Death in Literature
Among the most frequently treated subjects in literature, death—present as a theme, symbol, or plot device—exists as one of the defining elements in the writing of modern poets, dramatists, and novelists. Intertwined with the origins of literature itself, human consciousness of mortality has for centuries provided the impetus for reflection on the causes, meaning, and nature of existence. And, while treatments of death are as varied as the authors who write them, scholars have perceived in modern texts—whether for the stage, in verse, or in prose fiction—certain clearly defined approaches to this topic of nearly universal interest.
Modern writers have frequently presented death as the ultimate existential dilemma, one which arouses terrible anxiety as it offers an avenue toward authentic self-discovery. Likewise, death is often perceived within a larger context, as part of the natural cycle of decay and renewal, or treated as a source of laughter, co-opted for humorous ends by writers of black comedy and absurdist drama, who nonetheless recognize the high seriousness of their subject. Death in literature also carries with it a range of symbolic implications, over the years having been aligned with ideas of retreat into solipsism, escape, alienation, and ultimately with the sources of meaning and the creation of literature itself.
In the modern novel and short story death has achieved a nearly ubiquitous presence. Critics observe in the works of Franz Kafka and D. H. Lawrence, for example, an almost obsessive concern with human mortality, which produces states of alienation, anxiety, and a potential retreat into the self in order to escape the omnipresent forces of death and decay. Death in the works of the Modernists is also frequently associated with solipsistic individuals, in relation to whom external and internal forces collude, symbolically cutting them away from humanity. Scholars acknowledge that the intense study of death undertaken by many Modernists also affords some writers the opportunity to more fully understand life and living. For writers like Gertrude Stein and Italo Svevo—in his Confessions of Zeno (1923)—the contemplation of human mortality leads to an understanding of personal identity and provides for an immanent meaning in life. Writers of the contemporary era have also often focused on the comic qualities of death under the umbrella of "black humor" fiction. Using the pretext of death as an inescapable part of the human comedy, such writers as J. P. Donleavy in The Ginger Man (1955), Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Slaughter-house Five, (1969) and Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962)—to name only a few—have used the subject of death as an ironic metaphor for life and art in the twentieth century. In the writings of these and other contemporary authors, death pervades the story and its protagonists' minds, and offers an absurd commentary on the brevity and meaninglessness of their lives and the finality of their deaths.
The symptoms of black humor fiction stretch beyond genre boundaries to the field of drama, in which the writers of modern tragicomedy and proponents of the theater of the absurd—represented by such writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter—again study the humorous side of death. Critics have seen a wide diversity, nonetheless, in the writings of these dramatists. These range from Beckett, whose fatalism in the face of incomprehensibility demonstrates that laughter might be the only appropriate response to a violent and hopelessly absurd universe, to Ionesco, in whose tragicomic plays about death critics discern an affirmation of life. Other playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, have dealt with death as the defining feature of stage tragedy. Critic Philip M. Armato has characterized Williams's mid-career plays, among them The Night of the Iguana (1961), as "one poet's quest for a solution to the problems created by man's awareness of the inevitability of death." Elsewhere, Robert Feldman has seen in the characters of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) a longing for death as an escape from the seemingly interminable pain of life.
Such tragic responses to death are more in line with the serious mood that tends to prevail in poetry on the subject. Critics find this attitude best exemplified in the musings of the twentieth century confessional poets, a group that includes such writers as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. For several of these writers, notably Plath and Sexton, death as a pretext for understanding life is of tantamount importance. In the poetry of these introspective writers, mortality exists as the defining sensibility, and is deeply rooted in a personal experience of the anguish of living and of death; an experience so intense for Plath and Sexton as to have culminated in their own suicides.
Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970
77 Dream Songs (poetry) 1964
The Abortion (novel) 1971
Der Tod des Vergil [The Death of Vergil] (novel) 1945
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
E. E. Cummings
Santa Claus—A Morality (drama) 1946
J. P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man (novel) 1955
"The Dying of Francis Donne" (short story) 1896
Der Meteor [The Meteor] (drama) 1966
As 1 Lay Dying (novel) 1930
Second Skin (novel) 1964
Catch-22 (novel) 1961
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
Når vi dýde vågner [When We Dead Awaken] (drama) 1906
Tueur sans gages [The Killer] (drama) 1959
Le roi se meurt [Exit the King] (drama) 1963
"The Turn of the Screw" (novella) 1898
The Wings of the Dove (novel) 1902
Dubliners (short stories) 1914
Der Prozess [The Trial] (novel) 1925
D. H. Lawrence
The Man Who Died (novel) 1931
Life Studies (poetry) 1959
Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (novel) 1913
Der Zauberberg [The Magic Mountain] (novel) 1924
Pale Fire (novel) 1962
Mourning Becomes Electra (drama) 1931
The Last Gentleman (novel) 1966
No Man's Land (drama) 1975
The Collected Poems (poetry) 1981
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973
Rainer Maria Rilke
Duineser Elegien [Duino Elegies] (poetry) 1923
Live or Die (poetry) 1966
The Auroras of Autumn (poetry) 1950
Confessions of Zeno (novel) 1923
Smert Ivana Ilyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilych] (novel) 1886
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1885
The Centaur (novel) 1963
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Slaughterhouse-Five (novel) 1969
Suddenly Last Summer (drama) 1958
The Night of the Iguana (drama) 1961
SOURCE: "On Death and Dying: Kafka's Allegory of Reading," in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings, edited by Alan Udoff, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 87-96.
[In the following essay, Bernheimer studies Franz Kafka's literary-existential exploration of the subject of death.]
My title alludes to two very different books, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's compassionate account of the feelings of terminally ill patients and Paul de Man's rigorous study of the self-destructiveness of literary texts.1 This double allusion is intended to suggest the scope of Kafka's conception of death, which ranges from naturalistic reference to the writer's approaching end to near suspension of reference in the allegorical figuration of his writing destiny. A close analysis of two famous passages, frequently conflated by critics, will demonstrate how Kafka' s different attitudes to death and dying are inscribed in his fiction as implied models for its reading.
The first passage is a diary entry written on December 13, 1914:
Recently at Felix's. On the way home told Max that I shall lie very contentedly on my deathbed, provided the pain isn't too great. I forgot—and later purposely omitted—to add that the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death with contentment. All these fine and very convincing passages always deal with the fact that someone is dying, that it is hard for him to do, that it seems unjust to him, or at least harsh, and the reader is moved by this, or at least he should be. But for me, who believe that I shall be able to lie contentedly on my deathbed, such scenes are secretly a game; indeed, in the death enacted I rejoice in my own death, hence calculatingly exploit the attention that the reader concentrates on death, have a much clearer understanding of it than he, of whom I suppose that he will loudly lament on his deathbed, and for these reasons my lament is as perfect as can be, nor does it suddenly break off, as is likely to be the case with a real lament, but dies beautifully and purely away. It is the same thing as my perpetual lamenting to my mother over pains that were not nearly so great as my laments would lead one to believe. With my mother, of course, I did not need to make so great a display of art as with the reader.(D II, 102; T, 448-49)2
What strikes one immediately about this meditation is that Kafka, who usually experiences himself as weak, indecisive, and anxiety-ridden, here attributes mastery to himself, mastery indeed of that most extreme of human eventualities, his own death. And this remarkable assurance in the face of death he sees as the basis for a second kind of mastery, a control of the writing process so fine that he can create a text that is "möglichst vollkommen," as perfect, complete, entire as possible, "schön und rein," beautiful and pure.3
There is no doubt a certain cruelty in the game Kafka describes. Himself immune to the fear of death, he detaches himself from his reader in order to facilitate that reader's identification with the protagonist's feelings of loss, injustice, and confusion. Whereas the reader is convinced by the mimetic power of the literary work of the implacable finality of death, the writer rejoices in his ability to construct that finality as a textual effect. The death with which the writer identifies—"Ich freue mich ja in dem Sterbenden zu sterben"—is a fiction produced "with clear understanding" of its fictionality. The ground of that understanding, Kafka insists, is not literary; it is experiential. First the writer must be able to face his own death cheerfully, then he may write that death as part of a fictional game free of existential relevance.
