing a neutralising distance
between himself and the threatening immediacy of experience. In some
cases, this is apparently desirable. One example of this tendency for a
wilful denial of reality may be found in his account of the discovery that
his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity were not groundless. Walking
towards a hotel room where the lovers are to be caught in flagrante, Harry
claims to be driven by a need for open confrontation but finds himself
unable to face Anna and her lover. He remarks: “You have to see, but some
things you can’t look at”. His response is, not for the first or the last time

24
Swift, 55.
25
Berger, 50.
26
Berger, 51.
27
Berger, 61.
28
Swift, 92.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 201

in his story, to escape into a convention of visual narrative: “Should I have


burst in? Action. Drama. Pieces flying everywhere. I thought: This is
happening, before your eyes. Afterwards, you won’t believe it. Take the
picture”. His “distancing technique” appears to be effective in handling –
or at least denying – the traumatic encounter: “And I was thinking all the
time: This wasn’t me. I’d left me behind”.29 Significantly, at the time of
speaking, Harry is no longer willing to use the neutralising, narrativising
property of his medium. Considering his assertion that “[w]hen you put
something on record, when you make a simulacrum of it, you have already
partly decided you will lose it”,30 the persistent refusal to take photos of
his new-found beloved cannot but be seen as a willing surrender to the
illusion of completeness and finality of his unexpected and perhaps
questionable happiness. Harry is undeniably reluctant to work through his
traumas. His beloved, Jenny, finds herself arrested in her attempts to
perform amateur psychotherapy for him, “[a]s if there were ghosts she
thought she would quickly exorcize, but she found them more stubborn
than she supposed”. In this context, Birch looks back at his own equally
naïve faith in technological progress, which was to allow humanity to shed
the obsolete or indeed harmful ideologies, “say farewell to myths and
legends … they would fall off us like useless plumage and we would see
ourselves clearly only as what we are. I thought the camera was the key to
this process. But I think the world cannot bear to be only what it is. The
world always wants another world, a shadow, an echo, a model of itself”.31
Admittedly, he does not hesitate to challenge the probability of his “happy
ending”. When, concluding the chapter opened by the declaration about
the simulacrum of photography, he muses on his idyllic refuge in the
countryside, where he seeks shelter from the turmoil of his private losses
and horrors witnessed in the course of his professional life. His insomnia
becomes an indication of the falseness of this escape, despite Harry’s
determination to keep up the fantasy:

I was trying to sleep, and have sweet dreams. I was trying to piece together
my nerves and wondering how people ever contrive that impossible trick
called Where I Live. I was lying awake haunted by the noise of owls and
foxes. I would go for long, determined walks and watch the silver clouds
gliding over green hills, rooks flapping over gnarled trees, and say to
myself: I don’t believe this. I would come back to the cottage, open the

29
Swift, 167-8.
30
Swift, 55.
31
Swift, 187.
202 Chapter Twelve

front gate, walk through the picture-book façade and crawl into the tent of
myself.32

The conventional resolution of Harry’s plight is thus persistently


disturbed by a sense that underneath its shiny exterior there are still
unresolved issues. Therefore, it would be unjustified to claim that as a
narrator he is the kind of ego-dominated speaker he is sometimes accused
of (or, indeed, praised for) being, full-heartedly subscribing to the
complete imaginary repression of the real in his discourse. According to
Magnone, the aim of the technique of realism is not so much to represent
faithfully, to achieve identity with the object but rather to create an
appearance of the achievement. This situates realism, with its aspiration to
impose an impression of coherence on a threateningly chaotic world, at the
level of the imaginary. Realism is fiction camouflaging disorder, a
semblance of consistency analogous to that of Lacan’s mirror stage.
Harry’s mention of hiding in “the tent of myself” might be perceived as
testimony to his trying to accomplish precisely a return to the imaginary
stability in his story. As a photographer, he does indeed appear to be
particularly prone to the delusion of omnipotence, characteristic of the
ego. However, how far he himself uncritically falls for the pretence might
be questioned when one thinks of some of his self-referential remarks such
as his comment on the unexpected idyll of his life with Jenny: “Miracles
shouldn’t happen. Picture-books aren’t real. The fairy-tales all got
discredited long ago, didn’t they?”33
His estranged daughter’s escapist strategies similarly combine the wish
to hide from the pain of her past and to face it straightforwardly. On the
one hand, Sophie claims to feel safer when aware of peril: “There’s a sort
of comfort, a sort of security, isn’t there, in the absence of disguise, in
knowing the way things really are?”34 she asks her therapist. This is why,
rejecting the illusory security of her family nest in good old England, she
decides to move to the more openly threatening environment of New York.
On the other hand, she is willing to take “a rest from memory”35 for as

32
Swift, 60.
33
Swift, 79. Sophie seconds him on this: “Shit, I know this is pure theatre, I know
this is like a bad movie, like the way it isn’t”. Ultimately, however, just like Harry,
she apparently chooses to disregard the objections, to go for the pleasure of the
illusion. The quoted fragment continues: “But what’s the point of life, and what’s
the point of goddam movies, if now and then you can’t discover that the way you
thought it isn’t, the way you thought it only ever is in movies, really is the way it
is?” (Swift, 145)
34
Swift, 17.
35
Swift, 75.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 203

long as possible, and talks about her pregnancy in terms of being “inside
her tummy with [her children], imagining a world where you didn’t have
to see or know”.36 However, as the first character in Swift’s oeuvre to
undergo therapy, she is forced to face the consequences of traumas she has
not worked through. Ultimately, Sophie admits that “away-from-it-all is
such a shifting, strange, elusive place. There isn’t a place in the world
where you can get away from the world, not any more, is there?”37 Bruce
Fink observes that the aim of psychoanalytic treatment is to allow the
patient to verbalise experience impossible to express by means of
language at the time of its happening, to deal with the residuum of the
signifying process which poses a problem to the patient, to connect it with
signifiers.38 Sean Homer adds that “[t]rauma arrests the movement of
symbolization and fixes the subject in an earlier phase of development”.39
Sophie’s wish for a return to (her own) womb appears as a grotesquely
literal form of just this process, in her search for a reunion with a mother’s
body. Arguably, Sophie’s evolving attitude to therapy as a means for
moving beyond “the cocoon of surrogate amnesia provided by [her]
children’s ignorance”,40 demonstrates the effectiveness of the procedure.
She mocks the method as well as her handbook relation to the therapist, a
father figure whom she half-jokingly tries to seduce, as “a little, brief,
therapeutic fling … A few intimate secret sessions with you, then back to
normality again, all the better for it. Back to the loving wife and mother I
used to dream once upon a time that I was”. She does, however, concede
that “it’s getting to be serious, you and me. It’s getting to be a regular
thing”.41 Although clearly not the “quick fix” to her self-image that she
scorns in her caricature, verbalising her grudges appears to re-shape her
relations to her others, and Sophie, to her own surprise, is quite willing to
accept Harry’s gesture of reconciliation when it is made.
Like with Sophie’s therapy, the potential for problem-resolving is also
put to question in the case of Harry’s new love, who, in the words of
Adrian Poole, “comes out of the blue”. The critic dismisses precisely the
“emergency treatment from strangers” to the wounded psyches of the
father and the daughter, performed by “Sophie’s psychoanalyst and

36
Swift, 139-40.
37
Swift, 15.
38
Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance
(Chichester, West Sussex: Princeton University Press, 1995), 25.
39
Homer, 84.
40
Swift, 74.
41
Swift, 95.
204 Chapter Twelve

Harry’s dream-girl, unusually conventional figures”.42 Harry’s celebration


of Jenny’s influence on his life brings up implications of willingly
embraced falseness, contradicting his previous efforts as a reporter: “She
makes me feel that the world is never so black with memories, so grey
with age, that it cannot be re-coloured with the magic paint box of the
heart”.43 The association of love with a manipulated image is all the more
potent in the context of Harry’s meeting of Anna, his first wife, during the
Nuremberg trials. The city itself is shown as renouncing its traumatic past
in being “a modern reconstruction … painstakingly done … as if to re-
conjure a world before certain irreversible historical events had
happened”.44 It is in this setting that Harry first undertakes to suppress his
memories of wartime horror: “To be happy in Nuremberg! To fall in love
in Nuremberg! In that city of guilt and grief and retribution, to think of
only one face, one pair of eyes, one body”.45 Love relation functions as a
means of denying memory, providing an imaginary escape from the
threatening sense of contingency. In his discussion of Swift’s next novel,
Ever After (1992), Craps refers to Luce Irigaray’s views on the position of
femininity in patriarchal culture to demonstrate the narrator’s instrumental
use of his partner who “serves the purpose of shoring up the male subject’s
fragile sense of self”.46 Men’s representations of femininity are here said to
take no account of actual women as subjects, since “[w]oman, for Irigaray,
is a point of linguistic absence, the impossibility of a grammatically
denoted substance. Within a masculinist language based on univocal
signification, woman constitutes the unrepresentable, the undesignatable:
she is always ‘elsewhere’”.47 These remarks add surprising depth to
Harry’s ironic quip – “Vacancy filled” – which he uses to sum up the
appearance of Jenny in his life (in reply to his advertisement for an
assistant). Similarly, his observation that she is “out of this world”48
confirms her extreme otherness in a strikingly literal way. The words of
his long dead first wife Anna, narrating one chapter of the novel strictly
speaking from ‘elsewhere’, also express a sense that love suppresses
trauma both effectively and temporarily: “Happiness is like a fall of snow,
it smooths and blanks out all there was before it”.49

42
Poole,161.
43
Swift, 141.
44
Swift, 103.
45
Swift, 133.
46
Craps, 131.
47
Craps 132-3.
48
Swift, 36.
49
Swift, 174.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 205

Significantly, the healing process is not completed in the novel: the


reconciliation between Harry and Sophie does not actually take place.
After years of neglecting his family, Harry committed the ultimate offence
in the eyes of Sophie when she found him photographing the aftermath of
the explosion which killed her grandfather. This tragedy led to her
transatlantic escape and a decade of virtually no contact between her and
her father. The concluding chapters show both of them preparing for the
first meeting in years – Sophie talks to her children before going with
them to England, Harry recalls his own first flight. Both narrators stress a
sense of amazement and faith in technical progress, both appear filled with
the need to be close to their loved ones. Sophie asks the children not to
escape into the illusory worlds of on-board entertainment, Harry
remembers his father’s unusual cordiality on the occasion. But, as Craps
notes, the aerial views of Europe without artificial borders which make
young Birch think up a utopian future are contradicted by the speaker’s
awareness of the barbarous uses to which the new technology was put
soon afterwards. The memory of the plane crash in which Sophie’s mother
died with her unborn sibling also makes the possibility of a happy ending
quite precarious.50 Malcolm further points out that the moment of intimacy
between Harry and Robert was the last one for many years, which once
again implies a scepticism about progress in terms of interpersonal
relations echoing the doubts concerning the technical civilisation: in the
light of the history of the family, there is perhaps little reason to expect a
significant improvement in the conflict between Sophie and Harry.51
Swift’s use of cliché to resolve his characters’ conflicts is thus neither as
naïve nor as thoroughgoing as it may appear – indeed, he makes sure to
employ it in such a way as to create a sense of unease in both his
characters and a careful reader. Grief is repeatedly faced – and denied –
and though it is impossible to abandon our attempts at domesticating it,
these attempts can never be fully successful.
In this, Swift’s treatment of realist narration and photography agrees
with the internal contradiction central to Barthes’ and Lacan’s theories.
Barthian punctum after all always ends up being appropriated by studium.
Lacan’s real in turn is defined as that which does not exist: it may only be
hypothesised from a position within the symbolic, but for such a position
to be possible, the real has to be repressed. Conceptualisation in language
involves the division of the real into distinguishable categories of the
symbolic and this destroys the real, replacing it with the construct of
reality. Magnone’s argument follows a parallel line of thought: she
50
Craps, 118.
51
Malcolm, 127.
206 Chapter Twelve

maintains that even works staging the trauma of lack in a manner as


shocking to their audience as Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde still
serve to tame it. Referential art is always at least to some extent self-
referential, since a picture of a traumatic absence still offers its own form
as a veil for the absence. The trauma, however, serves in turn as a
terrifying reminder that not all of the raw matter of the world can ever be
organised into predictable structures. The piercing intrusions of the real
into the imaginary/symbolic reality ceaselessly bring out its contingency
and incompleteness: it always leaves out an uncomfortable excess which
cannot be incorporated into it. Arguably, like nearly all of Swift’s
narrators, Harry and Sophie Birch do eventually come to recognise the
limitations – as well as the inevitability – of human efforts to impose order
on the terror of their chaotic existences. Likewise, Magnone’s conclusion,
while noting the ultimate futility and falsehood of realist practice
grounded precisely in the untameable nature of the real, stresses Lacan’s
preference of art hiding the real over that which undertakes to reveal it. 52
In the light of his theory, “[r]ealist practice appears to be more interesting
and – above all – more honest, since it is closer to the workings of human
psyche”.53 Representation of trauma, according to Magnone, is
counterproductive, since it merely reinforces its own surface and leaves its
supposed referent undisclosed. This allows to justify Graham Swift’s self-
conscious use of tired stereotypes, through which the inescapable
contingency of the human condition shows all the more clearly.

References
Allen, G., 2003, Roland Barthes, London: Routledge.
Barthes, R., 1981, Camera Lucida, transl. Richard Howard. New York:
Hill and Wang.
Berger, J., 1980, About Looking, New York: Pantheon Books.
Craps, S., 2005, Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift: No
Short-Cuts to Salvation, Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic
Press.
Malcolm, D., 2003, Understanding Graham Swift, Columbia: University
of South Carolina Press.
Fink, B., 1995, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance,
Chichester, West Sussex: Princeton University Press.
52
This is why, upon purchasing Courbet’s L’origine du monde, he commissioned
his brother in law, André Masson, to paint a landscape repeating the outline of the
nude and hid the original painting underneath. (Magnone, 33)
53
Magnone, 42.
Grieving or Denying Grief? Photography and Literary Realism 207

Homer, S., 2005, Jacques Lacan, London: Routledge.


Magnone, L., 2008, “Traumatyczny realizm”, in Przemysław Czapliński,
ed. Rewolucja pod spodem, Poznań: Poznańskie Studia Polonistyczne.
Sexton, L., 11 September 1988, “The White Silence of Their Lives”, The
New York Times Book Review.
Swift, G., 1988, Out of this World. London: Picador.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“YEAR AFTER YEAR,


BLUNDER AFTER BLUNDER”:
THE COMPULSION TO REPEAT
IN KAZUO ISHIGURO’S THE UNCONSOLED

WOJCIECH DRĄG

Following the warm critical reception of Kazuo Ishiguro’s first,


“Japanese”, novels and the widespread acclaim garnered for The Remains
of the Day, his fourth novel confounded most critics. The Unconsoled
(1995) was regarded as “a radical departure”1 from the meticulously
crafted realism of his earlier fiction. The alienating, chaotic, dream-like
reality conjured up by the novel’s bemused (and curiously amnesiac)
narrator stands in stark contrast to the ordered tedium of the plain worlds
inhabited by Ishiguro’s earlier protagonists. The experimental, oneiric
qualities of The Unconsoled, which veers unexpectedly between realism,
surrealism and fabulism, as well as its distinct self-reflexivity have elicited
several critical responses emphasising the novel’s metaphorical capacity.
This article will take a similar angle and examine the novel as an
intricately structured dramatisation of its narrator’s peculiar trauma-
induced condition, which – as will be argued – corresponds closely to the
Freudian conception of repetition compulsion.
The Unconsoled is an over-five-hundred-page-long account of a
renowned English pianist’s visit to an Eastern European city whose name
is never revealed. It opens with Ryder’s arrival in the deserted lobby of a
hotel, accompanied by his startling realisation that he cannot recall a
single detail about his upcoming professional engagement. For the rest of
his narrative, the musician recounts his confused wanderings around the

1
Frederic M. Holmes, “Realism, Dreams and the Unconscious in the Novels of
Kazuo Ishiguro”, The Contemporary British Novel, Eds. James Acheson and Sarah
C. E. Ross (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005), 12.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 209

city, during which he attends numerous functions and interacts with the
local residents, who recognise him as an authority and a prospective
saviour of their conflicted community. Throughout his three-day sojourn in
the enigmatic city, Ryder – in utterly implausible circumstances – stumbles
upon various remnants of his past, such as childhood friends, his parents’
former flat and their old car abandoned by the side of a road. Some of the
city’s inhabitants gradually take on the qualities of Ryder’s family: the
daughter of the porter of Ryder’s hotel named Sophie metamorphoses into
Ryder’s wife, and her son Boris – into his own son. Yet another characters
come to resemble the pianist himself – at different stages of life. The
remarkably malleable, dreamlike reality of the novel is constructed
through the use of spatial and temporal compression, reminiscent of dream
narratives, where physical laws have been suspended and characters freely
merge with one another. The extent to which the city is revealed to mirror
the realm of Ryder’s childhood and reflect his formative experiences and
present anxieties is interpreted by Barry Lewis as an indication that the
novel is in fact set in “a displaced England of [Ryder’s] memory and
imagination”, which is a mere projection of his conflicted mind.2
At the heart of The Unconsoled lies an intangible and elusive
experience of loss. Each character and each relationship struggles with the
memory of a rupture, whose origins may be obscure but whose legacy
determines their present misery. It is in the context of loss that the title of
the novel assumes significance: the unconsoled condition of Ryder and all
the inhabitants of the city stems from their inability (or unwillingness) to
liberate themselves from the thrall of an old familiar traumatic rupture.
The word “rupture” appears apt here as it captures the novel’s pervasive
atmosphere of things being broken beyond repair. The rifts alluded to by
the characters are invariably in dire need of patching. However, even if, in
certain cases, fixing the fissures seems possible, it is continuously deferred
and ultimately abandoned altogether, thus establishing the fate of the
inhabitants as that of perennial melancholics.
Determining the source of Ryder’s emotional predicament is not an
easy task, as the novel grants the reader a very limited access to his past.
The only explicit references to it are several flashbacks from childhood,
triggered by certain episodes in the narrative present and recounted by the
pianist himself. Implicitly, the past trauma can be gleaned from its present
symptoms – Ryder’s compulsive anxiety, insecurity and emotional
paralysis. Cynthia F. Wong argues that the pianist’s “capricious”
disposition camouflages his “tortured past wrought with loss,
2
Barry Lewis, Contemporary World Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro (Manchester:
Manchester UP, 2000), 110.
210 Chapter Thirteen

abandonment, and genuine feelings of worthlessness”.3 The origins of the


pianist’s current emotional paralysis and disengagement from the lives of
his significant others, which ultimately lead to his failure both as a
husband and as a father, could be traced to a traumatic wound sustained in
early childhood and indicated by other hints at the boy’s emotional turmoil
suffered on account of his parents’ dysfunctional relationship. The most
poignant illustration of the child’s anxiety is Ryder’s memory of an
otherwise mundane scene of buying a second-hand bicycle with his
parents. The boy suddenly finds himself transfixed with panic at the
realisation that the bike-seller has mistaken them for “an ideal of family
happiness”. Ryder remembers his “dread” that some seemingly trivial sign
will make her understand “the enormity of her error” and consequently
cause her to “freeze in horror”.4 The intensity of the little boy’s emotional
response to the situation bespeaks his precocious awareness of the rupture
at the heart of his family.
The origin of that rift, however, appears unknown to the boy. On
encountering his school friend Fiona Roberts, Ryder recalls their
conversation many years ago:

“Your parents. They don’t argue like that just because they don’t get on.
Don’t you know? Don’t you know why they argue all the time?” Then
suddenly an angry voice had called from outside our hide-out and Fiona
had vanished. And as I had continued sitting alone in the darkness under
the table, I had caught the sounds from the kitchen of Fiona and her mother
arguing in lowered voices. At one point I had heard Fiona repeating in an
injured tone: “But why not? Why can’t I tell him? Everybody else knows”.
And her mother saying, her voice still lowered: “He’s younger than you.
He’s too young. You’re not to tell him”.5

And thus, characteristically for Ishiguro, the most important is left


unsaid. The origin of the destructive fissure in the relationship between
Ryder’s parents, and, consequently, for his own traumatic wound, may
only be inferred from the inklings scattered throughout the novel and
projected onto other characters. Lewis6 and Adelman7 both believe that the
secret which triggers the rows is Ryder’s illegitimacy – the proof of his

3
Cynthia F. Wong, Writers and Their Work: Kazuo Ishiguro (Horndon: Northcote,
2005), 70.
4
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled (London: Faber, 1996), 264.
5
Ibid., 172-73.
6
Lewis, Ishiguro, 120.
7
Gary Adelman, “Doubles on the Rocks: Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled”, Critique 42
(2001), 171.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 211

mother’s infidelity. Such an interpretation may shed light on much of the


insecurity that Ryder feels about his parents’ upcoming visit, during which
they are meant to see him perform for the very first time. The pianist’s
obsession with living up to their (his father’s?) expectations may be
perceived as springing from an illegitimate child’s desire to earn their
father’s love.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud examines trauma’s
inherent inclination to repeat itself. Astonished by the counter-intuitive
phenomenon of the recurrence of traumatic experiences in dreams among
the survivors of the First World War (at odds with his earlier hypothesis
that each dream enacts the fulfillment of a wish), Freud examines “the
mysterious masochistic trends of the ego” by exploring the significance of
what he terms as the fort-da game. 8 Freud analyses his grandson’s peculiar
habit of repeatedly enacting in play the event of his mother’s
disappearance and return as testimony to a human need to master an
unpleasant event by re-enacting the painful scenario and shifting one’s role
in it from passive to active.9 This mechanism, which he eventually labels
as the compulsion to repeat, constitutes a very potent interpretive tool and
can be invoked to account for the otherwise inscrutable motivations
governing the actions of the characters of The Unconsoled.
Gard Bonnet defines repetition compulsion as “an inherent, primordial
tendency in the unconscious that impels the individual to repeat certain
actions, in particular, the most painful or destructive ones”. Linked to
primary masochism, the compulsion to repeat may lead to “endlessly
repeating certain damaging patterns”10 without knowing that one is doing
so, as the mechanism remains beyond the subject’s conscious control.
Freud places the concept in opposition to remembering and regards it as
closely linked to repression and forgetting. “The greater the resistance, the
more thoroughly remembering will be replaced by acting out (repetition)”,
he notes in “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through”.11 In Beyond
the Pleasure Principle, Freud clarifies that repetition represents the failed
outcome of a process of working through a painful event: the subject has
forgotten the kernel of a traumatic event and thus is compelled to “repeat
the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of …