The game of literature thus has a center that originates its freeplay while it stands outside that freeplay, to borrow terms from Derrida's critique of metaphysical structure. Kafka's concluding reference to his childhood lamentation to his mother suggests a psychoanalytic reading of this generative center. For the mother is the original source of contentment and frustration, the original ground in symbolic relation to which a game of mastery may be played—witness the famous fort-da game of Freud's grandson. The young Kafka's lamentation in deceitful excess of any felt pain prefigures his later artful deception of his reader. Both fictional elaborations are based on a fundamental confidence in existential reality, in life's biological origin in the first case, in its biological end in the second. One might even speculate, given the associational logic of the passage, that the contentment Kafka believes he will feel on his deathbed is due in part to his fantasizing death as a return to the mother, a speculation that can be supported, as I have shown elsewhere, by an analysis of the letters to Felice and to Milena, in which Kafka expresses a regressive yearning to dissolve into these maternal presences.4
But if it is indeed this hidden fantasy scenario that sustains Kafka's confidence in the face of death, then matters are not quite as they seemed in our initial analysis. What appeared to be an experimential grounding for fictional freeplay may actually be a fantasy motivated by a wish to deny experience. This point of view would suggest that Kafka thinks himself able to die contentedly not because he has mastered the reality of his own death but because he has, in fantasy, never lived, never been born. "My life is a hesitation before birth" (D II, 210; T, 561), he noted in 1922. If his life has itself been a fiction, a duplicitous mirage, if he has been "dead . . . in his own lifetime" (D II, 196; T, 545), then the writing game in which he lives through his own death is not secondary to but rather a mirror image of the existential game in which he dies through his own life. The grounding in experience has been lost: fictional death mirrors fictional life. Kafka has not mastered his actual death: he has made the distinction between life and death into a literary game.
It now appears that Kafka may be deceiving himself in this passage and that his understanding may not really be much clearer than that of the reader he thinks he is tricking. He describes the freedom of writing as dependent on the writer's freedom from the terror of death. The literary work can achieve completion, he maintains, only if the artist can place himself imaginatively at the end of his life and not "suddenly break off his writing as a result of this imagined placement in extremis. The beauty and purity of the work are thus qualities that reflect, and are grounded in, the wholeness of a biological life that will pass away without resistance. Not surprisingly, this view of a contented death corresponds to Kafka's most positive account of a happy birth—that of "The Judgment," written in one long night of inspired creativity. "The story came out of me," he observed, "like a real birth. . . . Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul" (D I, 278, 276; T, 296, 294). No breaking off here: the lament "verläuff schön und rein." Such a relation to writing, in which the text is born and dies as the biological extension of the author's being and achieves its coherence, its "Vollkommenheit," as what Kafka elsewhere calls "a blood relation" (D I, 134; T, 142) of its creator, this fantasized relation to writing that binds the freeplay of fiction to a maternal origin and makes it readable as what Barthes calls a "text of pleasure" was the focus of Kafka's literary ambition throughout the first period of his creative activity.
But in this same period Kafka was coming to realize with ever greater lucidity that to conceive himself as origin and ground of his writing, as existing outside its fictionalizing game, was a wish-fulfilling delusion. I have suggested that a trace of the repression of this awareness is perceptible in the implied circularity of the associational logic in Kafka's reflection: he can imagine himself dying contentedly because this ending will be a return to his beginning. This circular fantasy cancels the temporal sequentiality of experience while it maintains the biological determinants of that sequence: maternal origin and physical death. The fantasy thus appears to have a primarily psychological genesis and to reflect a regressively narcissistic impulse. Kafka's sense of having mastered death is fostered by his repression of this regressive motivation. The attraction of this illusion of mastery may also account for his inability in this diary entry to move from an analysis founded in subjective psychology to one that perceives writing as the undoing of such a psychology and of its biological determinants.
Numerous passages in the diaries and letters to Felice, written in the period from 1912 to 1916, suggest that he was arriving at such a negative perception of his scriptive destiny even while he continued to assert writing's affirmative, mimetic potential. In these passages Kafka identifies his life entirely with writing. He comes into being, he declares, not at the point of his biological birth but at the moment of his body's being possessed by writing, as by a devil. "I have no literary interests," he tells Felice in 1913, "but am made of literature. I am nothing else, and cannot be anything else" (LF, 304; BF, 444). And what does this identification with writing entail? "It is not death, alas," says Kafka, "but the eternal torments of dying" (D II, 77; T, 420). Death in this sense belongs to life, whether it be approached with contentment or with lamentation. Dying, in contrast, suspends, or defers, the possibility of death—it is, in the phrase from Hegel that Maurice Blanchot makes the focus of his extraordinary article "Literature and the Right to Death," "that life which supports death and maintains itself in it," death in the process of becoming.5
The writer sustains death, maintains himself within it, by attempting to free language from any ground outside its own negativity. The writer never rejoices in his own death because he is always-already immersed in a process that removes him from life and offers him death as a "merciful surplus of strength" (D II, 184; T, 531). There can be no question of mastery here: the writer, made of literature, gives himself to an incessant activity of selfdistancing, self-fictionalizing, to a game that suspends indefinitely the difference between life and death.
It is this state of suspended animation that Kafka describes with disturbing vividness in his letter to Max Brod of July 5, 1922. The context is an explanation of Kafka's fearful resistance to going on a trip to visit his friend Oskar Baum in the Georgental:
Last night as I lay sleepless and let everything continually veer back and forth between my aching temples what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me: namely, on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and, heedless of my stammering, destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? By this I don't mean, of course, that my life is better when I don't write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness. But that, granted, only follows from the postulate that I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness. But what about being a writer itself? Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and sensuality which continually buzz about one's own or even another's form—and feast on him. The movement multiplies itself—it is a regular solar system of vanity. Sometimes a naive person will wish, "I would like to be dead and see how everyone mourns me." Such a writer is continually staging such a scene: He dies (or rather he does not live) and continually mourns himself. From this springs a terrible fear of death, which need not reveal itself as fear of death but may also appear as fear of change, as fear of Georgental. The reasons for this fear of death may be divided into two main categories. First he has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. What is essential to life is only to forgo complacency, to move into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. In reply to this, one might say that this is a matter of fate and is not given into anyone's hand. But then why this sense of repining, this repining that never ceases? To make onself finer and more savory? That is a part of it. But why do such nights leave one always with the refrain: I could live and I do not live. The second reason—perhaps it is all really one, the two do not want to stay apart for me now—is the belief: "What I have playacted is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now 1 will really die. My life was sweeter than other peoples' and my death will be more terrible by the same degree. Of course the writer in me will die right away, since such a figure has no base, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of sensuality. That is your writer for you. But I myself cannot go on living because I have not lived, I have remained clay, I have not blown the spark into fire, but only used it to light up my corpse." It will be a strange burial: the writer, insubstantial as he is, consigning the old corpse, the longtime corpse, to the grave. I am enough of a writer to appreciate the scene with all my senses, or—and it is the same thing—to want to describe it with total self-forgetfulness—not alertness, but selfforgetfulness is the writer's first prerequisite. (L, 333-34; Br, 384-85)
Here the writer's loss of any experiential ground, of any basis in duration, of any life outside his ongoing death, is seen as constitutive of his being-as-literature. Writing sustains his life, but that life involves a cannibalistic depletion of his biological existence. It is a diabolic reward for having denied life's sheltering happiness and its offer of a final and satisfying death. To write is to enter the darkness of unknowing, where language becomes a buzz of words that expresses no self but rather perpetuates its erosion, its continual, never-ending loss.
The contrast with the earlier passage we analyzed is striking. The writer who had pictured himself confronting death with contentment now has "a terrible fear of death." And this fear is related to precisely the same fictional staging of his own death that had previously given Kafka a reassuring sense of mastery. Now that mastery is considered vanity, the vanity of a self-enclosed linguistic system that can only metaphorically be considered a "Sonnensystem" (sunlight, Kafka declares earlier in the letter, would erase the writing he generates in the dark, nether regions). This is a solar system in which the sun is missing, outside itself, elsewhere. No longer is the activity of writing grounded in the experiential reality where Kafka had anchored it in his reflection of 1914. Then the writer was sustained in his fictionalizing activity by his memory of his non-fictional selfs confidence that death need not be feared. Now that non-fictional self, "mein wirkliches Ich," is considered never to have lived, to have been a corpse all along. The writer's precarious existence is sustained by bis ability to forget this dead self. But this forgetting can never be total. "Everything is allowed him, except self-oblivion," Kafka wrote in one of the aphorisms of the "He" series, "wherewith, however, everything in turn is denied him, except the one thing necessary at the moment for the whole" (GW, 158; B, 285). What remains of this denial is a trace that may be understood psychologically as a "sense of repining," the writer's regret for an ego that has never moved into its own house, or that may be understood reflexively as literature's mournful awareness that it can never "die beautifully and purely away" but must continue ceaselessly to feed sensually off of life.
Kafka's fear of death may be understood as a fear of this trace's being conclusively erased, causing a fusion of corpselike self and insubstantial writer. Such a fusion did at times appear desirable to Kafka as the achievement of self-oblivion and hence of wholeness. "After all," he wrote to Felice, "there can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel" (LF, 142; BF, 231). Despair fosters the happy fantasy of an inscription that coincides with being by symbolizing its end. Kafka's novel here plays the role of his mother in the earlier passage. In fantasy, the novel receives his despair as generously as his mother had received his laments. In contrast, the writer who fears his own death does not despair. He suffers, and suffering, Kafka wrote in a notebook, "is the only positive element in this world, indeed it is the only link between this world and the positive" (DF, 90; H, 108). Unreadable in itself, suffering stimulates the ongoing process of self-reading of which the Georgental letter is but one remarkable residue. Actually this residue, as Stanley Corngold has pointed out, is a kind of excess or surplus, produced in the midst of the self's suffering as an inexhaustible question about the mode of that production.6 What is the difference, the text asks, between "I, myself and "he, the writer?" Each is alive only insofar as the other is dead, and vice versa—"the two do not want to stay apart for me now," comments Kafka. It seems as if each could be read as a figure for the other, as if each were capable of functioning as either tenor or vehicle and "veer[ed] back and forth between [Kafka's] aching temples." Only the fundamental reference to physical suffering remains stable.
How can the analysis we have performed of these two passages linking writing and death help in the task of interpreting Kafka's fiction? First of all, it should alert us to the very different meanings that death can have for Kafka and to the contrasting conceptions of writing he associated with each. Thus if Kafka's prose is, as Roman Karst has observed, "a contemplation of dying—a poetic eschatology," the critic should beware of adding, as Karst does, "Everything in it is the desire for and expectation of the end—of that which the ultimate moment brings."7 Such a desire for death translates in literary terms into a desire for wholeness, "Vollkommenheit," the finality of an ending that closes itself off from the incessant murmur of writing. It is a desire for death to be clearly definable as the absence of life and for writing to be free to elaborate its fictional inventions on the basis of their analogy to life's limited organic form and constricted temporal extension. Kafka no doubt felt this desire intensely, and it could be shown that it motivates not only many of his protagonists but also many of his critics. The critics who interpret Kafka in these terms implicitly allege not to be taken in by the secret game whereby he pretends, in the diary entry of 1914, to be duping his readers' understanding. But their claim to hermeneutic mastery is no more than a repetition of Kafka's own similar claim: they are grounding the literary game in lived experience and reassuring themselves thereby of death's reality outside linguistic freeplay. In this they resemble the family man in Kafka's story who finds nothing more worrisome about the mobile spool of tangled thread that calls itself Odradek and occasionally inhabits his house than the thought that Odradek may be unable to die and will most likely outlive him. Odradek, a word, the narrator tells us, of uncertain etymology, is also a being of uncertain ontology. A laughing figure ("Gebilde") for the enduring instability of the figurai, he/it renders unreadable the distinction between life and death, creature and thing.
Walter Benjamin's observation that "What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about" applies to Kafka's protagonists.8 They are most often readers of this kind, with the peculiar twist that the story with which they hope to warm their shivering lives is their own—the engagement story Georg Bendemann writes to his friend in Russia, the tale of dutiful work performance whereby Gregor Samsa attempts to justify himself to the chief clerk, the narrative of innocence Joseph K. futilely presents at his interrogation, the account of his being hired as Landsurveyor with which K. wishes to confront the Castle, In a sense, all these would-be stories are analogous to Kafka's claim that he is capable of meeting his death with contentment. Their goal is to narrativize a life in such a way that the present moment appears as its end and completion. Indeed, in "The Hunter Gracchus," the story that illustrates more explicitly than any other the issues I have been exploring, the hunter declares: "I had been glad to live and I was glad to die" (CS, 229; SE, 228).
But the hunter's death ship has taken a wrong turn and now, neither dead nor alive, the "fundamental error of [his] onetime death" ("der Grundfehler [seines] einstmaligen Sterbens") (CS, 229; SE, 287), mocks him forever. What has been lost, precisely, is the ground on which an individual's death can occur only once, the ground that justifies the narrative completion of his life. The hunter, like the other Kafka protagonists I mentioned, has lost himself in a space of fundamental error, of perpetual errancy. Like Odradek, who is "extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of (CS, 428; SE, 139), Gracchus is never more than provisionally and delusively present in any world. He has become an unreadable text, a floating signifier: "Nobody will read what I write here" (CS, 230; my translation; SE, 288), he declares in a surprisingly undisguised identification of his suspended existence with the writing process and a disturbing denial of what I as reader am presently engaged in doing.