8
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: Norton, 1961), 7.
9
Ibid., 11.
10
“Repetition Compulsion”, International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Ed. Alain
de Mijolla, eNotes.com.
11
Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through”, The Penguin
Freud Reader, Ed. Adam Phillips (London: Penguin, 2006), 395.
212 Chapter Thirteen

remembering it as something belonging to the past”.12 What cannot be


properly remembered (and thus integrated with the past) needs to be
endlessly replayed in the present, causing the subject’s immersion in a
self-destructive cycle of repetition.
In “The Good Wound: Memory and Community in The Unconsoled”,
Natalie Reitano cites the episode of Ryder’s “training sessions” as a
“literal and comic” illustration of the compulsion to repeat.13 The bizarre
childhood ritual consisted in re-enacting a scenario of first departing at a
certain distance from home in order to be seized with a feeling of panic,
and then suppressing the fear, by delaying the return home for several
moments. Ryder admits that the “training sessions” soon assumed the form
of a ritual and became “a regular and important part of [his] life”. He
remembers the accompanying “strange thrill” and the “compulsive hold”
of this ongoing exercise in emotional repression.14 Akin to the fort-da
game, little Ryder’s sessions aimed at recreating a potentially traumatic
situation for a child, that of being (temporarily) abandoned by their
parents. Ryder’s obsessive commitment to his game may be interpreted as
a desperate attempt to reconcile to being emotionally “abandoned”, by
gaining control of the painful experience and putting himself in the role of
the abandoner.
Ryder’s behaviour as an adult bespeaks a harrowing legacy of
abandonment. The fear of rejection looms large in the pianist’s
consciousness and is projected onto his doppelgangers. During an
exchange with Sophie, Ryder admits to feeling very apprehensive that at
some crucial moment of the concert the audience will suddenly turn their
back on him: “They’ll probably turn on me tonight, it wouldn’t surprise
me. When they get unhappy about my answers, they’ll turn on me, and
then where will I be? I might not even get as far as the piano. Or my
parents might leave, the moment they start to turn on me”.15 Sophie
dismisses Ryder’s anxiety by saying, “you always say they’ll turn on you
and so far no one, not a single person in all these years, has turned on
you”.16 Despite his international acclaim, Ryder is plagued by the
irrational fear that some minor blemish in his performance will irrevocably
expose his mediocrity and result in his exclusion from the musical elite.
The extent of this apprehension is evidenced by the fact that each of the

12
Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 12.
13
Natalie Reitano, “The Good Wound: Memory and Community in The
Unconsoled”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language 49.4 (2007), 370.
14
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 172.
15
Ibid., 444.
16
Ibid., 444.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 213

four musicians whom Lewis singles out as the “displaced versions” of


Ryder grapples with rejection: Stephan tries to prove his talent in order to
earn his parents’ love; Hoffman strives to stop his wife from abandoning
him for disappointing her hopes; Christoff is misunderstood and
marginalised by his community and realises that, as a consequence of his
failure, his wife will soon desert him; and, finally, Brodsky has been
rejected both by his community and his life-long partner Miss Collins, and
seeks, in vain, to regain their trust.17 Ryder’s alter-egos dramatise his
obsessive artistic insecurities from early youth (Stephan) to an anticipated
old age (Brodsky).
Ryder’s fear of rejection, however, is not restricted to the professional
sphere. All the significant relationships in which Ryder is involved are
suffused with a sense of tentativeness and instability. Most notably, the
pianist’s relationship with his parents appears equally strained and
injurious as in his childhood. Ryder is repeatedly seized with panic at the
realisation that they are going to watch him perform for the first time ever.
He conceives of their upcoming visit as his sole chance to earn their
recognition and pride. When, in the end, Ryder is informed that his parents
have not come, he breaks down into sobs, realising that the prospect of
their arrival has been a mere make-believe on his part. The scene lays bare
Ryder’s emotional vulnerability and testifies to his inability to work
through the childhood experience of rejection, whose harrowing legacy
persists and invests his relationship with his parents with an acute sense of
insecurity.
In addition to that, the coldness and emotional repression experienced
in childhood continue to define Ryder’s relations in the present. Behind
the façade of kindness, the pianist emerges as detached and unsympathetic.
He repeatedly makes promises which he invariably forgets to fulfil. The
pain inflicted as a result of his forgetfulness is lost on him and never gives
him remorse. Whereas in most cases Ryder’s behaviour can be ascribed to
mere insensitivity, there are several situations when it testifies to a severe
social handicap. At one point Ryder fails to come to a reception organised
in his honour by his school friend Fiona, as a result of which she becomes
an object of ridicule among her neighbours. In a bid to make up for his
absence, Ryder persuades her to hold the event once more. This time he
does come but throughout the meeting finds himself unable to reveal his
identity to the guests and lift the disgrace from Fiona. He only manages to
produce a series of incoherent grunts and collapses on the sofa. When he
notices tears in Fiona’s eyes, he considers making the last attempt at
saving her reputation but eventually decides against it. The moment he
17
Lewis, Ishiguro, 111-12.
214 Chapter Thirteen

leaves her apartment, he admits to feeling better and soon regains his
composure.18 The pianist behaves as if he has been seized with an inner
constriction, which compels him to repeat the pattern of humiliating his
friend. In his grotesquely narrated struggle with an inner paralysis, Ryder
is completely inert – driven by a force or compulsion of which he is
ignorant but which, nevertheless, remains conspicuously at play
throughout.
Ryder’s subjection to repetition compulsion is most easily traceable to
his treatment of Sophie and Boris. Bearing in mind the pianist’s account of
his traumatic childhood relations, the reader may notice several ways in
which Ryder inadvertently models his behaviour as a father and as a
husband on his parents. A scene in which Ryder and Boris visit their
former house by an artificial lake encapsulates much of the entanglement
of the musician’s present life with his past. Their former neighbour’s
account of the domestic strife between the current tenants is redolent of the
interminable quarrels of Ryder’s parents as well as of his own relationship
with Sophie. The hint that the main reason for their rows is the husband’s
absence from home for prolonged periods of time is a reference to Ryder’s
profession, which involves frequent travel. In accordance with the
dreamlike logic of the novel, the unhappy couple serves as a displaced
version of both relationships. Ryder appears to have adopted his father’s
emotional coldness and disengagement, which precipitate his abject failure
both as a father and as a husband.
The pianist’s inability to engage with Sophie and Boris is particularly
manifest in a scene of the only evening which they spend together. Sophie
has high hopes for the occasion, which she sees as a rare opportunity for
them to reunite and bond as a family. Her determination for it to succeed,
expressed through her efforts to please Ryder with a sumptuous dinner, is
met with his cold reserve and indifference. He consistently ignores Boris’s
incitements to play and Sophie’s attempts to make conversation, preferring
to eat and read the newspaper at the same time. On finishing the meal,
Ryder reflects about the failure into which the evening was evidently
turning, for which he blames Sophie: “it was not even as though she had
particularly excelled herself with the cooking. She had not thought to
provide, for instance, any sardines on little triangles of toast, or any cheese
and sausage kebabs. She had not made an omelette of any sort, or any
cheese-stuffed potatoes, or fish cakes”. 19 The complaining catalogue of the
fancy dishes which Sophie failed to deliver continues further, serving as a
humorous illustration of Ryder’s emotional deficiency, which renders him
18
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 240.
19
Ibid., 288.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 215

incapable of expressing warmth and appreciation even in the company of


his closest family.
In an attempt to salvage the atmosphere of the evening, Sophie hands
over to Boris a second-hand do-it-yourself manual as a special gift from
his father. The little boy goes to considerable lengths to express his
enthusiasm and gratitude but Ryder dismisses the gift as “just an old
manual” and continues to read his paper.20 At that point the manual breaks
into two and for the rest of the novel Ryder does not take the trouble to
mend it, despite promising on several occasions to do so. Ryder’s ultimate
failure as a father – and husband – is represented in the scene of his
parting with his wife and son on the tram in the morning following the
death of Sophie’s father. Sophie passes a definitive judgment on the
musician’s glaring lack of empathy and emotional detachment, “You were
always on the outside of our love. Now look at you. On the outside of our
grief too”.21 Despite Boris’s initial protest, she bids Ryder go away and
never come back. His desperate attempt to elicit from Boris a profession of
filial love or at least an acknowledgment of his fatherly effort (by
reminding him of the trip to the artificial lake – their single positive
experience together) is met with the boy’s silence. When Sophie and Boris
have disembarked, Ryder finds himself sobbing but, in a matter of
minutes, finds consolation at a breakfast buffet laid out at the back of the
tram. This time he truly appreciates the food, which instantly causes him
to forget the sad parting and inspires in him an acute sense of satisfaction
with the fact that his “presence [in the city] had been greatly appreciated
just as it had been everywhere [he] had ever gone”.22 Ryder’s deluded
complacency in the immediate aftermath of his resounding defeat as a
husband and a father proves him incapable of interrupting the cycle of
repeating his father’s damaging indifference and emotional apathy.
In his article “Doubles on the Rocks: Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled”,
Gary Adelman focuses on the events surrounding the concert to
demonstrate the extent to which Ryder remains immersed in his childhood
trauma and pinpoint the ways in which Ryder acts out his relationship with
his parents. He attributes the anxiety that plagues the pianist in the hours
leading up to the concert to the “childlike need to earn approval”.23
Adelman argues that all of Ryder’s performances occur “under the
pressure of the father’s verdict” and follow the same excruciating pattern:

20
Ibid., 287.
21
Ibid., 532.
22
Ibid., 534.
23
Adelman, “Doubles”, 172.
216 Chapter Thirteen

At this concert, as at every performance, Ryder relives the aggressive


determination of his younger self to break out of his father’s orbit, suffers
again the use his parents made of him to keep their marriage going, faces
his cruelty to Boris and Sophie and their rejection of him, admits to himself
that his parents are not coming to hear him, concludes that he is indeed a
mediocrity and despairs of the future, has several brief crying jags, and
finally composes himself to go onstage.24

In this brief passage Adelman forges a link between several of the


novel’s dominant themes: such as professional insecurity, emotional
coldness and the fear of abandonment. He also draws a strong parallel
between Ryder’s state of mind and the experiences of other characters –
most notably Stephan’s relationship with his parents and Brodsky’s
struggle with rejection. The critic regards the obsessive fear of being
exposed as a “mediocrity” as the traumatic legacy of his childhood and
conceives of it as the defining sentiment of the pianist’s consciousness and
a common denominator between him and the other unconsoled. What
began as the fear of failing to live up to his parents’ expectations has
evolved in the course of Ryder’s life into a terror of disappointing others
and, at the same time, a compulsion to do so.
The pianist’s childhood anxieties are projected onto a young pianist
Stephan, whose driving ambition is to give a flawless performance during
the concert and thus to interrupt the pattern of embarrassing them with his
artistic efforts. Such is the extent of the Hoffmans’ disappointment with
their son’s career that it has severely imperilled their marriage. Stephan
traces the origin of the rift in their relationship to the moment when – at
the age of ten – he decided to stop playing the piano. All his subsequent
efforts to compensate for his short break in practice have only exacerbated
their disappointment. There is a distinct masochistic element to the cycle
of disappointment which they all repeat. Stephan admits that at one point it
occurred to him that perhaps his parents were “conspiring” to cause him
pain by inciting him to perform in front of them “as though they had no
memory at all of the anguished history surrounding his piano playing”
only to reassure themselves (and him) of his failure.25 The very idea of
organising the concert where Stephan is meant to play alongside Ryder
appears to be yet another of Hoffman’s ploys to provoke further
humiliation and disappointment. Even though, eventually, Stephan’s
performance is a triumph, his parents are not in the audience to witness it,
having left a moment earlier to spare themselves the sight of their son

24
Ibid., 174.
25
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 68.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 217

being made “a laughing stock”.26 By leaving, they, in turn, disappoint


Stephan, who feels dejected despite his success and ultimately accepts
their assessment of his play. The story of the Hoffmans, if not a factually
accurate representation of Ryder’s childhood and youth, conveys the crux
of the emotional relations between him and his parents. Their mutual
collusion in perpetuating the cycle of disappointment and its corollary –
the fear of rejection and abandonment (embodied in Hoffman’s persistent
terror that his wife will leave him if he does not try hard enough to please
her), which are rooted in some further unspecified long-ago rupture, serves
as the most significant parallel to the destructive nature of the relations
within the Ryder family.
The traumatic legacy of that relationship is evident in Ryder’s present
entanglements, which also bear the stamp of mutual disappointment. The
pianist, argues Vinet, “lets down characters who most need him – Sophie,
Boris, Gustav – as he himself has been let down”.27 His propensity to
make promises to them and almost instantly forget them results in multiple
disappointments, especially on the part of Boris. Even when Ryder does
have an occasional flash of recognition, such as when he realises that he
has left his son for hours in a café and that “yet again he would be let
down”, he does nothing to prevent it.28 Between Ryder and Sophie,
disappointment is an implicit reaction to each other’s actions. On their way
to a soirée, Ryder rebukes Sophie for a critical remark and accuses her of
“getting all ready to let [him] down at this reception”. Sophie snaps back,
“You go by yourself. That way we won’t be able to let you down”.29 Ryder
disappoints his wife just as often as he himself acts disappointed. A similar
pattern informs the pianist’s interactions with the other inhabitants of the
city: Ryder gladly accepts their various requests, however absurd, only to
frustrate their hopes later, to reassure them that he would make amends
and, ultimately, fail them once more. Despite his prevailing indifference,
on several occasions Ryder shows momentary determination to repair the
damage caused by his forgetfulness but the compulsion to repeat takes
effect nonetheless and invariably thwarts his resolve.
It could be argued that the mechanism of repetition compulsion
operates in all the failed relationships between the unconsoled. Ryder and
Sophie, Sophie and her father Gustav, the Hoffmans, Brodsky and Miss
Collins all remain under the sway of a force that perpetuates the

26
Ibid., 480.
27
Dominique Vinet, “Fugal Tempo in The Unconsoled”, Etudes Britanniques
Contemporaines 27 (2004), 131.
28
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 199.
29
Ibid., 258.
218 Chapter Thirteen

destructive moulds in which they have been cast. Although their stories
vary, the traumatic aftermaths of their unprocessed ruptures are
remarkably alike and take the form of emotional frigidity and inability to
show kindness, which, in turn, compels them to hurt each other and inflict
mutual disappointment. The characters appear resigned to the scenario
which they unwittingly re-enact. When explaining to Ryder the nature of
his relationship with Sophie, Gustav repeatedly refers to their arrangement
never to talk to each other as an “understanding”, which they have
respected since Sophie was eight years old.30 Gustav’s emotional
detachment at the death of his daughter’s hamster caused a rift in their
relationship, which they have nursed ever since by cultivating the ritual of
addressing each other exclusively through an intermediary: “That’s the
way things have been with us for many years”, confesses Gustav, “and
there seems no real call to alter them at this stage”.31 Ryder, as well as
most other characters, lacks the will to “alter things”, which generates a
pervasive sense of resignation and apathy. When an opportunity arises, the
characters fall short of determination to act, such as in the scene where
Ryder anxiously watches Boris ruin his successful drawing of Superman,
powerless to stop him in time despite a strong premonition of a disastrous
outcome.32 Hoffman’s wife’s desire to infuse her family relations with
long-gone warmth, embodied in her recurrent “dreams about tenderness”,
is frustrated in an eerily similar way. “[I]t happens like this every time”,
she complains to Ryder, “[a]s soon as the day starts, this other thing, this
force, it comes and takes over. And whatever I do, everything between us
just goes another way, not the way I want it. I fight against it … but over
the years I’ve steadily lost ground”33 [emphasis added]. Hoffman’s wife
regards her condition as “a sort of illness” and a conceivable portent of
emotional death.34 The impotence to which she attributes her unavoidable
failures to effect any lasting change is the result of a “force” that, in
essence, corresponds to the notion of repetition compulsion, insofar as it
conditions behaviour that remains beyond her conscious control.
The definitiveness of the defeat suffered by the characters of the novel
– and the persistence of their compulsion to repeat – is epitomised in the
utter fiasco of the climactic concert. Each of the city’s inhabitants, together
with Ryder himself, has regarded this event as their unique (and possibly
last) opportunity to heal the wounds that have afflicted them ever since

30
Ibid., 85.
31
Ibid., 30.
32
Ibid., 95.
33
Ibid., 416-17.
34
Ibid., 417.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 219

they can remember. The non-appearance of Ryder’s parents, the Hoffmans’


absence from the concert hall during Stephan’s performance, the debacle
of Brodsky’s comeback as a conductor and of his efforts to win back Miss
Collins’s love and, finally, Ryder’s failure to give his momentous speech,
which was meant to unite the local community, all expose the futility of
their hopes and condemn them to a future of continued torment. Seeing its
inevitable fiasco, Hoffman, who has been responsible for the organisation
of the whole event, and for whom it represented the ultimate chance to
prove to his wife that he is not a failure, addresses her in the following
words:

The evening. It’s a shambles. Why pretend it’s anything else? Why
continue to tolerate me? Year after year, blunder after blunder. After the
Youth Festival, your patience with me was surely at its end. But no, you
put up with me further. Then Exhibition Week. Still you put up with me.
Still you give me another chance. Very well, I begged you, I know.
Implored you for one further chance. And you didn’t have the heart to
refuse me. In a word, you gave me tonight. And what have I to show for it?
The evening is a shambles.35

Hoffman’s confession encapsulates the sense of disillusionment with


one’s efforts experienced by most of the characters in the aftermath of the
disastrous evening. However, this flash of insight, which could herald the
possibility of change, does not lead to a breakthrough. Towards the end of
his outburst, Hoffman begins to “thump his forehead”, an action which
Ryder saw him carefully rehearse earlier on that evening.36 There is a
strong sense of theatricality about Hoffman’s demeanour during the
concert: the spectacular defeat of his enterprise appears orchestrated. He
does therefore, paradoxically, achieve his aim. His condition could be
interpreted in relation to what Slavoj Žižek defines as the Lacanian
concept of anxiety: “[it] occurs not when the object-cause of desire is
lacking; it is not the lack of the object that gives rise to anxiety but, on the
contrary, the danger of our getting too close to the object and thus losing
the lack itself”.37 Behind the façade of determination to end his streak of
personal and professional failures lies an unacknowledged anxiety to alter
the state of things, an incapacitating attachment to a self-defining lack.
When Hoffman’s self-lacerating outburst subsides, his wife gives him “a
look of tenderness” and reaches to stroke his hair. For a moment her hand

35
Ibid., 506.
36
Ibid., 207.
37
Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through
Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT, 1992), 8.
220 Chapter Thirteen

“hovers” over his head and she takes it back38 [emphasis added]. Although
the wife’s initial reaction to his confession hints at the possibility of a
reconciliation, the force that thwarts her “dreams of tenderness” takes over
and prevents her from making a gesture of kindness, thus squandering the
chance to break the mould of their relationship. The novel’s denouement
does not signal the possibility of an escape or liberation: the perennial
disappointment in the shadow of a lingering loss emerges as the ultimate
fate of the unconsoled.
Ryder’s immersion in his condition and his predisposition (or doom) to
replicate the same pattern in the future is indicated by the setting of the
last scene of the novel. The parting with Sophie and Boris and the ensuing
breakfast scene take place on a city tram which, as the pianist is told by a
fellow passenger, “goes right the way round the entire circuit”.39 The
circular route may be read as a metaphor for a cycle of repetition, which
warrants the chronic impasse of Ryder’s personal life. Tim Jarvis interprets
the notion of the continuous circuit as an indication of the limited success
of Ryder’s escape and his eventual entrapment in the familiar
configurations with his doubles.40 The pianist’s status as a mere passenger
on the tram may be read as a token of his limited sense of agency – the
notion of being more acted upon than acting and of being compelled to
behave in ways that one does not control. Ryder’s last thoughts centre
around his upcoming visit to Helsinki, yet another destination on the map
of his professional engagements whose routine will further numb the
pianist to the self-destructive pattern that he unknowingly re-enacts. Other
characters of The Unconsoled remain equally firmly attached to their old
traumatic wounds, which (like Brodsky) they “tend” and “caress” so as to
prevent them from healing. They do so by replicating the patterns which
generate pain and entail continuous discontent. Lacking the resolve to
interrupt the cycle of repetition, they merely attempt to seek consolation,
which, as the old conductor notes, only “help[s] for a while”.41 Natalie
Reitano perceives Ryder’s “continual bids for consolation” as testimony to
the lingering aftermath of traumatic loss and notes the ease with which the
pianist is able to distract his attention from confronting onerous
knowledge. “Anything may serve as a substitute for a loss he preserves in
never ‘properly’ mourning it”, she concludes (375). Reitano’s diagnosis of

38
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 508.
39
Ibid., 553.
40
Tim Jarvis, “‘Into Ever Stranger Territories’: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled
and Minor Literature”. Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Visions of the Novels, Eds.
Sebastian Groes and Barry Lewis (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011), 165.
41
Ishiguro, Unconsoled, 313.
“Year after Year, Blunder after Blunder” 221

Ryder’s condition pertains to the other notable characters of The


Unconsoled. Their inability to engage with the past by identifying and
working through the past ruptures results in “preserving” the loss in the
present. The end of the novel sees their hopes dashed and their
consolations denied, leaving them no freer from the thrall of trauma than
ever before.
By populating the novel with Ryder’s projections of himself at
different stages of his artistic career and using them to re-enact the crucial
turning points of his past, Ishiguro manages to introduce a highly
innovative technique, which allows for dissecting the mechanisms of
memory in the narrative present. The novel constructs a reality where to
perceive is to remember, as a result of which the past becomes – in the
words of Wai-chew Sim – “intermeshed with the present”.42 Lewis,
likewise, argues that the entire world inhabited by Ryder acquires the
“texture and timbre of memory”.43 Blurring the boundary between the past
and the present enables the novel to capture an essential property of
unprocessed trauma – its insistence on resurfacing and disrupting the
present against the subject’s wish to confine it conveniently to the past.
Ryder’s inability to acknowledge and work through his childhood wounds
lies at the heart of his peculiar condition, which compels him to
chronically forget indispensable information and events, both recent and
distant, and still unwittingly pass on the pain and disappointment
experienced as a child. The novel’s representation of the relationship
between trauma and forgetting illustrates Slavoj Žižek’s argument that the
unremembered traumas “haunt us all the more forcefully”. This paradox
hinges on the fact that “the opposite of existence is not nonexistence, but
insistence: that which does not exist, continues to insist, striving towards
existence”44 [emphasis in original]. That insistence of the past could be
said to constitute the main theme of The Unconsoled.

References
Adelman, G., 2001, “Doubles on the Rocks: Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled”,
Critique, 42.
Freud, S., 1961, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey,
New York: Norton.

42
Wai-chew Sim, Kazuo Ishiguro (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), 66.
43
Lewis, Ishiguro, 128.
44
Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11
and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), 22.
222 Chapter Thirteen

—. 2006, “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through” in: Adam


Phillips, ed., The Penguin Freud Reader, London: Penguin.
Holmes, F. M., 2005, “Realism, Dreams and the Unconscious in the
Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro” in: James Acheson and Sarah C. E. Ross,
eds, The Contemporary British Novel, Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Ishiguro, K., 1996, The Unconsoled, London: Faber and Faber.
Jarvis, T., 2011, “‘Into Ever Stranger Territories’: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The
Unconsoled and Minor Literature” in: Sebastian Groes and Barry
Lewis, eds, Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Visions of the Novels,
Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Lewis, B., 2000, Contemporary World Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro,
Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Reitano, N., 2007, “The Good Wound: Memory and Community in The
Unconsoled”, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 49
“Repetition Compulsion”. 2005, International Dictionary of
Psychoanalysis, Alain de Mijolla, ed. http://www.enotes.com/
repetition-compulsion-reference/repetition-compulsion (accessed on 9
March 2013).
Sim, W., 2010, Kazuo Ishiguro, Oxon: Routledge.
Vinet, D., 2004, “Fugal Tempo in The Unconsoled”, Etudes Britanniques
Contemporaines, 27.
Wong, C. F., 2005, Writers and Their Work: Kazuo Ishiguro, Horndon:
Northcote.
Žižek, S., 1992, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through
Popular Culture, Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
—. 2002, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September
11 and Related Dates, London: Verso.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

VICARIOUS VICTIMHOOD
IN HOLOCAUST LITERATURE

JACEK PARTYKA

Dominick LaCapra1 distinguishes between two kinds of remembering


trauma (which are also, for him at least, two types of writing on history):
one that results in acting out and the other that leads to working through
the past. While the former is “compulsively repetitive”, the latter “involves
repetition with significant difference” (i.e. it necessitates returning to the
source of the problem and changing the way of perceiving it by the
traumatized individual). In other words, traumatic memory can either be
allowed to become the driving force behind the uncontrollable recurrence
of certain (obsessive) behaviors, or it can be pacified by means of
developing a critical distance from a problem. Both terms are obviously
closely related (and derived from) the Freudian notion of transference,
which LaCapra understands as “implication in the problem one treats,
implication that involves repetition, in one’s approach or discourse, of
forces or movements active in those problems”2. It needs to be emphasized
that not only does transference occur in relations between people, but also
when one tries to relate to the objects of study, such as authentic
documents, diaries, letters or even scholarly publications and fiction.
When it comes to the issue of vicarious victimhood in Holocaust literature,
the second manifestation of transference generates a significant
controversy of an ethical nature: to say that the process can be observed is
not to say enough, quite often (as I will demonstrate on the basis of works
by Cynthia Ozick and W. G. Sebald) it is shown as visibly moving towards
the region of perverse “desire” for the Holocaust. And what is so

1
Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore and London:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 148.
2
LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 142.
224 Chapter Fourteen

captivating about mass destruction? What is the appeal of feeling like a


victim?
The relational dynamics of transference implies that trauma is
contagious in nature – it can affect the observer, the historian, or the
commentator in such a way that the act of witnessing (even reading or
pondering upon) turns into the act of (imagined) participation. For
LaCapra this is not only understandable but almost inevitable. But what is
more important and intriguing for him is the way of coping with
transference. The spectrum of possible reactions may oscillate between
two radical attitudes: “full identification” and “pure objectification”3. The
first one forces you to enter the role of the victim (which may be done
deliberately or happen unintentionally), because the experience itself
possesses a certain compulsive intensity that calls forth empathy; the
second consists in active resistance towards the “contagion” and in facing
the problem in an emotionally neutral manner. Such extreme reactions,
however, seldom appear in a pure form.
The moment of ultimate fascination wherein the witness is transformed
into a surrogate victim and appropriates the victim’s voice inescapably
takes us on to the question of identity. One thing is trauma per se, and
quite another the vicarious trauma originating from transference, but both
can (and, in fact, often do) serve as the basis for self-definition. As far as
the Holocaust is concerned, LaCapra notices the emergence of “a kind of
negative sacrality”, the way of thinking that makes the fact of Nazi
genocide a “founding trauma” for Jewish survivors and the next
generations:

This is an extreme and interesting paradox – how something traumatic,


disruptive, disorienting in the life of a people (Jews) can become the basis
of identity formation. If you think about it, this probably happens in the
lives of all peoples, to a greater or lesser extent. All myths of origin include
something like a founding trauma, through which the people pass and
emerge strengthened; at least they have stood the test of this founding
trauma4.

Understandable as this process appears to be at first, it should not be


considered without reserve. The Holocaust construed as the founding
trauma is rather obvious when this label is meant to be a symbolic gesture
of commemorating millions of victims and all those who somehow
managed to escape the extermination. In such a case one can claim an
identity that is both personal and, even more importantly, collective.
3
LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 147.
4
LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 161.
Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature 225

Nevertheless, the identification through victimhood can easily become


subject to abuse, or at least serious distortion. As the literary fiction
analyzed below demonstrates, the Holocaust also provides an opportunity
to build up a particularity that one is not capable of creating (or
formulating) otherwise. When this happens, then the tribute paid to the
victims may be overshadowed by the ethical consequences of the act: how
to explain and justify an outlook on life that is not rooted in hard facts;
what to think of a person who consciously and diligently seeks to act out
horrifying and paralyzing experiences she/ he has not undergone at all?
To show how the notion of transference of trauma is represented in
fiction, I have selected and juxtaposed two contemporary Holocaust
novels, one written by an American, the other by a German writer. Both
The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick and Austerlitz by W. G.
Sebald engage with “ethical issues of appropriating the trauma of others”5,
and both feature analogical characters that might be classified as belonging
to “1.5 generation” of the Holocaust. This “decimal” term, coined by
Susan Suleiman, refers to “child survivors of the Holocaust too young to
have had an adult understanding of what was happening to them,
sometimes too young to have any memory of it at all, but old enough to
have been there during the Nazi persecution of the Jews”.6 It is not a clear
remembrance of the atrocities, but rather a painful absence of it that haunts
such people. Things certainly witnessed a long time ago are now either
inaccessible or vaguely recalled; thus, retrieving and making sense of
yesteryear becomes a personal imperative, if not an obsession.
A search for the deprived identity transforms the protagonist of The
Messiah of Stockholm into a moth-like figure that neurotically revolves
around the life of the Polish writer, Bruno Schulz, and the manuscript of
his legendary last novel. As a child, Lars Andemening, supposedly a
Polish orphan and a Holocaust survivor, is adopted and brought up by
Swedish foster parents; soon, however, his gradually growing sense of
estrangement makes him leave their home. So acute is the pain of
rootlessness and so overwhelming the inability to fit into the context of his
new native land that as a mature person he delves into the depths of
confabulation concerning his true origin. The mania bears fruit in the form
of a somewhat grotesque elected affinity – Andemening claims to be the
son of Schulz. He adopts a new name, Lazarus Baruch (a pair suggesting a
resurrected prophet), and embarks on diligent studies of the Polish

5
Richard Crownshaw, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in Contemporary
Literature and Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 61.
6
Susan Rubin Suleiman, “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child Survivors
and the Holocaust” in American Imago 59.3 (2002), 277.
226 Chapter Fourteen

language so as to be able to appreciate the oeuvre of his newly discovered


father in the original version. As Naomi Sokoloff remarks, in The Messiah
of Stockholm, apparently a typical postmodern commixture of real and
surreal, Ozick employs a pattern that is quite well-known from such
classics as Stendhal’s The Red and the Black or Joyce’s Ulysses: “the
hero’s construction of his own life plot as a way of exploring questions of
legitimacy, usurpation, paternity, and the transmission of tradition”.7
Granted, the fascination with the potency hidden in fiction informs the
whole story, but there is more than this: in the process of saturating the
world with meaning, and in the desperate endeavors to form a new, truly
genuine identity, fiction turns out to be the only possible strategy.
Andemening, a “hollow man”, needs to be filled up with a substance of
personal history, wants a pedigree of greatness and suffering, irrespective
of the fact that it is all fake.
Sebald’s Austerlitz – which in formal terms is a rather bizarre book,
forever trespassing the boundaries between biography and autobiography,
fiction and historiography8, and ultimately, because of its reliance on
embedded photographs, becoming a “photo-prose”9 – tells the story of
Jacques Austerlitz who in 1939, at the age of four and a half, is sent in
Kindertransport from his native Prague to England, and later to Wales,
where he is adopted by a Calvinist priest and his wife, the inhabitants of a
small town, Bala. He manages to escape from the Holocaust that soon
claims his parents but, gradually, loses the memory of his origins. Growing
up as Daffyd Elias, the boy is not informed about his true name until 1949,
in the private boarding school he attends. His subsequent life is marked by
trauma, a sense of exile, and haunted by a feeling of guilt as he blames
himself for having stubbornly repressed what he lost as a child. Suffering
from neurosis, alienated and isolated, he starts a long search for his true
identity. This Odyssean journey back to his roots is frequently
accompanied by moments of epiphany – for example, while wandering
around London train stations, immersed in his thoughts about “millions
and millions” of people who visited the same places before him, Austerlitz
reveals: “I felt at this time as if the dead were returning from the exile”. As
Amir Eshel emphasizes, the return of the dead, the return of what so far

7
Naomi Sokoloff, “Reinventing Bruno Schulz: Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of
Stockholm and David Grossman’s See Under: Love”. in Association for Jewish
Studies Review 13.1/2 (1988), 172.
8
Amir Eshel, “Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in W. G.
Sebald’s Austerlitz” in New German Critique 88 (2003), 75.
9
Dariusz Czaja, Lekcje ciemności (Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2009), 67.
Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature 227

seemed to have been irretrievably lost is a “central trope in Sebald’s


work”10.
The act of mourning is possible as long as there is at least some
understanding of what exactly has been lost. Inability or failure to uncover
and reconstruct the lost past results either in melancholia or a compulsive
urge to find a substitute for one’s loss. When a chain of memory is broken,
what remains is a sinister absence. And existence deprived of identity is a
contradiction in terms. Lars Andemening and Jacques Austerlitz lead sham
lives. “You should ask yourself if you exist”,11Andemening is asked by
one of his friends, and Austerlitz confesses: “I became aware, through my
dull bemusement, of the destructive effect on me of my desolation through
all those past years, and a terrible weariness overcame me at the idea that I
had never really been alive, or was only now being born, almost on the eve
of my death”12. The quality of their “non-existence” is, however, different,
and it is even clearly signaled by both Ozick and Sebald in the names
chosen for the characters.
The Swedish word “andemening” literally means “spirit”, and
automatically evokes associations with a phantom or ghost. In fact, in
contrast to Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of The Messiah of Stockholm
lacks psychological depth – resembling a concept rather than a
convincingly constructed character. But, as Naomi Sokoloff argues, this
poorly masked verisimilitude ought not to be seen as an indication of the
writer’s poor novelistic imagination: “This is a novel that disallows the
validity of plot and invention in a context devoid of referential
certainty”13. Lars is a peculiar example of a “self-made” individual: he
creates himself as an idea, and he is merely a “specter of his true
identity”14. Being not only an admirer of Schulz, Yeats, Faulkner, Mann
and Camus, but also the author of notoriously ignored literary reviews, he
turns his life into a tale and himself into a flimsy and superficial persona
that is in no way subordinate to reality. The “writerly” addiction to
metaphor permanently conditions his mode of thinking, and even his
subconscious, which can be best exemplified by numerous references to a
burning smell throughout the whole story. Lars is virtually plagued by it,
but at the same time he is unable to track down its origin. In the literature
concerned with the Holocaust, the all-pervasive smell of burning has the

10
Eshel, “Against the Power of Time…”, 78.
11
Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm (New York: Vintage Books, 1988),
141.
12
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz (London: Penguin, 2002), 194.
13
Sokoloff, “Reinventing Bruno Schulz…”, 179.
14
Sokoloff, “Reinventing Bruno Schulz…”, 179.
228 Chapter Fourteen

status of topos: it (rightly) functions as a metonymical reminder of Nazi


concentration camps and the Final Solution.
Taken together, the main plot and numerous subplots of The Messiah of
Stockholm constitute a literary meditation on the idea of “falseness”.
Drawing upon the historical fact of the murder of Bruno Schulz in 1942 on
the streets of the Drohobycz ghetto, the novel explores the still intriguing
mystery of his last work, The Messiah, the manuscript of which is
miraculously discovered in Sweden. Lars, a self-declared expert, is
expected to testify to its authenticity and to introduce it to the literary
world. He is, in fact, surrounded by a circle of cunning tricksters dedicated
to fabricating their identities in order to achieve personal gains. The
Jewishness of these characters feeds on adopted, imagined or purposefully
fabricated affinities with Jewish ancestors. Naomi Sokoloff interprets this
(very arbitrarily) as the main problem of Ozick’s story: “This modus
vivendi has become common practice since authenticity of identity is
impossible after the Holocaust. Too much social past has been destroyed
and the stories cannot be verified”15. Lars lives in a world which has
become a state of grotesque drama. The feverish attempts at establishing
the true value of the manuscript are accompanied by ever recurring
references to the circumstances of Schulz’s brutal death. With each
subsequent detail, the crime assumes (symbolically) the role of the central
Holocaust event. Such is the precision of its description that the reader
may have the impression of dealing with flashbacks from Andemening’s
own past. A liberating moment comes with the recognition that the
supposed Messiah is a forgery – not only does Lars burn the pages, but he
annihilates the whole edifice of illusions he has erected. The act of burning
is tantamount to committing an auto-da-fé of his former self. The plague
of acting out is over. Ozick’s representation of trauma transference implies
the possibility of full recovery – her protagonist overcomes the urge to
pattern himself after the elected father, choosing the life of a middling
reviewer of second rate books instead.
While commenting on possible relations between history and fiction in
the context of the Holocaust, Ozick favors a very strong opinion:

Embedded in the idea of fiction is the idea of impersonation: every novelist


enters the personae of his/her characters; fiction writing is make-believe,
acting a part, assuming an identity not one’s own. Novelists are, after all
professional impostors; they become the people they invent. When the
imposture remains within the confines of a book, we call it art. But when

15
Sokoloff, “Reinventing Bruno Schulz…”, 178.
Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature 229

impersonation escapes the bounds of fiction and invades life, we call it


hoax – or, sometimes, fraud.16

Originally, Ozick’s criticism of such an attitude is directed, first and


foremost, at Binjamin Wilkomirski (Bruno Dössekker), whose Fragments:
Memories of a Wartime Childhood (published in 1995) initially earned him
widespread critical admiration, but who was soon exposed as a crook. In
the course of a thorough examination of the alleged recollection of
experiences in the concentration camps it simply became clear that the
man was not a Holocaust survivor. The disclosure of the fabrication
changed the status of Fragments from autobiography to fiction. By the
same token, albeit not being a novelist per se, Lars Andemening creates a
novel-like narrative that takes his own life as its substance, and “in the
name of autonomous rights of fiction”, “in the name of the sublime rights
of imagination”17 performs an operation on his memory in order to replace
history with mere (and pathetic) aberration. Thus, by means of the fiction
about a quasi-writer, Ozick expresses her disapproval of the conduct of
real artists. (What is interesting is that Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm
was published seven years before Wilkomirski published his fake memoirs
and ten years before the scandal broke out.)
In Sebald’s novel, the surname of the protagonist functions as a brand.
While visiting Marienbad in Bohemia in 1972, Austerlitz confides to his
companion, Marie de Verneuil, that in this town his spirit is pervaded by a
disquieting gloom: “Something or other unknown wrenched at my heart
here”.18 Apparently, the sensation may be attributed to the all-too-obvious
nostalgia for his parents, with whom he stayed in one of the spa pavilions
when he was four. But the anxiety springs from a different source – it is
generated by an unspecified word that, perhaps, can be heard around
Marienbad, “Something very obvious like an ordinary name or a term”19.
The disquiet hides itself in sounds. Indeed, there seems to be an
unmentioned keyword, an absent focal point around which the whole story
revolves. A good start for an investigation is the very surname of the
eponymous character. “Austerlitz” sounds bizarre; upon hearing it for the
first time, the boy reacts with uneasiness; it is like “an ignominious flaw”20

16
Cynthia Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary. Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 2000),
107.
17
Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary, 118-119.
18
Sebald, Austerlitz, 300.
19
Sebald, Austerlitz, 300.
20
Sebald, Austerlitz, 102.
230 Chapter Fourteen

and “some password”21. The narrator of the book displays a particular


liking for repeating the name whenever the structure of the sentence
requires it – hardly a page can be found without it. The decision not to
resort to personal pronouns instead may be dictated by the chosen
stylistics (in imitation of, say, Thomas Bernhard’s prose), or is an
invitation to ponder upon the fact, scratch the surface and uncover what is
beneath. As a result of overuse, words-mantras become commonplace, the
meaning they carry goes unnoticed. Word-mantras dull the readers’
vigilance.
Being “a flaw” and “a password”, “Austerlitz” both stigmatizes and
enables access to a secret. Sebald consistently sustains the strategy of
allusion. The whole narrative illustrates the deferral of something that
demands to be clarified but cannot, or, perhaps, should not. “Austerlitz” is
heard by the boy in history lessons, “a small place in Moravia”, the site of
the Battle of the Three Emperors; it is, as Austerlitz accidentally learns
from the radio, the original surname of Fred Astaire’s father, Frederic, an
Austrian Jew, native to Linz; it appears, he is told, in one of the 1911
entries in Kafka’s Diaries as the surname of an exceptionally experienced
mohel, a specialist in circumcision; it is a compound of the name of a large
railway terminus in Paris. Three times the word is associated with
railroads: Fred Astaire’s family house was situated in Omaha, Nebraska
where “you could hear freight trains being shunted back and forth” 22; Gare
d’Austerlitz is an important rail terminus in Paris; the protagonist himself
is a great railway station lover, studying them with obsessive regularity.
The word triggers a set of random associations: war, Jewishness, Linz,
trains… Or, are they really random? In the Marienbad episode of the novel
we read: “Marie claimed that the mineral waters and particularly the so-
called Auschowitz Springs had gathered a great reputation for curing”23.
Austerlitz visiting the Auschowitz Springs… What are the sinister sounds
that haunt the consciousness of the protagonist? A slight modification in
the middle part of the surname, or in the name of the curative waters will
give us the epitomical word for the Holocaust: Auschwitz. As Dariusz
Czaja remarks, this is the most important place in the context of the events
described in Sebald’s book24. If, as Věra Ryšanková, Austerlitz’s
nurserymaid, testified, in September 1944 his mother was deported from
Terezín and the destination was “east”25, we can almost be sure she met

21
Sebald, Austerlitz, 96.
22
Sebald, Austerlitz, 95.
23
Sebald, Austerlitz, 295.
24
Czaja, Lekcje ciemności, 91.
25
Sebald, Austerlitz, 287.
Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature 231

her fate in the concentration camp near Oświęcim. The rationale behind
the decision to “un-name” is not obvious at first. As a symbolic gesture,
however, it locates Sebald in the ranks of those artists who believe that the
massive carnage in Nazi camps defies adequate description and remains
“beyond words”.
Encoded into a cipher of the proper name, the Holocaust becomes a
major determinant of the protagonist’s self. It is both a revealing and
excruciating decision of Sebald’s. Austerlitz is presented as an individual
in the process of constant (and probably never-ending) reconstruction and
re-stigmatization of his identity. When one’s life is incurably conditioned
by what “has been”, living amounts to going backwards. Sebald unfolds an
existential oxymoron: it is as if the future does not occur: it merely offers a
pool of possibilities to retrieve the past, to turn back from the immediate.
Annexed by painful nostalgia, Austerlitz gradually grows accustomed to
the situation of self-chosen exile. “A terrible weariness overcame me at the
idea that I had never lived” 26 is a devastating statement which reminds us
that the Holocaust still cannot be referred to as an atrocity that
“happened”, but one that “has happened”. An example of grammar being
rigorously intertwined with ethics. The wound of loss takes years and
generations to heal.
One of the most interesting aspects of Sebald’s novel is the use of a
very original, and more importantly: meaningful mode of narrative. The
first person narrator is not only intrigued but virtually mesmerized by
Jacques Austerlitz. He collects and records the shreds of memory
gradually being uncovered by his acquaintance, and over a period of many
years transforms them into a tale from which he is incapable of developing
a healthy distance. The fascination is never expressed overtly, but rather
implied. Lack of inverted commas and a total dependence on reported
speech on the pages of the book mean that Austerlitz is not, as it may
appear at first, allowed to speak for himself. Never does his “authentic”
voice emerge; instead, it is consistently controlled and filtered by the
listener. This is not irrelevant, as the narrator is German and the person to
whom his attention is drawn – a Holocaust victim.
The existence of a surprising proximity between these two men can be
observed in the language that Sebald uses: in the paragraph-long
sentences, amidst piled-up words the “I” of the narrator seems to merge
with the “I” of the eponymous protagonist. Sometimes the use of pronouns
verges on inconsistency:

26
Sebald, Austerlitz, 194.
232 Chapter Fourteen

(…) looking out of the window of my train compartment, I saw dark


forests of firs, a deeply carved river valley, mountain ranges of cloud over
the horizon, and windmills towering above the roofs of the houses
clustered around them, with their broad sails cutting rhythmically through
the faint light of dawn. In the middle of these dreams, said Austerlitz,
somewhere behind his eyes, he had felt these overwhelmingly immediate
images forcing their way out of him, but once he had woken he could
recall scarcely any of them even in outline. I realized then, he said, how
little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must
have always tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything
which related in any way to my unknown past. Inconceivable as it seems to
me today, I knew nothing about the conquest of Europe by the Germans
and the slave trade they set up, and nothing about the persecution I had
escaped (…).27