A certain mode of psychoanalytic interpretation offers a way of reading this denial. Kafka, whose name is etymologically related to Gracchus, may be fantasizing a way out of the writer's predicament as illustrated by Gracchus's perpetual errancy: if his text is not read, if it is not put into motion through any reader's help, then Kafka can imagine it as a grave that will not be opened, as a death ship that will not be led astray. "Nobody knows of me" (CS, 230; SE, 288), says Gracchus, reminding us of Kafka's lifelong reluctance to publish and of his request, when faced with his own death, that Brod burn all his unpublished manuscripts, as if in a great funeral pyre. Thus we are brought back, via this biographical circuit, to the writer's narcissistic dream of a contented death and to his fantasy of dying inside his own texts. The denial of the reader now appears as a strategy to counter the diabolic activity of the writer, dramatized in the narrative as fundamental error. Error supports death and maintains itself in it. Thus conceived, error corresponds in psychoanalytic terms to the fundamental drive energizing all unconscious activity, the death instinct. Gracchus seems to embody that instinct in its close relationship to the scriptive process. Constantly in motion, hovering between life and death while hoping for death's finality, Gracchus errs in much the same sense that the unconscious does. To refuse the effort to read the unreadable text of his errancy would thus be tantamount to denying the unconscious function of writing. And this, according to one psychoanalytic interpretation, may well have been Kafka's unconscious desire.
Psychoanalysis thus transforms the unreadable text into a readable one. It is essentially a hermeneutics, wherein meaning and understanding, however complex, qualified and mediated, are ultimately based in an extralinguistic truth.9 If we can speak of the text as having an unconscious, we do so by analogy with the human psyche. "Psychology," Kafka wrote in one of his notebooks, "is the description of the reflection [Spiegelung] of the earthly world in the heavenly plane or, more correctly, the description of a reflection such as we, nurslings of the earth, imagine it, for no reflection actually occurs, we only see earth wherever we may turn" (H, 72; DF, 65-66). In these terms, Kafka's narratives become a kind of psychomachia: the protagonist wishes to tell a story of mastery, as if from the point of view of his death, of his reflection in the heavenly plane, and he battles against the erasure of this reflection, an erasure that represents the death drive within him. He wants to reach the imaginative space of his own death and thereby achieve the authority to narrate his life, but he is repulsed by the, to him, unimaginable activity of his own death impulse.
But there is perhaps a step beyond the circle of hermeneutic recuperation that Kafka's texts challenge their interpreters to take: this is what I call the step into allegory. Its epigraphs (or perhaps I should say epitaphs) could be Kafka's notebook observations, "The evolution of mankind—a growth of death-force" and "Our salvation is death, but not this one" (DF, 101; H, 123). The allegorical world is historical, it is in evolution, but, as Walter Benjamin observes in his brilliant discussion of allegory, "in this form history does not strike one as the process of eternal life so much as the advance of unending decay. . . . Allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things."10 In the allegorical world, death can never offer salvation because the very notion of salvation betrays the ongoing temporal erosion, the continual growth of death-force, that characterizes the ruinous allegorical landscape. This is a "Sonnensystem" from which the life-giving sun is absent; that sun is the center of a universe of truth of which the mournful allegorical world has no part.
The existence of the writer as Kafka describes it to Brod in the letter of 1922 is purely allegorical in Benjamin's sense. The corpse Kafka claims to have been his whole life long is the allegorical emblem par excellence. "The allegorization of the physis," comments Benjamin, "can only be carried through vigorously in respect to the corpse."11 "I" has been a corpse his whole life long, Kafka tells us. One way of understanding this observation would be to say that "I" has spent his life attaining the neutrality of "it."12 This depersonalizing process whereby "I" loses his humanity enables him, paradoxically, to recognize his identity, his selfhood, in the experience of suffering.13 This empirical experience constitutes the referential, mimetic moment that always persists in any allegory but that remains outside that allegory's staging of its reading. Kafka, suffering sleeplessly in bed, only begins to read himself when he remembers that the ground of his life is "altogether nonexistent" ("gar nicht vorhanden"). At this point, when what is remembered is that memory itself has no coherent organic or referential basis, "I" and "he" become rhetorical fictions each of which signifies the death of the other.
The allegorical protagonist, here Kafka himself, attempts to capture this signification, that is, to coincide with his own death, by destroying the distance and difference that keep him alive as a figure. But this coincidence can never occur, for it would mean the literalization of the figure, its transformation into pure scriptive matter, the letter as corpse. Allegory tends toward this mute literalism. According to de Man, it "names the rhetorical process by which the literary text moves from a phenomenal, worldoriented to a grammatical, language-oriented direction."14 "The cruelty of death," Kafka commented in his notebook, "lies in the fact that it brings the real sorrow of the end, but not the end" (DF, 101; H, 122). The hermeneutic impulse to read a life mimetically from the point of view of its end is frustrated by the allegorical impulse to figure that end rhetorically as the death of figuration. By staging the narrative of this frustration, Kafka's texts offer their readers a powerful dramatization of the life-and-death issues at stake in the act of reading.
1 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970); Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figurai Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
2 I have used the following abbreviations for Kafka's works, giving references first to the standard English translations (all published by Schocken Books in New York) then to the German originals (all published by Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt):
B Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1954
Br Briefe 1902-1924, 1958
BF Briefe an Felice, 1967
CS The Complete Stories, 1971
D I Diaries 1910-1913, 1948
D II Diaries 1914-1923, 1947
DF Dearest Father, 1954
GW The Great Wall of China, 1970
H Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande, 1953
L Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, 1977
LF Letters to Felice, 1973
SE Sämtliche Erzählungen, 1970
T Tagebücher, 1954
3 For a suggestive commentary on this passage, which has influenced my reading but from which it differs significantly, see Maurice Blanchot, "La mort contente," in De Kafka à Kafka (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).
4 See Charles Bernheimer, Flaubert and Kafka: Studies in Psychopoetic Structure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 139-67.
5 Maurice Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, edited by P. Adams Sitney (New York: Station Hill, 1981), p. 61.
6 See Stanley Corngold's article in this book and his fuller discussion of what he calls the "surplus subject" in chapter five of his book The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
7 Roman Karst, "Kafka or the Impossibility of Writing," The Literary Review, 26:4 (Summer 1983), p. 516.
8 Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 101.
9 In this sense, the final goal of the readable text is to abolish the activity of reading: "The ultimate goal of a hermeneutically successful reading is to do away with reading altogether," comments Paul de Man ("Introduction" to Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], p. ix). In contrast, "allegories are always allegories of metaphor and, as such, they are always allegories of the impossibility of reading—a sentence in which the genitive 'of' has itself to be 'read' as a metaphor" (Allegories of Reading, p. 205).
10 Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, in Gesammelte Schriften 1.1, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), pp. 353-54. My translation.
11Ursprung, p. 391.
12 Michel Foucault mentions this process of authorial neutralization as one of the conceptual innovations most likely to make his readers uneasy: "Must I suppose that in my discourse I can have no survival? And that in speaking I am not banishing my death, but actually establishing it; or rather that I am abolishing all interiority in that exterior that is so indifferent to my life, and so neutral, that it makes no distinction between my life and my death?" The Archeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 210.
13 Kafka evokes a similar experience in one of the aphorisms of the He series: "He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive" (GW, 154; B, 280). The He series as a whole explores the problematic status of the third person Kafka both is and is not.
14 "Introduction" to Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, p. xxiii.
SOURCE: "Solipsism and Death in D. H. Lawrence's Late Works," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 495-508.
[In the following essay, Cavitch explores Lawrence's representation of a retreat from the alienation and division of modern society into an "isolation of personal identity" and into death in his late fiction.]