To make the second sentence of the above excerpt stylistically more


“consistent”, one should change pronouns and possessive adjectives, e.g.
“somewhere behind my eyes”, “I had felt”, “forcing their way of me”,
“once I had woken I could recall”. A slight manipulation with grammatical
markers indicates how elusive or even illusory is the distance between
“he” and “I”. The memories of Austerlitz migrate to the narrator, who
accepts them almost as his own. What binds these two people is a relation
of traumatic osmosis that effects double acting out as the victim and the
witness engage in the laborious work of reconstructing the lost identity of
the former and redefining the “I” of the latter. What is more, the one just
mentioned is not the only example of identification that can be noticed in
the whole fragment: the phrase “I knew nothing about the conquest of
Europe by the Germans and the slave trade they set up” might have been
said by Sebald himself – from his biography we know that throughout the
time of WW II he was kept in the dark about what was happening in his
homeland and about the atrocities committed by the German army28. On
the one hand, then, the narrator of the book empathizes with Austerlitz; on
the other, Sebald himself demonstrates his closeness to the narrator.
Sebald’s (or Sebald’s narrators’) proclivity to appropriate the voices of
the characters in his books came in for serious criticism from Cynthia
Ozick, who seems to be particularly perplexed not only by the “murky”
quality of the German writer’s prose (is it “memoir” or “fiction”?), but
also by his tendency to depict history that is unacceptably beautified,

27
Sebald, Austerlitz, 196-197.
28
Christopher Bigsby, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust. The Chain of
Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 29.
Vicarious Victimhood in Holocaust Literature 233

shown with a tinge of “attractive” nostalgia . While reviewing Sebald’s


The Emigrants, she complains:

The heard language of these four stories – memories personal, borrowed,


invented – is (…) sublime; and I wish it were not – or, if that is not
altogether true, I admit to being disconcerted by a grieving that has been
made beautiful. Grief, absence, loss, longing, wandering, exile,
homesickness – these have been made millennially, sadly beautiful since
the Odyssey, since the Aeneid, since Dante (…). It is art’s sacred ancient
trick to beautify pain, to romanticize the shadows of the irretrievable. (…)
The Jewish passion for Germany was never reciprocated – until now.
Sebald returns that Jewish attachment, although tragically: he is too late for
reciprocity. The Jews he searches for are either stricken escapees or smoke.
Like all ghosts, they need to be conjured.29

Accusing Sebald of attempts to make pain “beautiful”, and of his


allegedly being bent on requiting “Jewish passion for Germany”
oversimplifies, I think, the complexity of both The Emigrants (which I do
not deal with here) and Austerlitz (which Ozick, writing her text in the late
1990s, does not consider, but which, in all probability, would have been
assessed equally harshly as it is informed by analogical “nostalgia” or
“melancholy”). While referring to the Holocaust, Sebald shares with his
readers a much more generalized truth of the human condition. He
demonstrates the layers of existential despair that are probably harbored
deep in the heart of every human being, and which, in propitious
conditions, can be activated. He reminds us that perceiving history as a
thing of the past is at least naïve.
So, can one think of or approach the Holocaust (or, for that matter, any
other traumatizing event) without being constitutionally affected by it?
The answer, of course, is positive. There exists the paradigm of the
professional historian – a person dedicated to the mere precision of the
collected information without developing an emotional link to it.
“Objectivity (…) is the motto of every historian, and that’s why passion is
normally ruled out – since, as the saying goes, it blinds”30. However, apart
from the rigors of scholarly research, there must be other strategies for
facing the painful past. “Is history simply an instrument for measuring
how far we can remove ourselves from events, a sort of anti-
thermometer?”31 Maybe, in such a context, overtly passionate or nostalgic

29
Ozick, Quarrel & Quandary, 29-30.
30
Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason. Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 1995), 127.
31
Brodsky, On Grief, 127.
234 Chapter Fourteen

or melancholic reactions testify to a greater human objectivity? Certainly,


Ozick would say “no” and Sebald would say “yes”. But both novelists
seem to recognize a certain quality of trauma, namely, that when it is only
experienced in its belatedness, it has the tendency to drift from its
historical origins. Living the life of its own, such an “unmoored” trauma
spreads by means of language and has the potential to victimize all those
exposed to it, thereby confusing distinctions between the victim and the
witness. And, paradoxically, the fact of yielding to trauma, the fact that
some people discover their own susceptibility to it, makes them human.
The past, especially when it comes to such events as the Holocaust, cannot
be left to look after itself, and , paradoxically again, trauma makes it clear
that the real history is not entirely lost – granted, it survives in a
threateningly painful form, but, as Christopher Bigsby says, “Forgetting
swims in the same dark pool as denial and refusal”. 32 Sometimes trauma is
the price we pay for being able to remember what ought to be always
remembered.

References
Bigsby, C., 2006, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust. The Chain
of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Brodsky, J., 1995, On Grief and Reason. Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux.
Crownshaw, R., 2010, The Afterlife of Holocaust Memory in
Contemporary Literature and Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Czaja, D., 2009, Lekcje ciemności. Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne.
Eshel, A., 2003, “Against the Power of Time: The Poetics of Suspension in
W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz”. New German Critique 88 (2003): 71-96.
LaCapra, D., 2001, Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore and
London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ozick, C., 1988, The Messiah of Stockholm. New York: Vintage Books.
—. 2000, Quarrel & Quandary. Essays. New York: Vintage Books.
Sebald, W. G., 2002, Austerlitz. London: Penguin.
Sokoloff, N. 1988, “Reinventing Bruno Schulz: Cynthia Ozick’s The
Messiah of Stockholm and David Grossman’s See Under: Love”.
Association for Jewish Studies Review 13.1/2 (1988): 171-199.
Suleiman, S. R., 2002, “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child
Survivors and the Holocaust”. American Imago 59.3 (2002): 277-295.

32
Bigsby, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust, 91.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN

W.G. SEBALD
AND THE VERTIGO OF MOURNING

SŁAWOMIR MASŁOŃ

Although one cannot ultimately give convincing reasons for the very
high stature of W.G. Sebald’s output in the English speaking world (as is
generally known, his position in German literature is not so celebrated at
all), one can at least enumerate the most popular of critical commonplaces.
In order not to look too far, one can quote from Susan Sontag’s review of
The Rings of Saturn, meaningfully entitled “A Mind in Mourning: W.G.
Sebald’s Travels in Search of Some Remnant of the Past”, where she calls
his writing autumnal and mature and is happy that he countervails “the
[contemporary] ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel
as creative fictional subjects”. 1 All of this is closely connected to what is
often taken to be the main subject of his fictional travelogues, that is,
memory or rather commemoration. And if two notions such as “mourning”
and “commemoration” come together in the context of the second half of
the 20th century, one can be sure that another big issue appears on the
horizon, namely, the destruction of European Jewry as the unimaginable
(and hence impossible to narrate) catastrophe of human history. All of
these subjects, and more, feature one way or the other in Sebald’s writing
and, moreover, in a style which, as it was described by one critic, “raised
modesty to the brink of metaphysics”.2 The style and the genre are also
important issues here, because it is claimed that Sebald invented a new
genre (“documentary fiction” or “documentary novel“3) and, although
influenced by a long list of writers, such as Sir Thomas Brown, Edward
1
Susan Sontag, “A Mind in Mourning: W.G. Sebald’s Travels in Search of Some
Remnant of the Past”, Times Literary Supplement, 25 Feb. 2000, 3.
2
Anthony Lane, “Higher Ground: Adventures in Fact and Fiction from W.G.
Sebald”, New Yorker, 29 May 2000, 130.
3
Wyatt Mason, “Mapping a Life: A Review of W.G. Sebald”, The American Book
Review, May/June 1999, 20.
236 Chapter Fifteen

FitzGerald, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Joseph Conrad, Adalbert Stifter,


Stendhal, Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, Chateaubriand and others, wrote in an
inimitable style, in spite of his common appropriation of extracts from
their works and using them verbatim, often without acknowledgement.
But what is perhaps this one and overwhelming claim that could sum
up the laudatory reviews of Sebald’s works? It can surely be found in the
English title of the book based on his lectures delivered in 1997 in Zurich:
On the Natural History of Destruction.4 In other words, Sebald’s works are
taken as narrative incarnations of the ninth thesis from Walter Benjamin’s
famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as


though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly
contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are
spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned
towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single
catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in
front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make
whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has
got caught in his wings and with such violence that the angel can no longer
close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his
back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This
storm is what we call progress.5

In Sebald’s fiction human history seems to be imagined in the same


way and that is why one can speak about natural history here: human
destructiveness is a force of nature.6 But close affinity between Sebald and
Benjamin seems to go much further than this – the very notions of
mourning and melancholy, which are crucial in Sebald’s criticism, found a
famous theoretical elaboration in Benjamin’s The Origin of German
Tragic Drama.7 Moreover, although this last work is devoted to German
baroque playwrights, the vision of the universe that Benjamin finds in

4
It is perhaps significant than the original German title is far less “poetic”:
Luftkrieg und Literatur.
5
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London:
Fontana Press, 1992), 249.
6
Although the influence of Benjamin on Sebald was picked up much later than
other ones, which were textually more obvious, it has since been given
considerable attention, most thorough of which is perhaps Eric L. Santner, On
Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2006).
7
In German: Ursprung des deutchen Trauerspiels. Trauerspiel literary means
“mourning play”.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 237

their works, and generally in the imaginary of the age – ”the bleak
confusion of Golgotha”8 – resembles closely the vision of human history
as permanent catastrophe in the ninth thesis already mentioned.
Sebald’s fiction is full of broken remnants of the past, both human and
inanimate, but fascination with the eccentric and obsolete is perhaps not so
original after all (although rather English than German).9 What is
supposed to make Sebald special is the commemorative quality of his
prose. It is an exercise in memory which is disappearing from our
contemporary world fascinated with the present moment, consumption and
speed (the world which is virtually absent from Sebald’s books).10 But the
memory involved here is no ordinary memory which “saves” the object by
means of incorporation. The commemoration practiced in Sebald’s fiction
is of something which by definition cannot be redeemed this way because
it is a commemoration of past suffering which in Sebald’s world does not
disappear with passing away of the victims who suffered it but
accumulates in places, buildings, things.11 This “spectral materiality“12 can
have a kind of “metonymic” form – as in the case of Gare d’Austerlitz
experienced as a haunted place because the loot captured from the
deported Jews of Paris was kept in the magazines below it – or a more
immediate one – when fortunes extracted from slave labour on colonial
sugarcane plantations are spent on founding imperial art galleries and
museums like Tate Gallery in London. Moreover, in this last instance
suffering can be incarnated in a form which can be, in a sense, also
materially oppressive as is, for Sebald, the case with Centraal Station in
Antwerp where the great building erected with the piles of money
extracted by means of genocide from Congo seems to dwarf the visitor
with its imposing magnificence. This kind of abolition of the passing of
time or its spatialisation which takes place in the vision of spectral
materiality of suffering seems to agree very well with the debunking of the
very notion of progress which is attempted in Benjamin’s ninth thesis. Yet,
8
Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne
(London: New Left Books, 1977), 232.
9
Benjamin comes to mind again: one of his central subjects were the surrealists
who looked for their “profane illuminations” in such objects.
10
If the everyday of the late 20th century appears in Sebald’s fiction, it as a rule
does so in a grossly “gothicised” (or rather “grotesque” in the strict sense – both
funny and terrifying) form, as for instance in the description of a railway station
bar in Vertigo).
11
This too seems to be inspired by Benjamin and his Arcades project and who in
“Theses on the Philosophy of History” wrote: “There is no document of
civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. (248)
12
Santner, On Creaturely Life, xvi and passim.
238 Chapter Fifteen

in the critical tradition that Sebald seems to share, the permanent


catastrophe which is human history appears to have a kind of teleology of
its own because there the name or the image seems to exist which
ultimately subsumes all other instances of suffering as it is taken to be the
instance of the suffering on unimaginable scale – the ultimate Unnameable
and Unrepresentable of infinite pain known as the Holocaust or Shoah.
There is something at the centre of our historical existence which
constitutes its truth but this truth is at the same time a vertiginous lack, a
gaping hole which can only make one dizzy and dumb. But how can one
commemorate in language something which by its very definition makes
one speechless? There are two strategies in Sebald’s prose: the oblique
approach and the allegorical one.
The oblique approach can be exemplified by The Emigrants, Sebald’s
second novel, the book which made Sebald’s name in the English-
speaking world. The Emigrants consists of four narratives devoted to
figures which were, in a sense, robbed of their identity by the violent
historical circumstances of the 20th century. Three of these figures are
Jewish or partly Jewish, the fourth one is homosexual. None of the
protagonists is directly involved in the events of the Holocaust, none of
them is directly (physically) persecuted, so there are no dramatic events to
recount (or at least they are unknown to the narrator), yet this, in a sense,
makes these stories even more poignant – even the lightest of brushes with
the history of destruction leaves the lives utterly desolate. The point here
is, of course, that only this kind of indirect itinerary can remain somehow
faithful to the historical and human truth because any dramatic
representation of horrifying events directly manipulating the reader’s
emotions would necessarily turn into the melodramatic and therefore the
untrue and the immoral itself. This roundabout way of representation of
evil is reinforced by the portraits of the characters who are presented
externally and in a non-psychological way. Sebald’s narrator comments on
this matter thus:

Such endeavours to imagine his life and death [what he felt committing
suicide] did not, as I had to admit, bring me any closer to Paul, except at
best for brief emotional moments of the kind that seemed presumptuous to
me. It is in order to avoid this sort of wrongful trespass that I have written
down what I know of Paul Bereyter.13

13
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions,
1997), 29.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 239

What is taken to be presumptuous here is the old sentimental technique


of empathy that supposedly allows us to reconstruct in ourselves the
emotions of another human being. First of all, such Einfühlung smacks too
much of excessive and therefore fake emotions of the melodramatic in the
aforementioned sense. What is more, assigning such emotions to a
traumatic event means constructing a conventional context within which
these representations would become meaningful and therefore would make
sense. Additionally, a projection like this, even if (or perhaps especially
when) well-intentioned drags in its wake all sorts of narcissistic
paraphernalia which are perhaps especially indecent in the situation of a
German imagining the feelings of a persecuted Jew. But what is perhaps
even more important, the painful fate of Sebald’s protagonists is precisely,
as has already been mentioned, the destruction of what is usually taken to
be a “normal”, “rounded” identity. A brush with the history of destruction
made them inhabit their own lives in a ghostly manner – they haunt their
own identity. This is perhaps shown most vividly in the case of Ambros
Adelwarth who, towards the end of his life, is presented as an empty husk
of a man held together by purely external everyday rituals like putting on
his clothes in the morning and taking them off in the evening. How is one
who has not gone through such a destitution supposed to imagine what it
feels like? Perhaps there is nothing to imagine in the first place, and this is
precisely what makes the fate of these characters so horrifying.
Sebald’s allegorical strategy is employed in The Rings of Saturn, in the
original subtitled Eine englische Wallfahrt, an English pilgrimage. Another
way of de-psychologising is used here: the story has no plot that would
allow the reader to identify or empathise with the narrator because it is
constructed mainly of digressions which come up with ever new examples
of historical forces that have caused human (and not only human)
suffering. Because of this, The Rings of Saturn is taken to be a
melancholic dirge on mortality and catastrophe, the poetic presentation of
human history as ruin, a book which is autumnal, melancholy etc.
However, in spite of all the laudatory critical acclaim, the stories recounted
may perhaps leave a strangely unpleasant aftertaste in the reader’s mouth.
If one takes into consideration Sebald’s consciously old-fashioned German
and poetically high diction, one can ask: what is so aesthetically and
melancholically pleasurable in reading about pain? Moreover, although the
history of destruction in The Rings of Saturn features mainly suffering
caused by imperialism, it is full of the alluring images of the past glory of
the imperialist middle classes from the times before 1914, when its world
was shattered. The passing away of the magnificence of Somerleyton Hall,
which features the beginning of the book, and after it many similar
240 Chapter Fifteen

examples up to Sudbourne Hall towards its end seem to be one of the


unacknowledged sources of the melancholy mood of The Rings of Saturn.
In this context, the title of the book may perhaps be apter but also much
more ambiguous than it is generally imagined: the eponymous Saturn, one
can remind oneself, was not only the god of time and the planet of
melancholy but also the patron of the Golden Age.
There was, however, something else that troubled a number of
commentators on the book. Some of them felt rather uneasy about the
facility with which Sebald slides from one image of destruction to the
other without constructing any kind of hierarchy among them; so, for
instance, he goes from mass trawling of herrings, to the corpses of
Holocaust victims at Bergen-Belsen, to drowned swine in the New
Testament (mad Gedarene episode) and so on. Yet, one may wonder at the
critics’ surprise here because a well-known analysis of such sliding exists
in a book we have already mentioned and written by an author who was
perhaps Sebald’s strongest influence. In The Origin of German Tragic
Drama, Walter Benjamin claims that the horizontal movement of allegory
is at the centre of the discourse of mourning. While the symbol is vertical
and aims to embody a transcendental (and thus redeeming) truth, allegory
is immanent to the secularised world of “the insuperable despair”: “[t]he
allegorical physiognomy of the nature-history […] is present in reality in
the form of the ruin”.14 In other words, whether they are verbal or pictoral,
images used in the allegorical discourse of melancholy become
“designified” in the sense that they no longer have any autonomous
meaning (which would allow for a hierarchy of importance); they become
completely interchangeable, because each of them is simply yet another
allegory of something which is the cause of “the hopelessness of the
earthly condition”,15 the missing value of the world. And because
everything in the world, looked at from the melancholic perspective, is
always already a ruin (even a new-born baby is an image of mortality), the
images are not only interchangeable – their enumeration is potentially
infinite and the end of the list is just arbitrary. In this context, one may
remember some enraptured reviewers who like to call Sebald’s writing
sublime – if the sublimity is there, it is definitely of the aforementioned
mathematical sort. Moreover, in this case, the surface fragmentation of the
images and hence of the narrative hide a deeper kind of totalisation:
because melancholy does not present things as they are (whatever this may
mean) but their nothingness (their common denominator), although the

14
Benjamin, Tragic Drama, 78, 177.
15
Benjamin, Tragic Drama, 81.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 241

fragments do not add up to the whole, each of them replicates the whole
(the black hole) and hence makes it even more all-encompassing.16
One of Sebald’s favourite images, undoubtedly adopted from Borges,
references to whom abound in Sebald’s writing, is the labyrinth. Taking
into consideration the infinite melancholic list as Sebald’s favourite
writing strategy, this is no big surprise, because the labyrinth is a perfect
metaphor for such a list. In the labyrinth all places are completely
interchangeable apart from one: the centre where the Minotaur resides and
the Minotaur is a figure of death, the unimaginable itself.17 In this sense,
the encounter with the Minotaur is also the encounter with the mirror, but
it is the mirror of melancholy which always reflects loss: the empty place
of both arche and telos, nothingness, the loss of all sense. Yet such loss is
tantamount to loss of memory as well. Memory, both collective and
personal, is after all founded in some kind of sense-making narration.
How, therefore, can the allegorical discourse of melancholy be called
commemorative?
Austerlitz, Sebald’s last novel, directly addresses the problem of
traumatic loss of memory. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the
eponymous character, a five-year-old Prague Jew, is placed by his parents
on a child transport which takes him from Czechoslovakia to London, and
then to Wales where he is brought up by a Calvinist preacher and his wife.
Austerlitz represses the memories of his Czech childhood in his further
existence, which causes mental problems throughout his life and finally
leads to his mental collapse. This is how Austerlitz himself analyses his
former life:

I knew nothing about the conquest of Europe by the Germans and the slave
state they set up, and nothing about the persecution I had escaped, or at
least, what I did know was not much more than a salesgirl in a shop, for
instance, knows about the plague or cholera. As far as I was concerned the
world ended in the late nineteenth century. I dared go no further than that,
although in fact the whole history of the architecture and civilisation of the
bourgeois age, the subject of my research, pointed in the direction of the
catastrophic events already casting their shadows before them at the time. I
did not read newspapers because, as I now know, I feared unwelcome
revelations, I turned in the radio only at certain hours of day, I was always
refining my defensive reactions, creating a kind of quarantine or immune

16
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The
Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl
Lester (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), 44.
17
Marek Bieńczyk, Melancholia: O tych, co nigdy nie odnajdą straty (Warszawa:
Sic!, 1998), 56.
242 Chapter Fifteen

system which, as I maintained my existence in a smaller and smaller space,


protected me from anything that could be connected in any way, however
distant, with my own early history. Moreover, I had constantly been
preoccupied by that accumulation of knowledge which I had pursued for
decades, and which served as a substitute or compensatory memory. And if
some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my
precautions, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my eyes
and ears to it, of simply forgetting it like any other unpleasantness. Yet this
self-censorship of my mind, the constant suppression of the memories
surfacing in me […] demanded ever greater efforts and finally, and
unavoidably, led to the almost total paralysis of my linguistic faculties, the
destruction of all my notes and sketches, my endless nocturnal
peregrinations through London, and the hallucinations which plagued me
with increasing frequency up to the point of my nervous breakdown in the
summer of 1992.18

The cause of his condition is set before him in a Proustian recollection


when in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room of the old Liverpool Street
railway station in London, he has a “vision” of himself as he arrived there
in 1939. Thus he realises, as he claims, that he has lived a false life in a
false world, and from this moment he sets out to retrieve his authentic
existence. The connection with Proust here is, of course, the reliance on
involuntary memory as the source of the authentic. Although there were no
traumatic experiences of Austerlitz’s intensity in Proust’s upper middle
class existence, he became aware of the phenomenon that also Sebald
draws the reader’s attention to in his first book, Vertigo, where he recounts
what Stendhal wrote in his autobiography entitled The Life of Henry
Brulard. What Stendhal finds out analysing his memories is that many
images from his past that he seems to remember are false because the
original impressions have been replaced or distorted by the representations
of the places or events that he encountered later in his life (paintings,
narratives etc.). In other words, he finds out that our voluntary memory is
inauthentic through and through.
No more recollections, however, come from Austerlitz’s involuntary
memory. So what does he do to get his authentic life back? He reaches out
for another kind of involuntary memory which is objectified in the
archives. But the archives, being the instrument of surveillance and state
control are in fact the opposite of authenticity because it is by means of
archives that power trains us into who we are or who it wants us to be.
One can even claim that the Court and the Castle in Kafka, to remain close
to Sebald’s influences, are themselves archives and as such allegories for

18
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin, 2002), 197-8.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 243

institutional (lack of) memory. Moreover, the relationship between trauma


and authenticity is perhaps more complicated than Sebald’s (or his
narrator’s) imagination takes it to be – if you are a persecuted Jew or, for
that matter, a 19th century Manchester factory worker (whose average age
at death in the 1840s was 1719), it is your “authentic” life which is false
and perhaps there is nothing worth remembering in it in the first place.
Here we are getting down to what one may perceive as genuine
sentimentality of Sebald’s imagination. Although the writer himself places
the dread of the melodramatic as one of the central signposts for his
writing,20 the constellation we find in Austerlitz obviously looks like some
kind of wish-fulfilment melodramatic fantasy. On the one hand, as the
foundation of the false life in England, we have the childhood spent with
the Eliases – cold, rigid, strict and relatively poor Calvinists. On the other,
we are provided with the image of his lost family that Austerlitz finds in
the archives and learns about in Prague from Vera, his mother’s friend and
Austerlitz’s nanny: a socialist father, an actress-mother, both well-to-do,
artistic, sensitive and loving. In other words, fantastic parents every child
would like to have. And to show the falsity of all the talk about false
existence, it is enough to conduct a simple thought-experiment: what if we
reverse the couples? What happens if in Prague we have a cold, strict, poor
and fanatically religious Jewish family, Austerlitz’s biological parents, and
in Bala, Wales we imagine an easy-going, imaginative, well-to-do, tolerant
foster-couple? We do not even have to imagine much, because such a
family (although not a couple) is there on the pages of Austerlitz. It is
Andromeda Lodge where Austerlitz’s friend Gerald lives with his mother,
Adela, and two eccentric uncles, and where he seems to feel at home
(Andromeda Lodge is also, by the way, a shrine of colonial loot from the
past). Would Austerlitz have spoken about his loss of authentic life, if he
had found out that his Jewish parents from Prague had been some dreadful
religious fanatics? Or would he have felt alienated from himself in Wales,
if he had been raised in Andromeda Lodge, in the first place? 21

19
Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005),
143.
20
An interview entitled “Ich fürchte das Melodramatische”, Der Spiegel, 12 March
2001, 228 – 34.
21
On can come up with many more examples of this type of sentimental
manipulation. For instance, the poetic descriptions of the life of moths and their
deaths as yet another allegory of the world’s cruelty (“Sometimes, seeing one of
these moths that have met their end in my house, I wonder what kind of fear or
pain they feel while they are lost” etc. (133)). Moths are mysterious and fragile
nocturnal creatures that one can easily poetise about, but if they are to be pitied, so
244 Chapter Fifteen

Authenticity is therefore a fake category – nobody has an authentic self or


lives an authentic life. It is the feature of self-consciousness that one
necessarily feels inauthentic (one can always imagine that one can be more
authentic that one is now). Authenticity is a category of the Other and it is
an imaginary one, because it can be validated only by the third party and
only retroactively: “he has had an authentic life”.
Austerlitz can also be used as a kind of retroactive commentary on The
Rings of Saturn. As we have already quoted, Austerlitz claims that his
gargantuan project of an exhaustive analysis of “the whole history of the
architecture and civilisation of the bourgeois age, […] that accumulation
of knowledge which I had pursued for decades […] served as a substitute
or compensatory memory”.22 In other words, his occupation with
academic knowledge is said to replace his authentic self and therefore
authentic emotions, which makes him yet another non-psychological entity
in Sebald’s writing. If we connect this with the way the narrative of The
Rings of Saturn is constructed – as we already noted, it de-psychologises
the narrator because it consists of seemingly objective multiple digressions
and hardly anything else – we can say that the very substance of this novel
constitutes a display of such academic knowledge and erudition (actually
far bigger because its range is much wider than the 19th century) which
takes over the “personal” story (the story of the authentic self of the
narrator), does not lead anywhere (its end is arbitrary) and does not mean
anything (the micro-narrations have no autonomous meaning, there is no
hierarchy among the events). This is an important issue because it is here
that the distinction between Sebald and his narrator as two different
entities collapses, the distinction that so many critics writing about the
author are so fond of – the sublime (because potentially infinite!)
knowledge and erudition we are participating in is Sebald’s before it is his
narrator’s.
So are we really dealing here with the narrator who is de-
psychologised? Is there really nobody to identify or empathise with? Is it
just a non-melodramatic melancholy vision caused by the futility of
human effort that is presented to us in such a narrative? In other words, is
it really what so many critics take it to be? One can seriously doubt it and
one of the gut-reaction incarnations of this doubt may be the
aforementioned unpleasant aftertaste such writing leaves some readers
with: one would imagine a book on oppressive topics (mortality, mass
murder, pain, ruin) to be oppressive itself, but Sebald is not Céline – he

should be flies who are not so amenable to get melancholic about because they
have disgusting habits, love faeces, and are generally a nuisance.
22
As usual, similarity to Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades project is not accidental.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 245

produces “autumnal beauty”.23 So what is ultimately so beautiful and


engaging in his rather excruciating subject matter? The answer, in the light
of the above, is perhaps not so difficult to come up with: what produces
such beauty is this particular poetic and unique sensibility (Sebald’s, not
his narrator’s) which is able to seduce us into enjoying a plotless and
rambling tale. In other words, a meaningless world is transformed into an
emotionally engaging story by being filtered through the sensibility of
Sebald’s authentic selfhood. This means that what we are witnessing here
is tantamount to the aesthetic overcoming of loss – and it is precisely
what, for instance, the protagonists of The Emigrants cannot hope to do.
Isn’t it a somewhat dubious kind of commemoration?
Moreover, against Sebald’s intentions and many critics’ opinion, one
can call this kind of writing thoroughly sentimental – and sentimental in
the strict sense of the word. In the most popular and crude way, the 18th
century sentimentality is represented in English by works like Henry
Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling where the protagonist’s tender feelings
and melancholy manner are offered to the reader as a hyperbolic model for
identification. Yet for the ultimate literary exemplification of
sentimentality one has to look elsewhere – into Laurence Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy. This is a novel which is humorous and in all kinds of ways
excessive, so at first sight it seems to be the exact opposite of Sebald’s
dignified and “modest” prose. However, it has a surprising amount of
things in common with the German author’s narratives. As far as the
content is concerned, it is the work obsessed with the odd and out of the
way, its protagonists are incurable eccentrics, even the engagement with
fortifications, which features so often in Sebald’s fiction, is there in the
games of Uncle Toby. Moreover, none of the eccentrics – including
Tristram and Yorick, the narrators – can be taken as a model for
identification or an object of empathy because they are also thoroughly de-

23
There have been a number of attempts to give a critical response to the presence
of photographs in Sebald’s books, including soundings of the author’s intensions in
interviews. However, one may see such attempts are rather spurious if the nature of
the photographic image is taken into account – all photography is “autumnal”, it is
a melancholy medium per excellence, of which Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is
the most famous analysis. Moreover, one of the effects of this is that there are no
photographs which are not potentially beautiful: “For while paintings or poems do
not get better, more attractive simply because they are older, all photographs are
interesting as well as touching if they are old enough. It is not altogether wrong to
say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph – only less interesting, less
relevant, less mysterious ones. Photography’s adoption by the museum only
accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work
valuable”. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 2001), 141.
246 Chapter Fifteen

psychologised: they are not normal, rounded characters, but figures utterly
dominated by their various obsessions (“hobby-horses”) which prevent
them from normal intercourse with the world. From the formal point of
view, the parallels are even stronger: on the surface the narrative seems to
be totally chaotic and its method is, as Tristram himself explains
“progressive digression“ (“my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,
– and at the same time”24). Yet Tristram Shandy is anything but a muddled
affair – everything in it is precisely crafted to serve its overriding purpose
which is not the representation of life-like characters or criticism of life,
but the display of the unique and exquisite sensibility of the author,
including his sublime erudition. And if this is not enough, one can add that
the next book Sterne wrote, A Sentimental Journey through France and
Italy, is precisely what its title suggests: a sentimental travelogue in which
places are important only as occasions for the display of a particular kind
of (tender) sensibility (melancholy included). Moreover, one can even
claim that Sebald’s sentimental journey through Austria, Italy and
Germany, that is, Vertigo, is perhaps most faithful to his original
sentimental writing impulse precisely because it is least “refined” and
melancholy, or perhaps one should say: least beautiful and autumnal.
Unlike his later novels, it is often funny and with a wicked kind of
humour, as in the case when the narrator realizes that the parents of the
Italian twins who look like Kafka take his interest in them as homosexual.
Like Tristram Shandy, Vertigo is also full of sexual innuendo (what
Santner calls “fantasy of phallic penetration”25), which culminates in the
interpretation of Kafka’s “The Hunter Gracchus” as the metaphor for his
homosexual “affliction”. Additionally, the narrator himself is a kind of
manic-depressive eccentric, prone to see in the world all kinds of
conspiracies targeting himself.

24
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian
Cambell Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58.
25
Santner, On Creaturely Life, for instance on page 169: “The jouissance
associated with this fantasy of phallic penetration is clearer in the German, where
the word translated as ‘sickening’ – satt – also suggests ‘satisfied’, ‘satiated’, ‘full’.
Two threatening men appear in Milan some seven years later when the narrator
attempts to retrace the still troubling steps of his original Italian journey (he is in
Milan to replace a lost passport; he thus finds himself in a kind of caesura of his
symbolic identity). Emerging from the train station, he is manhandled by two
young men for no apparent reason; the corporeal proximity of his assailants
manifests the same theatrical obscenity the narrator associated with Venice […].
But this association only heightens the reader’s sense that these figures hold the
place of a kind of homosexual panic on the part of the narrator”.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 247

Kafka’s story is the main thematic motif which on the level of imagery
is used by Sebald to bind the disjointed chapters of Vertigo together26 –
references to “The Hunter Gracchus” abound in the novel appearing in the
least likely places, like in the last, seemingly autobiographic part where it
is said of Hans Schlag, a local huntsman, that he used to work in the Black
Forest (like Gracchus), where he dies Gracchus’s death and, when his
corpse is perused, a sailing ship is found tattooed on his forearm (a
reference to Gracchus’s barque). Therefore apart from the literal meaning
of the title, which is realized in the narrator’s recounted panic attacks and
instances of dizziness (“serious” representations of his later novels), it also
refers to the novel’s technically vertiginous structure. On the one hand,
Kafka’s story is itself a narrative about a man caught between life and
death, that is, a man in a constant state of vertigo. On the other hand,
because the narrative of the novel is so obviously intertextual, it
undermines the “reality effect” of what is being recounted to us (for
instance, of the “autobiographical” material). So the vertigo offered here
presents itself basically as a less-than-serious and not-so-melancholy game
with the reader or, to tell the truth, and especially in the light of the half-
joking “obscene” interpretation Kafka’s short-story is given, as a veritable
literary Schwindel, which in German means both “vertigo” and “swindle”.
The Schwindel we have noted is perhaps yet another (literary) take on
the fake category of the authentic self which is ultimately nothing else
than a fantasy – a compensatory creation of the discourse of the middle
classes whose historical importance is that they dissolved all “organic”
structures and therefore abolished the possibility of anything that can
meaningfully be called authenticity. A fantasy, however, is always a
screen. What does it hide in Sebald’s case?
Sebald’s prose is often discussed in the context of the Holocaust and its
influence on the so-called “postmemory”, a term introduced by Marianne
Hirsch who defines it thus:

“Postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears


to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before –
to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and
behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were
transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute
memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is thus
actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection,
and creation. To grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be

26
This is one of Sebald’s favourite techniques: unnamed Nabokov keeps
reappearing in The Emigrants, references to Sir Thomas Browne are woven into
the texture of The Rings of Saturn.
248 Chapter Fifteen

dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness,


is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our
ancestors. It is to be shaped, however indirectly, by traumatic fragments of
events that still defy narrative reconstruction and exceed comprehension.
These events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the
present.27

Yet the obvious question in Sebald’s case is: whose postmemory are
we dealing with in his fiction? Why does a German in order to be faithful
to some kind of memory has to invent mostly Jewish protagonists? What
does he have to do with Jewish postmemory? It is obviously not his – but
can one even imagine a German postmemory?
There are certain hints in Sebald’s works which can take us in a
parallel direction, although obviously they shall lead us to a different kind
of trauma, so “postmemory“ is not the term one should use. Yet one can
speak of a certain family resemblance. The hints I have in mind can be
found in the novels but mostly in a non-fiction work On the Natural
History of Destruction which is mainly devoted to a strange absence in
German literature, or actually in any kind of post-war writing, of any
discursive working through the basic trauma of the allied bombardments
of German cities during the last phase of World War II, which killed
dozens or perhaps hundreds of thousands (the most infamous case is the
firestorm caused by the bombing of Dresden in 1945) and turned all larger
cities (the official count is 131 28) into rubble. What is, however, even more
interesting from our particular perspective are the personal effects of this
silence on Sebald’s narrator (but one can surmise also on Sebald himself):

almost every week we saw [in newsreels] the mountains of rubble in places
like Berlin or Hamburg, which for a long time I did not associate with the
destruction wrought in the closing years of the war, knowing nothing of it,
but considered them a natural condition of all larger cities.29

Because there exists a gap (rather than stories referring to a trauma) in


the collective discourse, the child is not able to link the war with the
strange state of German cities and in order to fill this gap, which is
necessary if reality is to remain “real”, he has to create a fantasy of the
natural state – one is tempted to say: the natural state of destruction. But

27
Marianne Hirsch on http://www.postmemory.net/ (30 January 2013)
28
W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell (New
York: Random House, 2003), 3.
29
W.G. Sebald, Vertigo, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 2000),
187.
W.G. Sebald and the Vertigo of Mourning 249

what can be excused as the effect of discursive helplessness of a child,


takes on a very different meaning in an adult for whom it becomes the
central fantasy of the permanent catastrophe of human history (the natural
history of destruction). What we encounter here is not, as some critics
point out, “a reluctance to confront the legacies not of survival, but of
perpetration”,30 but something which is rather more convoluted as in
Sebald’s (and not only his) literary world Jewish postmemory and German
repression become twins or two sides of the same coin. To generalize the
Nazi Germany ruins into the symbolic ruins of human history is just as
fake as to generalize the Nazi’s Jewish victim into the symbolic human
victim of inhuman Evil. The price for performing such a
transsubstantiation is that these generic figures become utterly hollowed
out of any conceivable substance – they become allegories of nothingness
and it is this emptiness at the centre of Sebald’s universe that his
melancholy permanently mourns.

References
Benjamin, W., 1977, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Trans. John
Osborne, London: New Left Books, 1977.
—. 1992, Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, London:
Fontana Press.
Bieńczyk, M., 1998, Melancholia: O tych, co nigdy nie odnajdą straty,
Warszawa: Sic!
Eagleton, T., 2005, The English Novel: An Introduction, Oxford:
Blackwell.
Hirsch, M., 30 January 2013, http://www.postmemory.net/.
Lane, A., “Higher Ground: Adventures in Fact and Fiction from W.G.
Sebald”, New Yorker, 29 May 2000.
Lacoue-Labarthe, P. and J.-L. Nancy, 1998, The Literary Absolute: The
Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, Trans. Philip Barnard
and Cheryl Lester, Albany: SUNY Pres.
Long, J.J., 2007, W.G. Sebald – Image, Archive, Modernity, Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Mason, W., May/June 1999, “Mapping a Life: A Review of W.G. Sebald”.
The American Book Review.
Santner, E. L., 2006, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

30
J.J. Long, W.G. Sebald – Image, Archive, Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 2007), 61.
250 Chapter Fifteen

Sebald, W.G., 1997, The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse, New York: New
Directions.
—. 2000, Vertigo, trans. Michael Hulse, New York: New Directions.
—. 12 March 2001, “Ich fürchte das Melodramatische”, Der Spiegel.
—. 2002, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell, London: Penguin.
—. 2003, On the Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell, New
York: Random House.
Sontag, S., 25 February 2000, “A Mind in Mourning: W.G. Sebald’s
Travels in Search of Some Remnant of the Past”. Times Literary
Supplement.
—. 2001, On Photography, New York: Picador.
Sterne, L., 1998, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,
ed. Ian Cambell Ross, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN

TRAUMATIC BIFURCATION:
JACO VAN DORMAEL’S MR. NOBODY (2009)

SONIA FRONT

One of the ways to express the interiority of trauma in cinema is


through a narrative that manipulates chronometric time. To do that it
employs labyrinthine polyphonic plots, achronology, time loops,
repetition, ellipsis, backward narration and/or parallel time-streams with
equal or unequal ontological status. The emergence of this type of film that
is told in a “wild way” (Tarantino) in the mid 1990s Charles Ramirez Berg
calls the “Tarantino Effect” as it follows Quentin Tarantino’s first films
Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). The type of narratives has
been named “atemporal” (McGowan), “alternative plots” (Berg, Walters),
“modular narratives” (Cameron) or “puzzle films” (Buckland).1 The films’
exploration of fuzzy temporality, featuring inexact temporal sequencing,
which makes it impossible for the events to be arranged in a chronological
order,2 constitutes structural and ideological undermining of classical
Hollywood narration, reflects the flexible temporality of the Internet and
digital production as well as distinctly modern attitude to time affected by
new physics, and, finally, mirrors the postmodern fragmentation of the
world and human experience.

1
See Todd McGowan, Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema (London,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Charles Ramirez Berg, “A
Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino
Effect’”, Film Criticism, Vol. 31 Issue 1/2, 2006; James R. Walters, Alternative
Worlds in Hollywood Cinema. Resonance Between Realms (Chicago, Bristol:
Intellect Books, 2008); Allan Cameron, Modular Narratives in Contemporary
Cinema (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Warren Buckland
ed., Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Malden and
Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2009).
2
David Herman, Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative (University
of Nebraska Press, 2004), p. 212.
252 Chapter Sixteen

This type of film is also a potent narrative structure to express the


fragmentation of identity and life after the trauma. The variety of devices
mentioned above may be employed to represent the psychic symptoms of
trauma. The polyphonic films which deal with traumatic experience are
exemplified by such films as Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), David
Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Chang-dong
Lee’s Bakha satang (Peppermint Candy, 1999), Paul Thomas Anderson’s
Magnolia (1999), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Inception
(2010), Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s
Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla
Sky (2001), Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002), Stephen Daldry’s The Hours
(2002), Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009), James
Mangold’s Identity (2003), Greg Marck’s 11:14 (2003), Chan-wook Park’s
Oldeuboi (Oldboy, 2003), Eric Bress’s and J. Mackye Gruber’s The
Butterfly Effect (2004), Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004), Paul
Haggis’s Crash (2005), Sarah Watt’s Look Both Ways (2005), Darren
Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del
fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), Julian Schnabel’s Le scaphandre et le
papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007), 3 Jaco Van Dormael’s
Mr. Nobody (2009), Duncan Jones’s Source Code (2011) and Tom
Tykwer’s, Lana and Larry Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas (2012).
One of the subtypes of the polychronic film is a forking-path narrative
which juxtaposes mutually exclusive possibilities. The notion of the
multiplicity of universes has been present in many fields: in physics as
multiverse theory first proposed by Hugh Everett, in philosophy as
Leibniz’s doctrine of monads, in computer technology as virtual reality, in
logic to analyse possibility, necessity, and other modal notions, in narrative
theory as possible worlds theory as well as in art, film and literature4 as
hyperreality, “a machine for producing possible worlds”.5 The first
forking-path narrative was D. R. Daniels’s “The Branches of Time” in
which in 1935, twenty two years before Everett’s many-worlds theory, he