Unlike D. H. Lawrence's earlier novels, Lady Chatterley's Lover1 invites a gossipy sort of attention: the novel itself encourages readers to separate details of the characters' behavior from the fictional context which interprets them, and the result is that for nearly forty years the dissociated facts of the lovers' words and acts have given the novel notoriety that has caused widespread misrepresentation. But even now, five years after the courts in England and America have recognized that the fiction is not obscenely detailed in its sexual episodes, it is improbable that the general approach to Lady Chatterley will alter, because the work draws attention to circumstantial information that is deliberately garish and shocking. Connie Chatterley and Mellors are prominently interesting in the novel because of what they do and say from moment to moment, while the represented quality, or ambiance, of their lives is subordinated to a background that is too simple, too fanciful or too vague for most readers' interests. Lawrence reversed his usual treatment of his subject material when he brought personal and particularized data about the characters into the foreground of the fiction, and subordinated the generalized life-qualities which earlier characters embody.
Lawrence prizes Connie personally and he presents her with more evidence than she needs of his unequivocal sympathy. He excuses the weakness that initially led her into marriage with Clifford Chatterley by explaining it as the effect of immaturity and misguided modern feminism; she sought to retain "a pure and noble freedom in love." But Connie, as her father and older men approvingly notice, is basically "old-fashioned"—which assures us from the outset of her marriage that her error of judgment does not indicate a deep character fault. When Clifford returns from the war paralyzed and impotent, the sympathy in the novel's viewpoint attaches only to Connie, for Clifford's paralysis is symbolic of his incapacity for sympathy with others or any warm-hearted natural response. Connie's years of unfulfillment in marriage seem a cruelly wasteful penalty for her youthful mistake; she is completely deprived of intimacy and she has no place with the cleverly talking, passionless men of her husband's society. As she comprehends the vacuity of her life, the vacuity of Clifford, the vacuity even of her liberty to have affairs or bear another man's child to rear in Wragby Hall, it is evident to the reader that anything Connie does to attempt sensual fulfillment will receive Lawrence's easy, unquestioning approval.
Oliver Mellors, whose love changes Connie's life, also suffers from a disastrous marriage. In his youth he knew women who gave him their spirit of love but they never really wanted the physical act of sex; Mellors reacted from them by marrying Bertha Coutts, whose aggressions during intercourse finally demonstrated her fierce sexual hatred. Embittered against women and against modern industrial civilization, Mellors withdrew from the world to a hermit's life as a gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate. But apparently, he would have been fully capable of tenderness and sympathy for a girl like Connie at any time before he met her. He, too, commands a singleminded sympathy in Lawrence's viewpoint.
The background of the lovers' separate misery and solitude reveals that civilization or "other people in the world" are mainly to blame for their troubles; the lovers themselves are free from the complexities or shortcomings of character that might defeat their chance for happiness together, and their romance is the story of their progress into a relationship uncorrupted by social evil. The narrative is the simplest of all Lawrence's major fictions and it introduces no complications that seriously interfere with the lovers' attention to themselves. Mellors' love-making brings Connie gently into full sensual responsiveness. She becomes pregnant, openly acknowledges her affair with Mellors, and at the end of the novel the lovers are anticipating divorces which will enable them to marry each other. The story centers on Connie's steady growth into a fulfilled woman; her uncomplicated nature flowers like the woods in springtime where she meets with Mellors:
She was gone in her own soft rapture, like a forest soughing with the dim, glad moan of spring, moving into bud. She could feel in the same world with her the man, the nameless man, moving on beautiful feet, beautiful in the phallic mystery. And in herself, in all her veins, she felt him and his child. His child was in all her veins, like a twilight.
She was like a forest, like the dark interlacing of the oak-wood, humming inaudibly with myriad unfolding buds. Meanwhile the birds of desire were asleep in the vast interlaced intricacy of her body. (163)
For Connie and Mellors sexual relations are sweeter and simpler than for any earlier pair of Lawrence's protagonists. They are the first major characters who are absolutely free of self-revulsion or any fear of sex, and the novel concentrates attention on their sensuality. Lawrence describes their sexual intercourse in more explicit detail than in earlier fiction, as he tries to purify every word and act of any shameful associations. He introduces the diction of vulgarity to the lovers' dialogues, and even Mellors' occasional preference for the "Italian way" is alluded to in the novel as a necessary immersion in wholesome sensuality. The descriptions of their intercourse are not dominated by images of aggression, resistance, violation or loss of identity, nor do the lovers struggle to orgasms of horrific intensity.
The imagery of harmony and direct sensual fulfillment gives an astonishing new sweetness to Lawrence's style in Lady Chatterley, but the apparent rosiness of his vision only announces his retreat from a mimetic representation of life. To present characters who have perfect inner freedom for direct sensual fulfillment, Lawrence had to circumvent his own sense of reality. He created a conventionally artificial world where the lovers could act according to his ideal of love rather than according to his knowledge of experience. Connie and Mellors live in a world of pastoral idyll. Their love is dramatized only in the woods on the Chatterley estate, where rain falls softly through the darkness or the twilight and the fresh growth of spring scents the air. They dance nakedly in the glades and spread forest flowers on their bodies; they make love in a forest hut, or on the ground, and Connie returns in secrecy to her conventional place in the outer world. Anyone but the lovers enters the woods as an intruder. The arrival of a postman at Mellors' cottage and the return of Mellors' wife introduce the complications which threaten to defame their love. Only meanness thrives in the encircling world: the ugly works of the Chatterley coal mines line the rim of the forest, and in the manorhouse the conversation of sophisticated guests displays the cynicism of modern society.
The contrast between the innocence of experience in the forest and the decadence of life in the world depends upon Lawrence's most facile judgment against modern industrial civilization. His evaluation of modern culture is made diagrammatically, and it is only effective to support the schematic structure of the novel.2 As Connie matures into a sensual woman but forfeits her place in conventional society, Clifford climbs to success in the world. He forgoes his literary dilettantism and becomes a progressive business leader in the coal-mining industry, but inwardly he disintegrates and regresses to child-like dependency upon his housekeeper, Mrs. Bolton. Their perverse eroticism underlies Clifford's thriving in the outer world, while Connie and Mellors discover innocence in the privacy of the woods. A world peopled only by Clifford and his vitiated friends offers no defense against Lawrence's denunciations of its mechanization, its abuse of money and its hatred of life.
The attack against modern society is only superfieially verified, because the atmosphere of romance dominates the novel. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley three times over in order to achieve the world of idyll in the final version, and in each text he reduced the lovers' connection with society and made the outer world less relevant in the fiction.3 From the first version he rejected the gamekeeper's virulence towards other people, his lower class uncouthness and his social radicalism as a secretary of a Communist League. He rejected the distressing conclusion of the second version, in which Connie and her lover are beset by a coarse, prying gamekeeper as Connie weeps desperately over their unlikely prospects for future happiness. In the third version, Mellors takes a job on a farm and prepares to receive Connie and their child when they return from Italy. His letter to her displays confidence in their love, along with a stoical foreboding of a bad time of social violence ahead for the rest of the world as a result of the "mass-will of people, wanting money and hating life." But he assures her that the inevitable ruin of humanity that is fostered by industrial civilization can have no effect on their destiny: "All the bad times that ever have been, haven't been able to blow the crocus out: not even the love of women. So they won't be able to blow out my wanting you, nor the little glow there is between you and me." (363-64)
The conclusion of the novel repudiates any alternative to the evil imputed to society. Mellors believes that the world could be a better place if men would act more like men, which in his mind means wearing scarlet tights and white jerkins, but the fiction dismisses his hypothesis as a passing fancy; his brief remarks are absurdly irrelevant to Clifford's failure as a man or to Connie's triumph as a woman. He speaks from a child's notion of interchangeable personal identities; and even Mellors' Midlands dialect, which he uses almost exclusively with Connie, suddenly sounds like an infant's accents:
Why, if men had red, fine legs, that alone would change them in a month. They'd begin to be men again, to be men! An' the women could dress as they liked. Because if once the men walked with legs close bright scarlet, and buttocks nice and showing scarlet under a little white jacket: then the women 'ud begin to be women. It's because th' men aren't men, that the women have to be. (263)
This frail proposal which is not even presented affirmatively is all that remains in Lady Chatterley of Lawrence's former passion for cultural reconstruction. He abandons the world to its madness—the result of humanity's incapacity for direct sensual fulfillment—and he precludes any possibility of the lovers' regenerative return to society. The novel marks the end of Lawrence's search for a new world of communal experience; in his art he no longer experiments with forms of social organization as a means of objectifying essential human character. The sensuality that flourishes in Connie and Mellors seeks no positive counterpart in the relationships of the larger world, and the novel rejects all likelihood that men's social experience will ever lead to anything but disaster.