3
For the discussion of temporality in the film see Sonia Front, “Trapped in the
Interiors – Julian Schnabel’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly and Umberto Eco’s
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” in Sonia Front, Katarzyna Nowak, eds.,
Interiors. Interiority/Exteriority in Literary and Cultural Discourse (Newcastle
upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), pp. 99-106.
4
See Marie-Laure Ryan, “From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds: Ontological
Pluralism in Physics, Narratology and Narrative”, Poetics Today 27:4 (winter
2006), p. 634.
5
Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 246
Traumatic Bifurcation 253

employs quantum mechanics for a time travel plot.6 However, it is not


Daniels’s short story that is usually mentioned as the first text illustrating
parallel time tracks, but more influential “The Garden of Forking Paths”
(1941) by Jorge Luis Borges. With this story Borges invented a hypertext
novel, but he also described a theory of the universe based upon the
structure of such a novel. The first films using this concept were short
Buston Keaton’s films The Play House (1921) and Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and
Frank Capra’s feature film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).
Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody employs Everett’s theory of parallel
universes as a narrative framework. If we are to reject the physics, the
framework can be treated metaphorically as a what-if scenario, or a
counterfactual world, that is “a consciously virtual alternate version of the
world constructed in a thought experiment”.7 The film refers to a variety
of concepts connected with time – apart from the multiverse theory, there
are also big bang, butterfly effect, entropy, string theory, immortality, the
Big Crunch, oscillating in between physics, mathematics, theology,
astronomy and magical realism. The status of the events in the film is
unclear: they can be read as the enactment of parallel universes and/or
panoramic memory and/or the process of remembering and/or the figment
of imagination. In any case, the temporal orchestration8 serves to reflect
the fragmentation of the protagonist’s identity as a result of trauma, the
irreversibility of loss and the nature of temporal movement in psyche.
The film is a story of Nemo Nobody (Jaret Leto9) who as a nine-year-
old boy is “faced with an impossible choice”, forced to choose between his
mother (Natasha Little) and father (Rhys Ifans) after the divorce. The
viewer is presented with alternative possibilities, conditioned by whether
Nemo stays with his mother or father; in Borges’s words, “all the
outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further
bifurcations”.10 The protagonist recounts his lives to a journalist at the age
of 118 in the year of 2092 when the problem of eternal life has been solved
6
Previous time travel stories, pioneered by H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine
(1895), employ relativity theory as the underlying scientific framework. According
to quantum mechanics, however, travelling to the past leads to producing
alternative time-streams, which exposes attempts to change the past as futile.
7
Hilary P. Dannenberg, Coincidence and Counterfactuality. Plotting Time and
Space in Narrative Fiction (Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press,
2008), p. 53. Italics in original.
8
See Dannenberg, Coincidence and Counterfactuality, p. 50.
9
Jaret Leto plays adult Nemo, while Thomas Byrne is Nemo the boy and Toby
Regbo plays Nemo aged 15.
10
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, in Ficciones, trans. Helen
Temple and Ruthven Todd (New York: Grove, 1962), p. 125.
254 Chapter Sixteen

thanks to technology and medicine. In fact, Mr. Nobody is the last mortal
who is determined to die of old age. His life can be watched non-stop on
huge screens around the country.
In various trajectories Nemo chooses to be in a relationship with one of
the three girls he meets in his childhood. Choosing one of the women
closes the possibility of being with the other ones in later stages of his life,
e.g. even if he meets Anna (Diane Kruger) after Élise’s (Sarah Polley)
death during one of the overlapping “touch points”,11 he does not start a
relationship with her. This conclusiveness of the choices he makes is
symbolised by the visual style of the film: each of the women has a
particular visual code connected with her narrative branch. Three girls
sitting on a bench are wearing dresses in different colours: Anne the red
dress, Élise the blue one and Jean the yellow one, and these colours
become the dominant colour for each life respectively. So for instance
when Nemo chooses the girl in the red dress, red dominates in the mise-
en-scène while blue and yellow are omitted, and so on. The visual style
might also encode Nemo’s unique way of remembering as, according to
the psychologist Douwe Draaisma, the rules ordering time relations among
various memories are an individual matter and they have a specific mood
and colour.12
The special treatment of time and temporality makes the film an
example of an art film, as classified by David Bordwell who takes into
account cinematic style, fabula and sjuzet. Its characteristic features are
loose or no causality, story gaps, ambiguities, an unfixed closure or no
closure.13 According to Berg’s taxonomy of alternative plots where he
distinguishes twelve types, Mr. Nobody belongs to the category of
“Multiple Personality (Branched) Plot”, together with for example Sliding
Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998), The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof
Kieslowski, 1991) or Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen, 2005). One of
the variants of the type is characterised by multiple protagonists of the
film being the same person or different versions of the same person, and
by their inhabiting the same or different space-time, or a different reality
occupying the same space-time.14

11
Phrase used by Berg, “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films”, p. 37.
12
Douwe Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older. How Memory Shapes
Our Past, trans. Arnold and Erica Pomerans (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2004), p. 218.
13
David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 156-310.
14
See Berg, “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films”, pp. 19-24.
Traumatic Bifurcation 255

There have been quite a few films employing the forking-path conceit,
however, as Bordwell has observed, they mostly do not embody Borges’s
idea of “an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent,
convergent and parallel times. That fabric of times that approach one
another, fork, are snipped off, or are simply unknown for centuries,
contain all possibilities”.15 Bordwell characterises the films as limited by a
set of characters, locales and situations repeated in all the parallel stories
because they do not follow the rules of physics or philosophy but folk
psychology to adjust to the limitations of people’s cognitive processes.16
Bordwell has analysed some of the forking-path films and proposed seven
key conventions on which they depend. Mr. Nobody displays features
which do not accord with most of them, opening up new possibilities.
While most films’ bifurcating branches are linear and do not fork further,
in Mr. Nobody they do fork further, “like a split hair”,17 to use Deleuze’s
phrase, and the linearity is local only – it is not possible to assign a
sequence to a particular time-stream. Berg observes that the number of
sub-narratives is limited in the parallel plot films, never exceeding four18 –
this rule is broken in Mr. Nobody as well. Furthermore, as opposed to other
films, in Mr. Nobody the forks are not marked by a ‘reset’ device at every
branch19; forking paths do not intersect; the respective stories are not
integrated by traditional cohesion devices, such as appointments and
deadlines; there are no replays of previous events; the future shown first
does not provide any preconditions for later ones; the protagonist does not
learn from his mistakes made in parallel lives.20 Shreds of his other lives
appear, however, in his dreams and phantom memories, and all memories
of his parallel selves are available to old Nemo.
While in most forking-path films the last trajectory the viewer sees is
privileged as the ‘real’ one or the most possible one,21 in Mr. Nobody this
is not the case. Yet, although the future(s) with Anna is not presented as
the last one in the film, it seems that the relationship with her is underlined
here. The director devotes most of the branchings to Nemo’s relationship

15
Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, p. 127.
16
David Bordwell, “Film Futures”, SubStance 97, vol. 31, no. 1, 2002, p. 89-90.
17
Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 49.
18
Berg, “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films”, p. 39.
19
The return to the railways appears only in some of the circuits, and in the scene
on the beach when Anna invites Nemo to swim with her the reset leads to various
futures, depending on Nemo’s answer, yet the whole thing takes only a few
minutes within the film.
20
See Bordwell, “Film Futures”, pp. 92-100.
21
Bordwell, “Film Futures”, p. 100.
256 Chapter Sixteen

with her, devotes most of the narrative time to the beginning of their
relationship, then to the search for Anna when they are separated, whilst
the relationships with other women are shown mostly at their bleak time.
Furthermore, the fact that it is with Anna that the relationship appears to
be happy, making it ‘true love’ privileges this narrative thread as well as
Nemo’s saying her name as the last word on his deathbed. Still, similarly
to other films, also in Mr. Nobody “certain components emerge as vivid
variants of one another”22 (which is assumed by Everett’s theory):
depressions, (car) accidents, death by water, water trauma. In all Nemo’s
parallel lives, he is afraid of water as a result of an incident of near-
drowning in his childhood. The water trauma repeats itself in the form of
the car accident which sends Nemo into a river and makes him die by
drowning. The film starts with this scene and then returns to it many a
time or just alludes to it by showing the protagonist under water in the
bathtub.
The multiplicity of temporal dimensions situates Nemo outside of
chronometric time. The train plays a pivotal role here as it marks the
moment when time erupts and breaks into two and then more circuits. The
railways illustrate here the parallel forked lives of a protagonist, similarly
to such films as Sliding Doors, Blind Chance or Peppermint Candy. While
usually railways are a metaphor of fleeting life, unfulfilled wishes and lost
opportunities, here they become the articulation of all the possibilities,
taking place simultaneously. The railways, however, also stand for the
imposition of standardised time over a variety of local times, and turning
time into a cultural construct. Mr. Nobody disrupts this rationalised time,
making the railways serve as a symbol of psychological time, multi-
layered time of consciousness, consistent with modern physics, rather than
time as a rational standard, according to which rigid social life is
organised. The railroad establishes a mode of temporality oriented towards
the future, which Mary Ann Doane compares to cinema itself,
demonstrating “the inevitable nature of irreversibility”. 23 While the only
irreversible event in Mr. Nobody is the parents’ divorce, the roads resulting
from the traumatic event are all taken. As 118-year-old Nemo explains to
an amazed journalist who asks which of the lives is the right one, “Each of
these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path”.
Although he exists outside of temporality, time does not operate as a
release from the infinity of traumatic event. Time does not function as
healer but as the perpetuator of emotional wounds. Traumatic loss shapes

22
Bordwell, “Film Futures”, p. 96.
23
Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency,
the Archive (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 131.
Traumatic Bifurcation 257

Nemo’s experience: his life is totally different when he stays with his
mother after the divorce from the one experienced by his Dopelgänger
staying with his father on other quantum branches. Traumatic experience
is repeated in the form of memories and retrospections which impose
themselves on the psychic present.24 As a result, it seems that the memory
of the traumatic event moves with time. According to Jean-Marie Guyau,
the intensity of the trauma and the attention devoted to it are some of the
factors which influence the internal optics of psychological time. He
compares focusing attention to the working of the binoculars: it brings the
event closer in time.25
The notion of multiverse makes the present abundant in possibilities,
yet, the elapse of time exposes them as fruitless. Similarly to Gaspar Noe’s
Irréversible (2002), in Mr. Nobody “all possibilities lead back to the loss
that constitutes the subject, and the film allows the spectator to see the
inescapability of this loss”.26 In Nemo’s parallel lives there are three
women, yet, a relationship in only one of the branches with one of the
women, Anna, is a happy one. All variations with Élise are repeated
failures, which is heralded by her hysterical behaviour on the very first
night they meet and by the blue dress in a scene with three girls on the
bench, and consequent dominance of blue colour in the branches featuring
life with her (perhaps referring intertextually to Kieślowski’s Blue (1993)).
Trauma chases trauma: in one of the trajectories after Élise dies in a car
accident on the wedding day, Nemo lives grieving in his mausoleum-
house; in the trajectory where she does not die, she suffers from
depression constantly lying in bed and crying. In the variation with
another woman, Jean (Linh Dan Pham), Nemo is the one suffering from
depression, finally shot in a hotel room. There is also a ramification in
which he has an accident as a teenager and lies in a coma in hospital.
The film further destabilises the notion of time when after the Big
Crunch (the reversal of the metric expansion of space, that is intrinsic
expansion, and the ensuing recollapse of the universe) time becomes
inverted and the events run backwards. Jaco van Dormael renders the Big
Crunch by the momentary stasis and then the reversal of movements of
planets and clocks, people walking backwards, the vase getting unbroken,
and so on. Resorting to the natural clocks (planets) and artificial
chronometers as the only way to measure time and to situate events in time
becomes the expression of the helplessness in conceptualising time in the
face of the fact that – as physicists agree – there is no intrinsic, ‘true’,

24
Guyan after Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 205.
25
Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 205.
26
McGowan, Out of Time, p. 230.
258 Chapter Sixteen

absolute, underlying time against which physical processes could be


measured. Asking the question about the events before the Big Bang or
after the Big Crunch points to being trapped in the conceptualization of
time as the flow; in fact if time does not flow/move, it cannot start up or
stop.
In Mr. Nobody the Big Crunch might be interpreted figuratively as
Nemo’s desire to undo the past. In fact, it is impossible to say whether the
inverted version is before or after the other one since a few backward
sequences are intercepted throughout the film (e.g. Nemo retraces his
steps, the clock runs backwards, tarmac is being folded back). After the
Big Crunch the question, “Why do we remember the past, and not the
future?” assumes a new dimension. By moving backward in time the film
resists the forward movement of traditional narrative, but again, “the
reverse chronology of the film as a whole transforms cinematic
spectatorship into a confrontation with a repeated traumatic failure rather
than a submission to a progressive movement toward wholeness”.27
If the temporality in Mr. Nobody does not offer a gateway from trauma,
the Big Crunch constitutes at least a respite from all the limitations of
human condition, such as ageing and death. The concept of closure is
revealed as an empty dramatic construct then. Instead, the notion of fugal
time, described by Allan Rodway in The Truths of Fiction can be applied
here. Fugal time refers to “time that can be treated like space and shifted
about kaleidoscopically”.28 The film constitutes a kind of a jigsaw puzzle
whose elements can be rearranged with no possibility to construct the
whole picture, frustrating thus the viewer’s desire for causal-linear clarity.

Quantum time
Fugal time and fuzzy temporality enacted in the film mimic the
conceptualization of time in the multiverse, that is in the totality of the
infinite number of parallel universes comprising everything that exists. On
the basis of multiverse theory the physicist David Deutsch elucidates the
notion of quantum time. It is impossible to establish the common ‘now’ for
all the parallel universes within the multiverse because there is no external
(to multiverse) framework in reference to which we would estimate this
‘now’. In consequence, there is “no fundamental demarcation between

27
McGowan, Out of Time, p. 197. McGowan refers these words to the film
Peppermint Candy.
28
Allan Rodway, The Truths of Fiction (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970),
p. 126.
Traumatic Bifurcation 259

snapshots of other times and snapshots of other universes”.29 The


multiverse is “a complex, multi-dimensional jigsaw-puzzle”.30 This leads
to the definition of quantum time, formulated in 1983 by Don Page and
William Wooters: “Other times are just special cases of other universes”.31
Mr. Nobody pictures this indistinguishability between the slices of various
universes, putting the slices in a jumbled order so that it becomes
impossible to assign them to a particular timeline of the protagonist’s
lives. Deutsch explains that “The snapshots which we call ‘other times in
our universe’ are distinguished from ‘other universes’ only from our
perspective, and only in that they are especially closely related to ours by
the laws of physics”.32 There are many identical snapshots in the
multiverse, and when we mean a certain number of universes, we mean a
proportion of the total number of universes in the multiverse. While in
spacetime physics any snapshot is determined by any other snapshot, in
quantum physics only “in some regions of the multiverse, and in some
places in space, the snapshots of some physical objects do fall, for a period
into chains, each of whose members determines all the others to a good
approximation”. In these cases (e.g. subsequent snapshots of the solar
system) the multiverse can be described as a collection of spacetimes and
classical laws of physics hold approximately, together with the classical
concept of time as a sequence of moments, leading to the possibility of
differentiating approximately between different universes and different
times.33 Accordingly, it is possible to arrange some of the events in the
film into sequences, being aided by their cause-effect relationship and the
visual style of the film, still, these are local coherences only.

Cinematic time
The film enacts analogy between psychological time and cinematic
time. The scenes of drowning are filmed in slow motion. This stretching of
cinematic time reflects the stretching of psychological time at the moment
of traumatic experience,34 as discovered by Albert Heim. Because the film
starts with the drowning scene, what follows can be treated as a depiction
of the phenomenon in psychology called “panoramic memory”, in the

29
David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (London: The Penguin Press, 1997),
p. 278.
30
Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, p. 285.
31
After Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, p. 278.
32
Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, p. 278.
33
Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, pp. 278-285.
34
See Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, pp. 248-249.
260 Chapter Sixteen

course of which the past life unfolds in front of one’s eyes as if it were a
film. The phenomenon occurs only in a life-threatening situation which
takes place unexpectedly.35 Psychology has noted most cases of panoramic
memory during drowning, car accidents and falling.36 The acceleration of
the course of thoughts, the sense of peace, panoramic memory and slowing
down of the perception of time have been exposed as a copying
mechanism with too strong psychic stimuli. It can be explained by means
of Freud’s notion of “stimulus barrier”.37
At the same time the events are presented as a process of remembering.
The old Nemo suffers from amnesia, perhaps as the mind’s defense against
the detrimental effect of memories. They return under the hypnosis.
According to the psychological rules of memory retrieval, it is the oldest
memories that return first, which, as Ribot has proposed, results from the
fact that older memories are repeated more often and therefore are
intertwined more strongly with other memories.38 Therefore, at the
beginning of hypnosis, Nemo is at once catapulted to the railway station
where he is to choose one of his parents. The protagonist is thus once
again plunged into the trauma in its endless cycle of repetition.
Apart from the events in the film being the enactment of parallel
universes and/or panoramic memory and/or the process of remembering
(including memory of the future), they can also be treated as figments of
imagination. 118-year-old Nemo invalidates the events, saying to the
journalist: “You don’t exist. Neither do I. We only live in the imagination
of a nine-year-old child … faced with an impossible choice”. Even so, we
as viewers witness all the forking lives on the screen, which becomes the
embodiment of the power of cinema: to present somebody’s figments of
imagination in the form of hyperreality. Cinema also offers the freedom of
not choosing but trying out all the possibilities instead. After declaring the
boy to be the Architect and the presented stories as the only present in his
imagination, the mise-en-scène falls apart in front of the journalist and
Nemo. Knowing what will happen, the boy cannot make a choice and
instead he walks in the third direction, away from the train, creating thus
still another time-stream whose contents we do not see.
The protagonist functions thus in the state of open existence, yet it
occurs also when he decides to remain in the state of suspension. He
comments, “In chess it’s called Zugzwag when the only viable move is not
to move”. He thereby seems to be in the position which Edward Branigan

35
Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 259.
36
Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 259.
37
After Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 252.
38
Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, p. 234.
Traumatic Bifurcation 261

calls “the indefinable presence of a being-without-yet-possessing-thing-


ness, that is … an ‘in-between-existence’, or inexistence, without being
encumbered by a fixed identity, body, or gender”.39

Who are I?
The protagonist’s state of open existence is also the consequence of the
fact that old Nemo has access to all memories of his parallel selves, which
constitutes a violation of multiverse theory, often taking place in film and
literature. Locke and his followers consider memory as a prerequisite for
the continuity of identity. Nemo’s epistemic access to his parallel lives
complicates the relation of memory to identity in the film, putting forward
the alternative notion of consciousness through time. Theories of identity
which could be utilized in possible worlds, such as David Lewis’s
counterpart theory or its rival, transworld identification,40 cannot be used
here as they assume that the counterparts (or “versions”, “copies”,
“duplicates”) of individuals never have epistemic access to each other’s
lives. Nor can the discussion on one of the cases of transworld identity, the
concept of fission,41 where an individual bifurcates (in a thought
experiment, as a result of brain transplant or duplication) from a common
temporal segment into two individuals numerically different (while in
multiverse it would be into two or more ones) but qualitatively identical to
each other and to the pre-fission individual. Again, after fission the copies
do not have access to the other copies’ world-lines.
As consciousness of all Nemo’s counterparts at the end of his life gets
merged under one body (while before the character has inhabited many
identical bodies, which is underlined by the same actors acting in various
parallel stories), his identity becomes the manifestation of Goethe’s
holistic notion of “multiplicity in unity”, that is “One in the form of many

39
Edward Branigan, “Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations.
A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures’”, SubStance, vol. 31, no. 1, 2002,
p. 109.
40
See David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); David
Lewis, “Counterpart Theory and Quantified Modal Logic”, The Journal of
Philosophy, vol. LXV, no. 5 (1968), pp. 113-126; Penelope Mackie, “Transworld
Identity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward
N. Zalta ed., http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/identity-trans
world/.
41
The term coined by W.H. Newton-Smith, see his The Structure of Time (London,
Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).
262 Chapter Sixteen

and many which are One”,42 where each of the many is the very same One.
An example of a fuchsia plant can be useful to clarify this: when divided
into many parts, they grow until they flower, generating “multiplicity in
unity”, the unity of wholeness.43 Similarly, Nemo’s many world-lines
constitute One; he is both each of the incarnations separately and all of
them. The whole is treated as the sum of its parts since all the parts are
dependent on the whole. This dynamic structure of “multiplicity in unity”
can be described as “becoming other in order to remain itself”.44Also John
Perry points out when referring to fission that it is possible that two body-
stages which “are not the stages of the same human body” are “stages of
the same person”; there is a relation between the stages but no relation of
unity.45
The notion of personal identity in Mr. Nobody violates thus both
physical (spatio-temporal) or psychological criteria for personal identity
(although there is no unanimity among philosophers about them).
Reflecting holistic approach, personal identity in the film is congruent
with Danah Zohar’s conceptualization of the quantum self, that is the self
interpreted through the lens of quantum mechanics, which embraces a
volatile and fuzzy entity whose internal and external boundaries are in a
constant flux. While Western culture has stressed the particle aspect of
mind, holism underlines the wave aspect of experience and the relatedness
of every aspect of reality to everything else.46 Zohar elucidates:

Things and events once conceived of as separate, parted in both space and
time, are seen by the quantum theorists as so integrally linked that their
bonds mocks the reality of both space and time. They behave, instead, as
multiple aspects of some larger whole, their ‘individual’ existences
deriving both their definition and their meaning from that whole. The new
quantum mechanical notion of relationship follows as a direct consequence
of the wave/particle dualism and the tendency of a ‘matter wave’ (or
‘probability wave’) to behave as though it were smeared out all over space
and time. For if all potential ‘things’ stretch out infinitely in all directions,
how does one speak of any distance between them, or conceive of any

42
Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature. Goethe’s Way of Science (New York:
Floris Books, 1996), p. 255.
43
Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature, p. 256.
44
After Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature, p. 357.
45
John Perry, “The Importance of Being Identical”, in Amélie Rorty, ed., The
Identities of Persons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 72.
46
Danah Zohar in collaboration with I.N. Marshall, The Quantum Self. Human
Nature and Consciousness Defined by the New Physics (New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990), pp. 72-73.
Traumatic Bifurcation 263

separateness? All things and all moments touch each other at every point.
The oneness of the overall system is paramount.47

A person is

a ‘point source’ in space and time (our particle aspect) and at the same time
a complex pattern woven from our comingling with others (our wave
aspect). We, too, are patterns of active energy, patterns arising from within
ourselves (our genetic codes, the structures of our bodies, our senses and
all our experiences) and from beyond ourselves (the structures and
experiences of others, many of whom have lived before us and others who
will live after). For each of us, there is no clear way to say where that
pattern begins or ends.48

For Zohar, an intimate relationship with another person involves


affecting each other and partial overlapping of each other, as a result of
which a new whole comes into being, which is more than the sum of its
parts (relational holism).49
The rejection of the existence of the isolated self entails the rejection of
the concept of the self as “a link in the chain of process”, resulting from
Newtonian concept of time as a series of moments. In Zohar’s
conceptualization, each self is literally interwoven into other selves
instead, and they are not really separated spatio-temporally. Although we
are individuals, our individuality is to be understood in terms of belonging
to “a greater unity, a unity that defines each of us in terms of others and
gives each of us a stake in eternity”.50 Identity in the quantum world is
thereby identity smeared out in space and time, extended in time. To ask a
question about personal identity in the multiverse is somewhat pointless
when we take into account Zohar’s notion of quantum identity. Nemo’s
identity is not only spread over time in the form of many selves but it is
also interwoven into other people’s selves, particularly his parents and his
partner(s).
Also when we consider the concept of time in multiverse, for the
question to be meaningful, as David Deutsch argues, there must be an
external frame of reference outside the multiverse, yet, this external frame
does not exist because multiverse is all that is. Because all of the copies of
an individual ask the same question, “which one am I?” Deutsch maintains
that the only answer that can be given is the same one to all the copies, and

47
Zohar, The Quantum Self, p. 34.
48
Zohar, The Quantum Self, p. 150.
49
Zohar, The Quantum Self, p. 113.
50
Zohar, The Quantum Self, p. 151.
264 Chapter Sixteen

that is the answer “I am, of course, all of them”.51The subject constitutes


thus a sum of all the counterparts in parallel universes, becoming a kind of
a multi-subject in multiverse.
The status of the presented story is ambiguous then – first Nemo
suffers from memory loss and only under hypnosis do the bits and pieces
of his previous multi-stream life come to him. Later on, however, as
mentioned before, he asserts to have lived only in the imagination of a boy
running after the train. According to Henri Bergson, these two states are
contradictory: “Imagining is not recollecting”.52 In Deleuze’s
interpretation, attentive recognition, that is the one coming through
recollection-images, is much more acute when it fails. When one cannot
remember, his sensory-motor activity is arrested, yet the actual image does
not establish a connection with a recollection-image but with “virtual
elements, feelings of déjà vu or past ‘in general’, dream-images, fantasies
or theatre scenes. In short, it is not the recollection-image or attentive
recognition which gives us the proper equivalent of the optical sound
image, it is rather the disturbances of memory and the failures of
recognition”.53 Mr. Nobody is thus a mélange of apparently actual lives
with flashes of parallel circuits in their past, present and future in the form
of dreams, a photograph, seeing himself or seeing his parallel incarnation’s
wife’s life on stage in the theatre. The film is abundant in time loops; the
planes of past, present and future are mixed up: the old man’s voice shifts
between the old mode and the boy’s voice, death precedes birth, death
recurs many a time as well as the water trauma and the scene at the train
station. Once a cause-effect relationship is preserved when the butterfly
effect is referred to, other times it is disturbed, e.g. when Nemo hears from
his neighbour, “I heard you were dead. You drowned”, (which he has done
in the parallel trajectory) and then he is flooded at home. Referring to
Deleuze’s terminology again, the status of the actual and virtual is blurred
in the film, “the real and the imaginary, the physical and the mental, the
objective and the subjective, description and narration”. 54 In Deleuze’s
words,

each time description has obliterated the object, at the same time as the
mental image has created a different one. Each circuit obliterates and
creates an object. But it is precisely in this ‘double movement of creation

51
Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality, p. 279.
52
After Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlison and
Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 54.
53
Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, pp. 54-55.
54
Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, p. 46.
Traumatic Bifurcation 265

and erasure’ that successive planes and independent circuits, cancelling


each other out, contradicting each other, joining up with each other,
forking, will simultaneously constitute the layers of one and the same
physical reality, and the levels of one and the same mental reality, memory
or spirit.55

For Nemo Nobody it is the reality of his traumatic loss.