Harmony among people can prevail only within the family relation implied at the end of the novel when Connie is pregnant and the lovers, though presently separated, anticipate marriage and being "together next year." But this family grouping even with its promise of new birth achieves no societal relevance in the fiction—Mellors and Connie plan to sever finally their connections with the world of social circumstances. The real meaning of Connie's pregnancy is reflected in Mellors' reinstatement to emotional security and his retrogressive freedom from the demands of sexual activity; and it is identified by the carefully discriminated parallel of sexual innocence in his relation with Connie, and Clifford's child-like happiness with Mrs. Bolton. Mellors' famous letter to Connie celebrates his reachieved state of chastity in fact and in spirit, for he explains that his erotic nature is quieted by peaceful thoughts about her womb; and he enjoys his purity of consciousness in final detachment and immunity from the effects of present experience. The emblematic situation at the conclusion implies the stability of maternal rather than conjugal relations.
A similar disavowal of adult and circumstantial experience dominates all of Lawrence's last art, as other protagonists achieve their deepest desire in blissful quiescence. In "The Man Who Died," Lawrence's last completed work of fiction, the renunciation of purposive activity and direct personal relations becomes the meaning of Christ's resurrection. In his crucifixion the Man knew all the bitterness of human experience. Escaped from his tomb, he turns away from further entanglements with his disciples and he rejects his former mission as a mistaken effort to compel life unnaturally; he wanders aimlessly through a calm and sunlit Mediterranean world, slowly acquiring the full satisfactions of his "aloneness." A priestess of Isis gives him sexual fulfillment and she becomes pregnant by him. Not wishing, however, to be ensnared in "the little life of jealousy and property," he sails away again: the god-like man in the security of his little boat remains attached only to the womb of the mild-mannered woman. His fatherhood, like Mellors', points to his pre-natal identification and leads to his eternal freedom from the demands of making particular responses.
These disintegrations in Lawrence's fiction occurred partly because he lost interest in external experience during his long tubercular illness—and sexual experience particularly may have been only a memory in those last years—so that his strong regressive tendencies easily dominated his art. Even his descriptive writing indicates his withdrawal from realistic scenes to highly abstract settings, such as the idyllic Chatterley forest and the Mediterranean world of "The Man Who Died." The most prominent scene in the story seems properly Mediterranean in its painterly expanse of sea-space and bright light, but it offers no perspective or impression to suggest that the total view is directly seen. The details are generalized and conventional, and they are not brought to sharp definition by the sensibility of a perceiving intelligence; they reflect none of the complexity of "character," as Lawrence's descriptions previously did. Instead, the setting places the Man and priestess in a conceptualized world which aggravates the solipsism evident in the fiction;
The wind came cold and strong from inland, from the invisible snows of Lebanon. But the temple, facing south and west, towards Egypt, faced the splendid sun of winter as he curved down towards the sea, the warmth and radiance flooded in between the pillars of painted wood. But the sea was invisible, because of the trees, though its dashing sounded among the hum of pines. The air was turning golden to afternoon. The woman who served Isis stood in her yellow robe, and looked up at the steep slopes coming down to the sea, where the olive-trees silvered under the wind like water splashing. She was alone save for the goddess. And in the winter afternoon the light stood erect and magnificent off the invisible sea, filling the hills of the coast. She went towards the sun, through the grove of Mediterranean pine-trees and ever-green oaks, in the midst of which the temple stood, on a little, tree-covered tongue of land between two bays.
It was only a very little way, and then she stood among the dry trunks of the outermost pines, on the rocks under which the sea smote and sucked, facing the open where the bright sun gloried in winter. The sea was dark, almost indigo, running away from the land, and crested with white. The hand of the wind brushed it strangely with shadow, as it brushed the olives of the slope with silver.4
The fairly insubstantial materials of the composition-light, wind, the invisible sea—emphasize the purely tonal qualities of the setting, and the chief details are arranged by the syntax of logical organization: "But the temple. . . . But the sea . , . though its dashing . . . save for the goddess." This sort of description has the atmospheric effect of reducing vision to the sparest, unnaturally isolated details; it reveals little interest in actually examining the world.
In his life as in his fiction, Lawrence was no longer inclined to empirical observation; his travels around the earth were over and when he looked back upon his explorations he saw them as a completed adventure, one that led him to realize the greater expanse of inwardness he has to enjoy, as a late poem explains:
TRAVEL IS OVER
I have travelled, and looked at the world, and loved it.
Now I don't want to look at the world any more, there seems nothing there.
In not-looking, and in not-seeing
comes a new strength
and undeniable new gods share their life with us, when we cease to see.5
The current of his imagination simply flowed away from the circumstances of external life to a passionate interest directly in himself. He was irritated by events which interrupted his attention or contradicted the harmonies of his subjective experience, and his attitude towards the common experience of other people became more petulant and satirical than ever. Most of the poems in Pansies, Nettles, and More Pansies are prosy verses that expressed a moment's irritation with the vulgarity or evil of the world outside him. But he was impatient over objective reality, and he was more apt to dismiss it than to sustain even negative emotions about it, and so the poems are usually slight or inept.
His significant artistic achievements in these last years issue from his one remaining involvement with life: from about 1926 Lawrence knew that he was dying because of his recurrent tubercular attacks, and a group of deathpoems from his posthumously collected Last Poems together with his piece of graveyard literature, Etruscan Places, comprise the best of his final art. He still drew upon immediate knowledge of experience in his preparations for dying, which represent death as a supreme satisfaction. In Etruscan Places6 he describes his tour of the cities of the dead, tombs where corpses were provided with all the accoutrements necessary for a continuing life. Lawrence climbs in and out of the caverns dug under the hillsides or covered with mounds of earth, hurrying across the daylight from one dark descent to another: "And gradually," he writes, "the underworld of the Etruscans becomes more real than the above day of the afternoon. One begins to live with the painted dancers and feasters and mourners, and to look eagerly for them." (76)
The entire account is governed by his developing impression that in the awareness of death one sees more clearly just how life is individually, sensually experienced. He believed that the Etruscans felt no aversion for death and therefore they could represent life honestly by including it. Their art freely accepts the frailty and evanescence of all life-images; they knew no poignancy or horror over transience. For them, as Lawrence interpreted their tombs, death was the quickness, the subtlety of the life-experience. Even the irony of their ruined preparations for an after-life strikes him as soothing and true to the spirit in which they died:
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.