References
Berg, C. R., 2006, “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films:
Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect’”, Film Criticism, Vol. 31, Issue 1/2,
5-61.
Bordwell, D., 1985, Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
—. 2002, “Film Futures”, SubStance 97, vol. 31, no. 1, 88-104
Borges, J. L., 1962, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, in Ficciones, trans.
Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd, New York: Grove.
Bortoft, H., 1996, The Wholeness of Nature. Goethe’s Way of Science, New
York: Floris Books.
Branigan, E., 2002, “Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations.
A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures’”, SubStance, vol. 31,
no. 1, 105-114.
Buckland, W., ed., 2009, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in
Contemporary Cinema, Malden and Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Cameron, A., 2008, Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema,
Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dannenberg, H. P., 2008, Coincidence and Counterfactuality. Plotting
Time and Space in Narrative Fiction, Lincoln and London, University
of Nebraska Press.
Deleuze, G., 2007, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlison and
Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deutsch, D., 1997, The Fabric of Reality, London: The Penguin Press.
Doane, M. A., 2002, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity,
Contingency, the Archive, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press.
Dormael, Jaco van, dir., 2009, Mr. Nobody, France, Germany, Canada,
Belgium.

55
Deleuze, Cinema 2. The Time-Image, p. 46.
266 Chapter Sixteen

Draaisma, D., 2004, Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older. How Memory
Shapes Our Past, trans. Arnold and Erica Pomerans, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Eco, U., 1984, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Front, S., 2010, “Trapped in the Interiors – Julian Schnabel’s The Diving-
Bell and the Butterfly and Umberto Eco’s TheMysterious Flame of
Queen Loana” in Sonia Front, Katarzyna Nowak, eds. 2010, Interiors.
Interiority/Exteriority in Literary And Cultural Discourse, Newcastle
upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 99-106.
Herman, D., 2004, Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative,
University of Nebraska Press.
Lewis, D., 1968, “Counterpart Theory and Quantified Modal Logic”, The
Journal of Philosophy, vol. LXV, no. 5, 113-126.
Lewis, D., 1986, On the Plurality of Worlds, Oxford: Blackwell.
McGowan, T., 2006, Out of Time: Desire in Atemporal Cinema. London,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mackie, P., 2008, “Transworld Identity”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., http://plato.
stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/identity-transworld/.
Newton-Smith, W.H., 1980, The Structure of Time, London, Boston and Henley:
Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Perry, J., 1976, “The Importance of Being Identical”, in Amélie Rorty, ed. 1976,
The Identities of Persons, Berkeley: University of California Press, 67-90.
Rodway, A., 1970, The Truths of Fiction, London: Chatto and Windus.
Ryan, Marie-Laure, 2006, “From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds:
Ontological Pluralism in Physics, Narratology and Narrative”, Poetics Today
27:4, 633-674.
Walters, J. R., 2008, Alternative Worlds in Hollywood Cinema. Resonance Between
Realms, Chicago, Bristol: Intellect Books.
Zohar, D. in collaboration with I.N. Marshall, 1990, The Quantum Self. Human
Nature and Consciousness Defined by the New Physics, New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

GRIEVING MONSTROSITIES:
GRUDGES, TERRORS AND OBSESSIONS
OF ANTAGONISTS
IN INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT

TOMASZ GNAT

What is monstrous? What particular characteristic of body or mind


denaturalizes the entity to a point when it no longer exists within the
biological, psychological or cultural framework that is deigned natural,
acceptable and healthy? It would be a misconception to assume that the
monstrosity is, in fact, anything inhuman. That mental conditioning would
encompass everything beyond our most intimate self and result in the truly
monstrous vision of reality. What monstrosity actually represents is
abhuman. It travels through the uncanny valley of resembling us to that
point where we see not only the alien, but also something that is
distortedly mirroring ourselves. Jeffrey Cohen observed that “the monster
is that uncertain cultural body in which is condensed an intriguing
simultaneity or doubleness: like the ghost of Hamlet, it introjects the
disturbing, repressed, but formative traumas […] The monster commands,
“Remember me”, restore my fragmented body”1 The monster proper is
then an ambivalent creation, its power to horrify stemming not from the
differences, but rather from the similarities to the terrorized. It is at the
same time alluring in our subconscious need to piece it together and
frightening since the pieces seem so shockingly incompatible.
The monster described here is, however, of the subspecies “proper”,
representing the “abhomo sapiens sapiens” in the widely branching
hereditary tree of the genus discussed. A sophisticated monster oft shares
the stage with the hoi polloi of the abhuman, the vulgar and crude mass of

1
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 9
268 Chapter Seventeen

common eyesores. This kind of monstrosity frequently serves no other


purpose then the instrumentative, and it is repeatedly applied to push the
narrative forward by the sheer mass of its presence. Frankenstein’s
monster (at least in its cinematic iteration) would not be complete without
the twisted Igor, and Dracula certainly needs his carnal brides and howling
wolves. Different types of monstrosity serve different purposes and that
leads to the observable division in their construction and interpretation.
Jean Baudrillard notes that “Monstrosity has changed in meaning. The
original monstrosity of the beast, object of terror and fascination, but never
negative, always ambivalent, object of exchange also and of metaphor […]
has been exchanged for a spectacular monstrosity: that of King Kong
wrenched from his jungle and transformed into a music-hall star”.2 No
longer beckoning to the participant, this monster exists for the purpose of
being beholden, to enter the stage, to shock and to disappear without
expecting the consideration for its origin, role, and destiny. Its fragmented
self does no need piecing together since it is presented “as is”, complete in
both the form and purpose. The monster is shocking and terrifying through
its suddenness or novelty, but not as the abhuman representation of the
viewer.
Monstrosity in any shape permeates all forms of human cultural
activity – from the Beowulf’s Grendel, through the Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to the rubbery Godzilla and the
visceral Alien. Interactive entertainment is, therefore, only one of the
mythical lands where the monsters dwell. However, it is frequently
assumed that unlike in other fields of artistic performance, digital
monstrosities belong solely to the second class of terrors, and represent
mainly the inevitable narrative obstacles, rather than offering any
psychological insights. This viewpoint is so prevalent that it frequently
forces generalizing modes of perception, obscuring any attempts to present
complex antagonist characters. The faulty outlook on the interactive
entertainment medium creates a locus for that skewed sensitivity,
influenced by the distrust towards the technology or the purported
infantilism of the vehicle. Allow us for a moment to venture forth into that
much maligned territory and explore the commonly held expectations
towards this often misunderstood medium.
Upon entering the dark lord’s tower/cyberdemon’s arena/mad
scientist’s secret lab you are welcomed by the demonic laughter that
shakes you to the core of your being. Gripping your magic sword/plasma
disintegrator/trusty Walther PPK, you resolve to face the enemy. You know
2
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1994), p. 89
Grieving Monstrosities 269

that possibly the most terrifying moment in the game awaits you – the
indispensable, prolonged and mind-numbing revelation starting with the
sentence: “You are probably wondering why I did what I did?” You do not
care. You have heard it a thousand times. You absent mindedly look
around your room, half-heartedly listening to a long list of grievances that
the arch-villain spouts, and with growing impatience wait for the
inevitable hacking/disintegrating/shooting that will follow. You start to
wonder; why do they even bother with making me listen to all that? The
Big Bad is there to be repeatedly jumped upon, bashed and shot, and not to
bore me with the metaphysic of being.
If anyone ever experienced such a conundrum then I say, good sir or
madam, you are doing it wrong. You are doing it wrong on account of two
things. You may be expecting to find depth in a product that is specifically
focused on other aspects. Interactive entertainment is not a monolithic
structure that is easily interpreted with a singular critical apparatus or
approach. There are games that offer a quick, jilted experience, and those
that focus specifically on character development and insightful analysis.
Video games have their Balzacs and Danielle Steels, and it would prove
quite unconstructive to approach both with the same gravity. On the other
hand, you may be consciously or unconsciously avoiding the stark truth
that even in the medium still perceived by some as unworthy of critical
study, such things as depth, profundity and insight may be found. Our
classification from before hinted the existence of many faces of evil – both
a reflective, ambivalent monster, and an instrumentative and spectacular
fiend. And indeed, there is many a game where the spectacular remains as
the only aspect of the uncanny, where the monstrous is the photographic
negative of the natural, where simple minded remains the Occam’s razor
of the antagonist character design.
Conversely, there are games that move beyond the simplistic and one
dimensional presentation of adversaries. They are still there as a
counterbalance to players’ efforts – whatever these efforts may be. The
video game medium in most cases enforces the binary composition of the
player vs. the opponent, whether it is the environment (the depthless
abyss, the lava pit), or any type of a monster personified. The medium is
not, however, a static construct, and, together with its development, the
counterbalance shifts its weight. The monsters grow beyond the archetypal
Big Bad Wolf stereotype, evil for evil’s sake, mad for no reason;
bloodthirsty since there will be blood. New monsters are positioned in the
complicated system of interrelations and intertextualities within a singular
game, but also in the meta-gaming sphere. Nevertheless, the monstrosities
still operate in a very peculiar medium. Interactive entertainment
270 Chapter Seventeen

necessitates interaction, enforces antagonism and opposition, as it needs to


constantly challenge the player, to be the engine that drives the narrative
through the force of difficulties surmounted, quests finished and enemies
defeated. This dichotomy between the need for a well developed
monstrous character and a constant inevitability of their antagonism, leads
to the creation of a very irregular creature. It is divided between the
necessity to act as an obstacle within the game framework and to “make
sense”, to carefully glide across the thin bubble of the suspended disbelief.
A post-modern monster is not simply blood-crazed, but becomes burdened
with obsessions, frustrations, angst and grudges of the contemporary
world.
To better understand the multiplicity of the medium let us examine two
games from the same franchise. Seemingly, the requirement to maintain
dedicated recognition would force the developers to create very similar
representations of monstrosity. Franchise, after all, enshrines
repetitiveness, offers a promise of a similar experience no matter the
impediments of time and space. Silent Hill series operates within that
framework – with the game environment, its idiosyncrasies and even the
method of playing all serving as an easily recognizable element of
subsequent games. However, while each title within the series uses the
familiar environment as the locus of its action, the further we dwell into
the game world, the sooner we realize that the similarities begin to fade.
The series revolves around a small American town, the titular Silent
Hill. Throughout the succession of nine games it is presented as an
archetypal New England tourist town that slowly, but steadily deteriorates
due to the falling number of people visiting. However, beneath that
cheerless, but ordinary surface, hides a much darker and bleaker history.
As described in one of the metagaming materials: “Although it is known
as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former
inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried
out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered
around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the
area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town.
And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when
“things” that should not naturally exist appear”.3 One cannot ask for a
more suitable background to any horror story.
In the first iteration of Silent Hill series, the town is visited by Harry
Mason, a 32-year-old writer, who, together with his adopted daughter
Cheryl, decides to visit the resort. Approaching the town, Harry suddenly
3
“Silent Hill, Maine” in Silent Hill Wikia, http://silenthill.wikia.com/wiki/
Silent_Hill,_Maine ret. 06.06.2012
Grieving Monstrosities 271

sees a girl in the middle of the road and to avoid hitting her he swerves his
car. The resulting crash knocks him unconscious. When he wakes up,
Harry notices that Cheryl is missing, forcing him to explore the fog-
enveloped town. Soon enough he discovers that the town is definitely not a
peaceful holiday resort, as he is attacked by small, child-like monsters that
apparently quickly overwhelm and kill him. Harry is, however, saved by a
police officer, Cybil Bennett, and together they begin to explore Silent
Hill’s twisted environment.
Moving through foggy landscapes, otherworldly, industrial sceneries
and dark halls, they encounter many monstrous apparitions that seem hell-
bent on stopping them from exploring any further. In the progress of the
game we discover that a secret religious group (“the Order”) operating in
the town aims to bring about the birth of the cult’s god. Purportedly the
soul of the god dwelled in a young, tormented girl, Alessa. She was
sacrificed to the fire in an attempt to release the being, yet the effort failed.
The girl, though terribly scarred, survived the incident and her soul was
split in two by her hatred towards the tormentors. The other half of the
soul manifested itself as Cheryl, whom Harry and his wife found as a baby
on the road outside Silent Hill and subsequently adopted. Alessa tries to
prevent the emergence of the malevolent god, and thus works against
Harry who unknowingly becomes a puppet of the cult, bringing about the
final emergence of the supernatural entity.
Consequently, all monsters that Harry encounters in the course of play
reflect on the Alessa’s suffering mindscape, being the embodiment of her
fears and terrors. Child-like creatures that attacked the protagonist at the
very beginning turn out to be the distorted perception of Alessa’s
classmates who tormented and ridiculed her. A flying creature, called Air
Screamer, looks like a pteranodon. It is a life imbued illustration in one of
Alessa favorite books, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. The
Bloodsucker is a creature resembling three leeches fused together at the
base, which writhes like octopus tentacles symbolizing Alessa’s strong
aversion to leeches, worms, snakes and other similar entities. Puppet
Nurses are real nurses that have been possessed by a large, slug-like
parasite that grows out of their backs, causing them to hunch forward
when they walk. The nurses represent Alessa’s fear and hatred of hospital
attendants, seeing as they were always around her when she was admitted
to the clinic after her burn injuries. Although they weren’t necessarily
members themselves, they were acting as puppets of the Order by keeping
her alive, further attributing to their name and the symbolism of the
monstrous form. Hanged Scratcheres await the player suspended from the
ceiling, and screech “LET GO OF ME!” when they are actually trying to
272 Chapter Seventeen

grab the player. This hypocrisy, as well as their persistence in pursuing the
protagonist may suggest that they embody Alessa’s fear of the cult, who
abducted and tortured her.
While the background story and metagaming materials provide some
insight into what shapes and guides particular monsters, they are to a large
extent what Baudrillard called a spectacular monstrosity – evil that is
visual, monochromatic and purely instrumental. Monsters of Silent Hill
may be symbolic, but their symbolism is a retrofitting feature, the result of
a deconstruction of plot elements. They may be read as an embodiment of
fear, grief, torment and suffering of a child, but at no point there is a
necessity to perceive them as such. The spectacular monstrosity provides a
spectacle, remains unambiguous in its attempt to scare and terrorize. It is
not unexpected that many monsters in Silent Hill are similar to insects,
lizards and parasites. Prevalence of these particular types reflects not on
the specific game environment, but on the fear of such creatures shared by
many people. Puppet Nurses, one of the more interesting examples, once
again operate on the level of simple defamiliarization, a juxtaposition of
their real world mission to care and heal and their in-game vicious attacks.
Monsters of Silent Hill are not grieving, or, for that matter, feeling
anything else, and they remain soulless automatons. They are iconographic
representations of the abstract game obstacle, and as such no different than
Goombas in Super Mario Bros., or, as a matter of fact, mines in the
Minesweeper. The particular form they take fits the environment, but it is
otherwise meaningless and redundant.
Second iteration of the franchise, Silent Hill 2, also takes place in the
eponymous town. We learn that the protagonist of the story, James
Sunderland is in the process of grieving for his wife, Mary, who apparently
died of cancer three years ago. From metagaming material we may learn
that they were quite an ordinary couple. Their relationship was stable,
secure and mutually satisfying. Together they visited Silent Hill on
vacation, during which time James recorded a videotape of Mary
expressing her love for the peaceful town and a wish to return there some
day. James accidentally forgot the videotape in the hotel and the couple
left Silent Hill. Few years later, Mary fell ill and begun to experience
violent mood swings, frequently lashing out at James without any apparent
reason. He felt both saddened by her worsening condition and frustrated,
locked between a need for a sexual outlet and his devotion to Mary.
The game begins when James once again arrives to Silent Hill. He is
incited to visit the town after receiving a letter from his wife, despite the
fact that she had died from an illness three years ago. The letter states that
Mary is waiting for James in their “special place”. The town, however, is
Grieving Monstrosities 273

quite unlike the one he remembered. Instead of a peaceful holiday resort it


is now a rotting, abandoned husk, enveloped by a thick fog. Bizarre
monsters inhabit the place and everything seems to be very much against
our protagonist – just like in Silent Hill. However, creatures of Silent Hill 2
are discernibly different than those in the first iteration of the series. The
Mannequin is an animated sewing dummy, headless, with a feminine
human torso and legs in place of arms, wearing what looks like a leotard
made from putrid skin. Lying Figures, which attack by spewing a spray of
poisonous mist are skulking, humanoid creatures, trapped in what appears
to be a straitjacket made from their own flesh. The Bubble Head Nurses
wear provocative attire, miniskirts and exposing cleavage. Their gauze-
swathed heads appear swollen and bloodied, always facing downward and
convulsing violently.
Through all that horror James stumbles about like a man in trance.
Pomeroy and Garcia discussing common grief reactions observe:
“Because feelings and behaviors are inextricably tied together, when a
person’s feelings are in turmoil, […] behavior can also be erratic and
unstable”.4 Deep in the state of grief, James seems out of touch and
lacking self assurance. He speaks quietly, prefers to run where possible,
and hides to avoid confrontation. He does not want to voice his
disagreement towards actions of other characters in the game. His single
minded pursuit after the ghost of his wife leads him to perform actions
otherwise inexplicable, like sticking his hand inside a dark hole after being
bitten by something within, or jumping down ravines that appear
bottomless from above. James, as it seems on the surface, is a grief
stricken husband seeking healing and resolution. Why then is he chased by
monsters?
This time there are no ancient gods involved – the story does not
develop towards an outside interference, dues ex machine, but slowly and
steadily begins to spiral into the mind of the main character. First hint of
things to come is delivered through the appearance of monstrosities that
James has to fight. Most of them revert from the typical claw, tooth and
dripping mucus creatures of the horror genre. They all, however, share the
highly sexualized and yet de-individualized features; headless
mannequins, nurses with their covered faces. Perceptive players soon
realize that it is not James that must suffer them, but the actual monsters
themselves seem to be locked in the state of constant trauma and torment.
This is further underlined by the appearance of one of the most infamous

4
Elizabeth Pomeroy, Renee Bradford Garcia, The Grief Assessment and
Intervention Workbook: A Strengths Perspective (Belmont: Cengage Learning,
2008), p.51
274 Chapter Seventeen

antagonists in Silent Hill franchise – the Pyramid Head. He looks like a


large, well-built human male and, true to his name, he wears a pyramid
shaped head covering, a rusty piece of metal grafted directly onto his head.
He drags around an enormous kitchen knife, swinging it in slow, but
deadly strikes. Through the game he is seen attacking not only the player,
but also abusing and tormenting other monsters. First encounter with this
ogre is already setting the mood for the whole experience. There is no
jumping out from closets, no frantic chase or sudden attacks. Pyramid
Head stands in a long corridor, behind a row of iron bars, immovable and
menacing.
It is at that time when players may begin to understand that it is not
only grief that James is experiencing, but also a deeply felt guilt for some
act in the past. We begin to comprehend that the monstrosities he fights are
indeed his own traumas and secret, shameful desires. On his journey
James meets Maria, another human character that bears a striking
resemblance to his wife Mary, yet dresses and behaves in a much more
sexually explicit manner. However, on three separate occasions, Maria is
supposedly killed by the Pyramid Head, and James can only stand and
watch. The protagonist finally begins to question his motives and
previously repressed memories start to flow back. James realizes that
during her illness, Mary had become a psychological burden for him and
he slowly began to resent her. Finally the grief and inhibited desires led
him to a mental breakdown. James walked to Mary’s bed and kissed her
on the forehead, only to suddenly suffocate her with a pillow.
We realize now that the Pyramid Head with its unbearably heavy knife
is actually a reflection of James, who suffers the crushing burden of guilt.
Monster’s actions against other creatures in the game reflect on James’
frustrated sexual drives. Pyramid Head is not a mere monster, but a
catalyst – his actions brutally and painfully drag the protagonists towards
the truth, even if James may end up dead in the process. During his final
appearance, after killing Maria for the third time, two Pyramid Heads face
James, raising an interesting philosophical question: can the protagonist
defeat his own obsessive need for self punishment? Can he fight and win
against his own conflicting wants to hide the guilt and find a release? As it
turns out he cannot. Had James defeated the Pyramid Head it would mean
that he managed to control and subjugate his own fears and desires. But
the game once again shows that grieving and trauma are not easy to
overcome. After a long fight both monsters instead of allowing James to
kill them, purposefully impale themselves on spears they are carrying.
Before the fight James states: “I was weak…That’s why I needed you. […]
But that’s all over now. I know the truth. Now it’s time to end this”. Did
Grieving Monstrosities 275

the monsters realize the futility of dragging James towards admittance of


his own guilt and, with contempt, allowed him to wallow in fake grief? Or
did they understand that with James’ admission he actually took the
burden of guilt upon himself and no longer needed an outside facilitator?
The ambiguity of that act foreshadows the multiple endings that await the
player when he finishes the story. Depending on player’s actions
throughout the game James may either leave Silent Hill after a final
meeting with Mary, or drown himself in Toluca Lake so he and Mary can
have a peaceful afterlife together. He may kill Maria, in an attempt to
resurrect Mary by making a deal with “ancient gods of Silent Hill” with an
unknown result. In the last ending the protagonist confronts the grotesque
embodiment of Mary, who has not forgiven James for killing her. He then
must fight her, but upon monstrous Mary’s defeat, James dismisses her as
being just another hallucination. He then discovers Maria, inexplicably
resurrected again, and leaves town with her. As they leave, however, Maria
starts coughing, implying she is getting the same illness Mary suffered
from.
Barry Atkins noted that “as a form of mass entertainment, like punk,
rock and roll, and the novel before it, the computer game has been seen as
offering some sort of threat to society, particularly by providing a space in
which otherwise taboo or outlawed behavior (spitting and swearing, the
sexual expression of pelvic gyration, adultery, and aggression as the first
resort in problem solving) is given free range”. 5 This statement may be
easily related to our particular subject – monstrosity that allows us to
express the outlawed, explore what is beyond the pale of the taboo. Games
provide safe spaces of investigating such subjects, without fear of
ostracisation or ridicule. At the same time they form a reactive space,
where fantasies are constantly checked and evaluated against the game
environment. Monstrosity, therefore, is not only shown – it is experienced
and contextualized, awaiting the interpretation and reaction. As such it
offers the players a look into themselves, the monstrous grief becoming
replayed and confronted. Emotions are presented not as disconnected
states, but complex processes which cannot be easily reduced to the binary
opposition of ego vs. the world (or, for that matter, the game world).
Comparing these two games, so different in their presentation of
monstrosity, allows better understanding of how antagonist characters are
constructed in this medium. Both Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 are
considered to be excellent games – veritable symphonies of horror,
suspense and exciting gameplay. They do use monsters as commissioned
5
Barry Atkins, More than a game. The Computer Game as Fictional Form
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p.29
276 Chapter Seventeen

antagonists, yet their treatment of these creatures is diametrically different.