And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.
Yet everything Etruscan, save the tombs, has been wiped out. It seems strange. One goes out again into the April sunshine, into the sunken road between the soft, grassy-mounded tombs, and as one passes one glances down the steps at the doorless doorways of tombs. It is so still and pleasant and cheerful. The place is so soothing. (28-29)
The descent to darkness and oblivion comforts Lawrence with the promise of peace and justification. The dying man journeys into an underworld, as in the pagan myths of death; there, his body is enveloped by unfathomable blackness and he is cleansed of his continuous awareness of separation, which is the distressing condition of life. In "Bavarian Gentians" Lawrence anticipates the loss of objective awareness in death by using intensive repetition of key words—blue, dark and torch—to surpass the descriptive and referential limitations of language. The effort of his style is to make speech so symbolic that his individual words directly express facts of consciousness, without first being metaphors or symbols that refer also to the external world:
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas,
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the
smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness
down flattening into points, flattened under the
sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness,
Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's
pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is
darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake
upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion
of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness,
shedding darkness on the lost bride and her
The poem intentionally separates two planes of reality by using two kinds of language in opposition. The casual self-effacement of the opening lines ironically undervalues the poet's objective situation, and the more weighty emotional terms of the second line allow his mood to dominate the scene. Objective circumstances appear reflected in simple, logical statements in which they are only marginally, laterally developed. The room, the flowers, the time of year remain at the edges of the poem's field of awareness, where they frame the central, imagined world of oblivion. The actual situation is mildly reasserted in "frosted September," in the imperatives, and in the analytically simplified metaphor: "Reach me a gentian, give me a torch! / let me guide myself with the blue forked torch of this flower." The world from which the poet is ready to depart appears already subordinated to a lower level of reality, to a periphery of less intense consciousness.
For the central experience in the poem Lawrence uses language that is laden with compound adjectives and adjective clauses. The elaborate modifications tend to dissociate darkness as a substantial, complex quantity apart from the flower. It is darkness which suggests fire, smoke, light of the underworld and the myth of the soul's descent to oblivion and sensual experience in the deepest cavern of the earth. The qualifying constructions build on each other, as seemingly autonomous words crowd together in incremental, proliferating contact. Dark leads to "dark darkening," to "blaze of darkness," to "darker and darker" and other variations. Each sentence extends farther and farther away from the influence of the simple grammatical base that refers to the actual situation. The amount and density of modification break down the normal syntactical patterns that preserve the duality of objective circumstances and a perceiving intelligence. Modification in this poem replaces verbs, so that adjectives function as whole predicates and appear as acts of mind.
The poem gives artful form to the regressive feelings which undermine Lady Chatterley and "The Man Who Died" by properly identifying the pattern of action as an obliteration of consciousness and clearly associating death with the peace of maternal reunification in the embracing womb. Because of its linguistic complexity and its sustained discrimination between the poet's circumstances and his mood, "Bavarian Gentians" is probably an earlier poem than "The Ship of Death," in which Lawrence is more at ease with his desire for death and can generalize it and state it absolutely. He does not have to make the effort of a special language or maintain categories of reality to express his subjective experience precisely; his lines are shorter and more pliant, and his diction is simple and sometimes disarmingly casual. The emotional force of the poem is more conceptual and does not so noticeably arise from the words or structure of the poetic expression. Death is introduced as a heavy gravitation drawing all of nature downward; the elliptical compression of the opening lines avoids the qualification of any personal assertion:
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.
And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one's own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.
The soul liberated from the body voyages over an unknown sea in a small boat, like the Man's boat and like the Etruscan's ship of death, drawn like Persephone into the density of darkness:
There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening blackness darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.
The journey ends at the first thread of dawn over eternity when the soul regains her lost body and enters it, "filling the heart with peace." Only death could finally promise Lawrence to remove the basic human sense of self-division and alienation from the life of the body, after he had lost serious hope for a new world of improved human relations in adult sex and social organization. He found that beyond the griefs of manhood or modernity, the isolation of personal identity was the final, rudimentary obstacle in the way of vivid, perfect experience.
1Lady Chatterley's Lover was first published in Florence by G. Orioli in 1928. The Grove Press edition, New York, 1959, is used for citations within the text of this article.
2 G. Armour Craig believes that "it is one of the ironies of modern social history that public censors should be so outraged by the thoroughness of the idyll yet so oblivious to the attack on modern technology." "D. H. Lawrence on Thinghood and Selfhood," The Massachusetts Review, I (Fall, 1959), 58. My own view is that the public has disregarded the novel's attack on technology because in Lady Chatterley Lawrence does not persuasively depict social evil.
3 A general comparison of the three versions appears in E. W. Tedlock, Jr., D. H. Lawrence Manuscripts, A Descriptive Bibliography (Albuquerque, Í. Ì., 1948), pp. 279-316.
4The Tales of D. H. Lawrence (London, 1934), p. 1116.
5The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Pinto and Roberts (New York, 1964), p. 662. Additional references to poems will be cited in the text.
6Etruscan Places was first published in London by Martin Secker in 1932. The Heinemann edition, London, 1933, is used for citations within the text.
SOURCE: "The Quintessence of Dowsonism: 'The Dying of Francis Donne'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 45-51.
[In the following essay, Cushman describes "The Dying of Francis Donne" as "a masterly delineation of the psychology of dying" in which its protagonist succeeds in escaping "the tyranny of time only by intellectual detachment and by death. "]
The evidence suggests that Ernest Dowson thought more highly of his prose than his poetry,1 but that has not been the verdict of the world. If Dowson has an audience at all these days, it is for his frail, languorous poetry, not for his stories, sketches, or translations, or for the two novels he collaborated on. For the most part the stories and sketches are interesting period pieces, pale, delicate variations on Dowson's characteristic themes of lost love and the tragic gap between the flux of life and the perfection of art. The end of "The Diary of a Successful Man" epitomizes the typical Dowson situation. The protagonist sits "in a cloud of incense" in the Church of the Dames Rouges, listening first to the "perfect litany" and then to the beautiful singing of a nun who had been his love years before. The "sweetness and power" of the singing mock the unhappiness of living, and the story closes with the "successful man" feeling "alone in utter darkness."2 Estrangement is usually the keynote. Most of Dowson's stories bring to mind the composition played by the young Russian pianist in "An Orchestral Violin": a "mad valse" which "thrilled the nerves painfully, ringing the changes between voluptuous sorrow and the merriment of devils, and burdened always with the weariness of 'all the Russias,' the proper Welt-schmerz of a young, disconsolate people" (p. 50). Too often Dowson's own Weltschmerz feels like little more than adolescent yearning; his suffering did not enjoy the authority of a wide range of experience. Almost all the stories seem the work of a writer who has not reached maturity.
Only in "The Dying of Francis Donne" did Dowson break through to significant work in short fiction. Published in The Savoy in August 1896, the piece has been unduly neglected partly because of questions of definition: is it a story or a sketch? It seems obviously a short story to me,3 but whatever it is—short story, sketch, or study—-"The Dying of Francis Donne" is both artistically austere and rich in felt experience. More than any other Dowson story, it is capable of leaving a more than historical impact on a reader. Certainly it is, in Derek Stanford's phrase, a "grim authentic tour-de-force"4—and authentic is a crucial word in a canon marred by artificiality and self-indulgence. "The Dying of Francis Donne" is a masterly delineation of the psychology of dying; the pattern of Donne's death agony is scientifically verifiable. The story is also excellent in its own right, and deserves to endure as a fascinating expression of—and comment on—fin-de-siecle aestheticism.