While in the genre of interactive entertainment “spectacular monstrosity”
is very much present, which is certainly discernable in Silent Hill, there is
still a place for ambivalent, metaphorical and complex creations. Monsters
of Silent Hill 2 are there not only to provide artificial obstacles in the
player’s path, but they also offer a glimpse into the bereaved mind of the
protagonist, present mechanisms of dealing with remorse and grief, as well
as consequences of repressed memories and the burden of guilt. The game
shows that like in the real life there is no easy way out, and that no amount
of contextualization can put into perspective certain experiences.
Baudrillard observed: “Formerly, the cultural hero annihilated the beast,
the dragon, the monster […] today, it is the beast […] who comes to
liberate us from our culture […] all inhumanity has gone over to the side
of men, all humanity has gone over to the side of captive bestiality”. 6 As
such monsters of Silent Hill 2 return to their primordial borderline state,
offering a channel between culture and wilderness, between the conscious
mind and unconscious drives. Next time, then, when you are about to face
another monstrosity, ask yourself; is their antagonism just pure hatred, or
is it the reflection of burning questions within you?

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NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

Wojciech Drąg Wojciech Drąg is an assistant lecturer at the University


of Wrocław, Poland. He holds an MA from the University of Glamorgan in
Wales and a PhD from the University of Wrocław, where he defended his
doctoral thesis entitled Revisiting Loss: The Uses of Memory in the Novels
of Kazuo Ishiguro. His main academic interest is contemporary British
fiction, particularly the work of Julian Barnes, John Banville and Kazuo
Ishiguro. He is a co-founder of the Literary Intersections academic circle.

Leszek Drong is Associate Professor of English at the University of


Silesia. He is also deputy Editor-in-Chief of Er(r)go. His major
publications include Masks and Icons: Subjectivity in Post-Nietzschean
Autobiography (Peter Lang Verlag 2001) and Disciplining the New
Pragmatism: Theory, Rhetoric and the Ends of Literary Study (Peter Lang
Verlag 2006), as well as numerous essays concerned with subjectivity,
autobiography, New Pragmatism (particularly Richard Rorty and Stanley
Fish), Irish studies and American literary criticism.

Sonia Front is Assistant Professor at the University of Silesia, Poland,


where she teaches contemporary British literatures in English. She has
published on postmodernist British literature and contemporary film. Her
main publication is Transgressing Boundaries in Jeanette Winterson’s
Fiction (Peter Lang, 2009). Currently she is working on a monograph
dealing with quantum time in twenty-first-century British literature.

Tomasz Gnat is a PhD student at the University of Silesia. He is


currently working on his PhD thesis concerning the rhetoric of modern
environmental discourse. His main areas of interest are critical theory,
ecocriticsim, game design and gaming theory. As a member of the
SPRINT-SEARCH project he is also involved in exploring new
perspectives on interactive entertainment development and analysis.

Paulina Grzęda is a PhD candidate and a part-time lecturer at the


University of Warsaw, Poland. Her PhD dissertation investigates different
ways in which South African writers, André Brink, J.M. Coetzee and
Zakes Mda have undertaken the task of critically renegotiating the
country’s violent history. She has published extensively on postcolonial
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief 299

theory, British Asian cinema and South African literature. Her articles
appeared, among others, in Werwinkel: Journal of Low Countries and
South African Studies, Anglica: Literature and Culture in Context and
ARIEL. She has been awarded the Clifford and Mary Corbridge Trust
Research Scholarship at the University of Cambridge and has received
grants for young scholars funded by the Postcolonial Studies Association.

Anna Iatsenko is currently teaching at the University of Geneva and


finishing her PhD research project in African-American literature which
focuses on the later works of Toni Morrison. She is particularly interested
in developing a new critical approach to Morrison’s texts which is centred
on Black aesthetic forms. Her other interests include West African and
South African literatures, literatures of the Caribbean, the relationships
between language, music and theories of embodiment.

Wojciech Kalaga is Professor of Literary Theory and English


Literature, and Chair of the Department of Literary and Cultural Theory at
the University of Silesia. He lectured and conducted research at several
universities, including Yale University, University of Mannheim,
University of Queensland, University of Tarragona and Murdoch
University, where he was Chair of the Department of English and
Comparative Literature. His publications include monographs – The
Mental Landscape (on Beckett’s fiction), The Literary Sign, and Nebulae
of Discourse: Interpretation, Textuality and the Subject, as well as
numerous articles on literary / cultural theory and semiotics. He is editor
or co-editor of forty volumes, including Memory-Remembering-
Forgetting, Simulacra and the Real, Exile: Displacements and
Misplacements, Cartographies of Culture, Mapping Literary Space(s),
Multicultural Dilemmas: Identity, Difference, Otherness, The Transhuman:
Bodies, Spaces, Virtualities, Civilisation and Fear: Anxiety and the
Writing of the Subject, and editor-in-chief of Er(r)go: Teoria – Literatura
– Kultura. Presently, he is also Vice-chair of the Committee on Literature
Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and General Editor of the
Literary and Cultural Theory series published by Lang Verlag.

Sławomir Konkol teaches at the University of Silesia, Poland. He is


currently working towards his doctoral dissertation devoted to
contemporary British literature, American literature and culture,
psychoanalysis and masculinity studies. His recent publications include
“That Communal Dream – Laurie Anderson’s Re-Readings of
Americanness” in (Mis)reading America. American Dreams, Fictions and
Illusions, “A Load of Bull – Masculinity in Will Self’s Cock & Bull” in
300 Notes on Contributors

The Multiple Faces of an English Teacher, and “Mourning the


Impossibility of Mourning? Facing Melancholia in Graham Swift’s Ever
After” in Ex-changes: Comparative Studies in British and American
Cultures.

Udi Lebel is a Senior Lecturer in Political Psychology and Head of the


Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ariel University Center,
Israel, and a Research Fellow at the Samaria and Jordan Rift R&D Center,
Israel. His main research interests include Civil-Military Relations;
Politics of Collective Memory and Commemoration; Bereavement, Death
and Dying Studies. His most recent book – Politics of Memory – has been
published in 2013 by Routledge, London and New York.

Sławomir Masłoń is an Associate Professor at the University of


Silesia, Poland. His main interests are psychoanalysis, literary theory,
cultural theory, modernism and radical thought. His publications in
English include over thirty articles and two books: Père-Versions of the
Truth: The Novels of J. M. Coetzee (Katowice: Wydawnictwo
Uniwersytetu Śląskiego, 2007) and Stating the Obvious: Celan – Beckett –
Nauman (Katowice: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Śląskiego, 2012).

Nedine Moonsamy is nearing completion of her Ph.D. in


contemporary South African Literature at the University of the
Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research focus includes post-
structuralism, nostalgia and time.

Grzegorz Moroz is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Bialystok.


His research interests include travel writing, Aldous Huxley’s oeuvre and
the methodology of teaching English literature. His recent publications
include: Travellers, Novelists and Gentlemen: Constructing Male
Narrative Personae in British Travel Books, from the Beginnings to the
Second World War (Peter Lang Verlag, 2013).

Hania A.M. Nashef is currently an Assistant Professor at the American


University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Nashef holds a PhD in
English Literature from the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. In
addition to her teaching experience, Nashef has had 16 years experience in
TV broadcast. Her publications include The Politics of Humiliation in the
Novels of J.M. Coetzee (2009), and “Becomings in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting
for the Barbarians and José Saramago’s Blindness”, Comparative
Literature Studies, 47.1: 2010, “Baal and Thoth; unwelcome apparitions in
J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg and Disgrace”, Ariel, 41:3-4:
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief 301

2010, “The blurring of boundaries: images of abjection as the terrorist and


the reel Arab intersect”, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 4:3: 2011, “The
abject/the terrorist/the reel Arab – a point of intersection”, Global Media
and Communication, 7:3: 2011, “Songs and Words of the Arab Spring”
Postcolonial Studies Association Newsletter 10 (Autumn 2012),
“Disconcerting Images: Arab Female Portrayals on Arab Television”,
Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 14.4: 2012,
“Barbaric Space: Portrayal of Arab Lands in Hollywood Films”, in
Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A Postcolonial
Outlook eds. M. Soliman & W. El Hamamsy (2012), “Abu Ghraib and
Beyond: Torture as an Extension of the Desiring Machine”, Altre
Modernità (2012) and “Jordan Unrest: Did Royal Twittering Absorb Some
of the Anger?” in Social Media Go to War: Rage, Rebellion and
Revolution in the Age of Twitter Ed. Ralph D. Berenger.

Katarzyna Nowak–McNeice, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the


University of Wrocław, Poland, where she teaches American Literature
and Culture. In 2007 she published a book titled Melancholic Travelers:
Autonomy, Hybridity and the Maternal (Peter Lang); in 2010 she co-edited
a collection of essays Interiors: Interiority/ Exteriority in Literary and
Cultural Discourse (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). She has published
articles on post-colonial literature, as well as translations of essays and
poetry. Her research interests include post-colonial theory, American
literature (with special focus on California), gender studies, and opera
studies.

Jacek Partyka is an Assistant Professor at the University of Białystok,


where he teaches American literature. He received his Ph.D. from Adam
Mickiewicz University, Poznań, in 2011. His research interests include
modernist American poetry and prose, and American Holocaust fiction.

Anna Pilińska is a doctoral student at the University of Wrocław,


Poland, with M.A. degrees in English and Spanish. She is currently
working on her Ph.D. dissertation on the postmodern construction of
sexuality in the prose of Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund White, Bobbie Ann
Mason and Achy Obejas. Her academic interests include postmodern
prose, film adaptations, poetry and translation. In 2012, her M.A.
dissertation titled „Lolita: Between Adaptation and Interpretation. From
Nabokov’s Novel and Screenplay to Kubrick’s Film” won second prize in
the Best Student Essay on Nabokov Contest announced by the Nabokov
Online Journal.
302 Notes on Contributors

Justyna Rusak (M.A. in Economics and English) is a Ph.D. candidate


at the University of Silesia, Poland. Her academic interests include
nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, existential
philosophy, psychoanalysis and Impressionist/Post-Impressionist painting.
She is the author of “‘Sheltered Existence’” as a Way to Self-Discovery in
the Life and Fiction of Ellen Glasgow”, “Philip Roth’s Everyman – a
Contemporary Morality Tale or a Personal Encounter with Death?” and
Poe and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Overview of the Evolutionary Paths of
Psychoanalytic Studies on Edgar Allan Poe.

Julia Szołtysek completes her doctoral dissertation at the University of


Wrocław, Poland. Her academic interests include postcolonial theory,
travel discourses, museum studies, and literary representations of the
Middle East. She has published articles and reviews in Polish and
international scholarly journals, and her texts have appeared in
monographs and refereed volumes published by Peter Lang, Routledge –
Taylor and Francis, and Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Julia Szołtysek is
the recipient of several awards and grants, most recently – the Ministry of
Science and Higher Education Stipend for Outstanding Doctoral Students,
and the John F. Kennedy Research Grant.
INDEX

9/11, 108, 111, 113, 116, 120, 121, bereavement, 73, 74, 76, 78, 79, 80,
122 81, 83, 84, 85, 86, 88, 89, 90,
9/11 fiction, 108 91, 92, 94, 169, 170, 175, 177
acting out, 223, 228, 232 Berger, John, 195, 196, 197, 200,
Akka, 55, 57, 59, 63 206
alterity, 31, 32, 33, 38, 40, 42, 43, borderline, 276
46, 47, 48 California, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104,
America, 109, 110, 113, 114, 115, 105, 106, 107
116, 117, 120, 121, 122 Cartwright, Justin
American, 108, 109, 110, 111, 113, White Lightning, 8, 11, 12, 13,
114, 115, 116, 117, 118, 120, 27
121, 122 catastrophe, 235, 236, 237, 238,
American South, 155, 157 239, 249
androgyny, 154 character, 269, 270, 273, 274
anxiety, 148, 150, 151, 152, 154, Christ-figure, 158, 160
158, 161 Cinematic time, 259
Arab, 111, 117, 121 Coetzee, J.M., 29
autopathography, 177 commemoration, 80, 86, 87, 88, 89,
Barghouti, Mourid, 53, 54, 55, 58, 235, 237, 245
65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71 confession, 176, 178
Barry, Sebastian, 168, 169, 170, Craps, Stef, 196
172, 173, 174, 175, 176, 177, Darwish, Mahmoud, 55, 70, 71
178, 179, 180, 181, 182 death drive, 126
Barthes, Roland, 196, 198, 199, Deir Ghassaneh, 55, 70
205, 206 DeLillo, Don, 108, 111, 112, 113,
Bedford, Sybille, 187, 191 119, 120, 122
Behr, Mark Demme, Jonathan, 135, 140, 141,
Kings of the Water, 8, 12, 17, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146, 147
18, 19, 20, 27 Derrida, Jacques, 31, 32, 33, 36, 38,
Beloved 40, 41, 43, 44, 47, 48, 49
film adaptation, 142 digression, 246
novel, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139, documentary novel, 235
140, 141, 142, 143, 144, embodiment, 139
145, 146, 147 empathic unsettlement, 31, 33, 45,
Benjamin, Walter, 236, 237, 240, 46, 47, 48
244, 249 empathy, 31, 33, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46,
48
existential
304 Index

existentialism, 148, 149, 150, Israel, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 81,
151, 152, 154, 155, 157, 82, 85, 86, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93,
158, 160, 161, 163 94, 95, 97, 98, 99
Falling Man, 108, 111, 119, 122 Kafka, Franz, 236, 242, 246, 247
forking-path, 252, 255 knowledge, 1
fragmentation, 251, 252, 253 labyrinth, 241
Freud, Sigmund, 31, 32, 38, 49, 50, Lacan, Jacques, 198, 199, 202, 205,
51, 102, 126, 127, 211, 212, 206, 207
221, 222 LaCapra, Dominick, 223, 224, 234
fundamentalism, 109, 121 Lawrence, D.H., 183
Gatekeepers, 89 Lebanon, 84, 85, 91
ghost, 136, 139, 142, 143, 144, 145 Lolita
Gnosticism, 155, 156, 157, 166 Nabokov, Vladimir, 124, 129,
God, 149, 155, 156, 158, 159, 161, 130, 132, 133, 134
164 loss, 209, 220
grief Magnone, Lena, 198, 202, 205, 206,
grieving, 1 207
grotesque, 148, 149, 150, 152, 153, manifest destiny, 100, 104
154, 159, 161, 163 matricide, 188
Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the Treaty of, McCullers, Carson, 148, 149, 150,
104 151, 152, 153, 154, 156, 157,
guilt, 274, 276 158, 159, 160, 161, 162, 163,
Hamid, Mohsin, 108, 109, 110, 114, 164, 165, 166
115, 117, 118, 120, 121, 122 Mda, Zakes, 29
haunting, 140 Meckier, Jerome, 186, 187, 188,
heteropathic identification, 46, 47 189, 191
history, 167, 168, 169, 170, 173, melancholy, 236, 239, 240, 241,
174, 175, 176, 178, 179, 180, 244, 245, 247, 249
181 Melancholy, 103, 106
Holocaust, 223 memory, 74, 75, 76, 77, 81, 87, 88,
horror, 270, 273, 275 89, 92, 93, 135, 136, 137, 138,
hovering, 140, 141, 143, 145 139, 141, 209, 210, 216, 221
Hunt Jackson, Helen, 100, 101, 103, military, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 80,
105, 106, 107 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88,
Huxley, Aldous, 183, 184, 185, 186, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94
187, 188, 189, 190, 191 Moghrabi Family, the, 59
Huxley, Laura, 185, 190, 191 monster, 267, 269, 274, 276
I was Born There, I was Born Here,, monstrosity, 267, 268, 270, 272,
53 275
IDF, 77, 78, 79, 83, 84, 85, 86, 89, monstrous, 267, 269, 270, 271, 275
92, 95 Morrison, Toni, 135, 136, 137, 138,
imagery, 172, 175 139, 140, 141, 146, 147
interactive entertainment, 267, 268, mourning, 167, 171, 174, 180, 220,
276 235
Ireland, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171, multiverse, 252, 253, 257, 258, 261,
176, 180, 181, 182 263
Culture and the Rites/Rights of Grief 305

Nabokov, Vladimir, 123, 124, 125, Reluctant Fundamentalist, The, 108,


126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 113, 122
132, 133, 134 repetition compulsion, 208, 211,
Nakba, 53, 59, 60, 62, 63, 71 214, 217
narrativisation, 192, 195 repression, 211, 212, 213
Native Americans, 103, 104, 105, revisionism, 168
106 Rohan, Deborah, 53, 55, 56, 57, 58,
negative utopia, 184 59, 60, 61, 63, 64, 65, 66, 70, 72
nostalgia contretemps, 8, 9, 10, 13, Said, Edward, 53, 54, 62, 63, 67, 69,
14, 16, 17, 19, 26, 27 72
O’Sullivan, John, 100, 101, 107 Schulz, Bruno, 225, 226, 227, 228
Ozick, Cynthia, 223, 225, 226, 227, Sebald, W.G., 223, 225, 226, 227,
228, 229, 232, 233, 234 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 234,
pain, 2, 4, 6, 7 235, 236, 237, 238, 239, 240,
Palestine, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 241, 242, 243, 244, 245, 246,
59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 247, 248, 249, 250
67, 69, 71, 72 security, 84, 85
Palestinian, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, Silent Hill, 270, 271, 272, 274, 275,
59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 65, 66, 67, 276
68, 69, 70, 72 slavery, 135, 136, 139, 140, 143,
parallel universes, 253, 258, 260, 146
264 soma, 183, 185, 188
parents, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, Sontag, Susan, 235, 245, 250
81, 83, 84, 85, 88, 90, 91, 92, 94 South Africa, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13,
patriotism, 116, 121 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26,
perennial philosophy, 191 27, 28, 29, 30, 34, 38, 41, 48
perpetrators, 108, 112, 120 spectral materiality, 237
philosophy of blood, 186, 187, 191 Stendhal, 236, 242
photography, 192 Sterne, Laurence, 245, 246, 250
Pietà, 6 Swift, Graham, 192, 193, 194, 195,
polychronic film, 252 196, 197, 199, 200, 201, 202,
positive utopia, 184, 185 203, 204, 205, 206, 207
post-apartheid literature, 29 symbolic capital, 86
postmemory, 247, 248, 249 temporality, 251, 252, 254, 256, 258
post-modern, 270 terrorist, 108, 111, 117, 118, 121
post-transitional, 8, 9, 17, 20, 25, The Olive Grove, 53, 56, 57, 58, 59,
26, 27 60, 61, 63, 64, 65, 72
Quantum time, 258 The Original of Laura
Ramona, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, Nabokov, Vladimir, 124, 125,
105, 106, 107 126, 128, 131, 133, 134
reactive space, 275 transference, 223, 224, 225, 228
realism, 192 trauma, 135, 136, 138, 139, 177,
regime, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 80, 82, 179, 192, 194, 196, 197, 198,
86, 88, 89, 93, 94 204, 206, 208, 209, 211, 215,
rehabilitation, 79, 80, 83, 84, 85, 86, 221, 223, 224, 225, 226, 228,
87
306 Index

234, 251, 252, 253, 256, 257, vicarious victimhood, 223


258, 260, 264 victims, 108, 117
Unrepresentable, 238 Video games, 269
Van Niekerk, Marlene Voegelin, Eric, 155, 156, 157, 166
Agaat, 8, 11, 14, 28 wisdom, 1
Vertigo, 237, 242, 246, 247, 248, working through, 223
250