Francis Donne is a successful physician who has risen to public eminence because of his writing and lectures. This dual profession is important, for Donne is an artist as well as a doctor; he is "great not only in the scientific world, but also in the world of letters" (p. 104). His popularity arises from his ability to clothe the "dry bones" of science in "so elegantly literary a pattern." He is also a characteristic fin-de-siecle writer in being misunderstood: the lectures have become a "social function" and have "almost succeeded in making science fashionable" (p. 105).
But Donne is primarily a physician, not an artist, and in this profession he is even more a child of the end of the century. "The Dying of Francis Donne" is a very brief story, but it confronts no less a theme than the tragedy of being trapped in our mortality. Francis Donne's entire life has been devoted to coming to terms with his dilemma. His strategy is unmistakably that of the aesthete, and his "tired spirit" (ibid.) and "morbid self-consciousness" (p. 106) also place him in the 90's. Donne is above all detached: one of the technical accomplishments of the story is the brilliant manner in which the near-solipsism is rendered. The point, however, is that Donne's detachment is a defense. The only way he can confront the problem of decay and death is to remove himself from life itself. He copes with the "absurdity" (p. 103) of the human situation by trying to keep that situation at a distance.
Donne is essentially a sort of decadent version of Roger Chillingsworth. He has lived exclusively with his mind, because the mind can order and control: "He had lived so long in the meditation of death, visited it so often in others, studied it with such persistency, with a sentiment in which horror and fascination mingled; but it had always been, as it were, an objective, alien fact, remote from himself and his own life." In the objectification of death, there seems a way to control and order life, and so Donne lives secure with his "analytical habit," with a mind that is "so exquisite a mechanism of syllogism and deduction" (ibid.) Death is kept at arm's length and studied for its own sake, as if it has no bearing on Donne's life.
Of course this distancing is illusory, and the story begins with the protagonist's moment of truth: Donne knows he is to die. He tries to deny this knowledge, but faced with reality, reason must yield to "casuistry." The detached observer is forcibly jerked back into life and started on the relentless process toward decay and dissolution. The image of mind as exquisite mechanism gives way to the image of "a hunted animal at bay" (ibid.). Donne had known he was living in an illusion—one of his lectures is entitled "Limitations of Medicine"—but the fact remains that once the illusion is shattered, his entire world caves in. The "dull, immutable pain commences" (p. 104) and doesn't let up, and the august, austere, eminent public figure is reduced to "puerile tears" (p. 106). The rest of the story follows Donne's path from London to Brittany to the moment of extinction.
In its modest way the story is as much a depiction of the aesthete's yearning to get beyond flux and sensation as Pater's Marius the Epicurean. Marius refuses to give up the search for the "Ideal, among so-called actual things."5 He wants to enjoy the fruits of his sensations, but he also longs for a principle of permanence beyond the constant flux, a principle he discovers in the primitive Christianity practiced in the church in Cecilia's house. Like Marius, Donne delights in the "pleasant sensuousness of life, the joy of the visible world" (p. 105); "his absorbing interest in physical phenomena had made him somewhat a materialist" (p. 108). But once the pain begins and he himself is reduced to nothing more than a physical phenomenon, his philosophical control breaks down. He decides to discontinue the escape offered by morphia, for he realizes that he should reserve use of the drug for the time when the pain will be unbearable. Work offers no escape, for the pain has already gotten the upper hand. Donne withdraws to the bleak coast of Brittany, preferring the "kind indifference of strangers" to the "intolerable pity of friends" (p. 107). It is there that he will end his days—and attempt to discover some final ordering.
All of Dowson's writings are colored by his world-weariness and ennui and by his nostalgia for a harmony that never existed. His life offered more than ample occasion for melancholy: one thinks immediately of the suicides of his parents, the tuberculosis, the hopeless longing for the nymphet with the unlikely name Adelaide Foltinowicz. The other side of dissipation and being faithful to Cynara in his fashion was a kind of stoicism. In Thomas Hardy's works there is a real element of affirmation in the self-conscious stance of facing a cruel universe without flinching. In contrast, Dowson's stoicism is much closer to pathos. He endures because he has no choice, but there is a wistful, almost adolescent quality about his yearning for a better world. "The Dying of Francis Donne" is a success partly because for once Dowson has found a form that allows him to distance his own self-pity and worldweariness. The story is intensely personal of course, but it is also a self-contained artistic construct that needs no autobiographical interpretation. At he same time Dowson's characteristic nostalgia and ennui are unmistakably present, especially in the third section, which describes Donne's life in the fishing village "on the bleak and wave-tormented coast of Finisterre" (ibid.).
The description of sea and village, a carefully wrought impressionist tableau, is one of the most skillful passages in the story:
Bleak and grey it had been, when he had visited it of old, in the late autumn; but now the character, the whole colour of the country was changed. It was brilliant with the promise of summer, and the blue Atlantic, which in winter churned with its long crested waves so boisterously below the little white light-house, which warned mariners (alas! so vainly), against the shark-like cruelty of the rocks, now danced and glittered in the sunshine, rippled with feline caresses round the hulls of the fishing-boats whose brown sails floated so idly in the faint air.
Above the village, on a grassy slope, whose green was almost lurid, Francis Donne lay, for many silent hours, looking out at the placid sea, which could yet be so ferocious, at the low violet line of the Island of Groix, which alone interrupted the monotony of sky and ocean (ibid.).
This descriptive set-piece is included to define the cruel indifference of the universe to man and his labors. Man's "little white lighthouse" cannot help much in the face of the "shark-like cruetly of the rocks" and the "feline caresses" of the waves. Donne's state of mind is "almost peace" as his thought subsides into "lethargy and blank," but he envies the fishermen and their wives the "grim and resigned fatalism" that comes so easy because death is such an everyday affair to them. A "poor little grey church" (ibid.) is at the center of the scattered houses that make up the village, suggesting another sort of order unattainable by Donne. The story contains a nostalgia for the simple lives of the fishermen. Their fatalism and their Christianity allow them a consistent stance toward the universe and toward their mortality. Donne can only go to the cemetery and tell himself, "'And in a little time I shall lie here'" (p. 108).
As he descends toward death, Donne's efforts to transcend sensation and find a principle of permanence become even more intense: ". . . . His purely physical knowledge seemed but a vain possession, and he turned with a passionate interest to what had been said and believed from time immemorial by those who had concentrated their intelligence on that strange essence, . . . the Soul. . . . " (pp. 108-109). In search of his soul and "an harmony of life," he reads, like des Esseintes and Dorian Gray, Greek philosophy and early Christian theology. However, Plato's Phaedo, the Emperor Hadrian's address to his soul, and the "triumphant declarations of the Church"—"Ubi est, mors, victoria tu? Ubi est, mors, stimulus turn?"—can be of no help. The dying Donne is a man in the middle, denied the simple faith of the fishermen, denied the complex systems of faith of earlier eras. Denied "certitude" (p. 109), he sinks into "a drugged, unrestful sleep" (p. 110). The only certitude he is granted is that of death.
And yet Dowson does allow his protagonist a happy ending of sorts. Perhaps there is a bit of wish-fulfillment in the conclusion. Mark Longaker commends the story to "anyone who wishes to know the essential voice of Dowson when his dread malady was tightening its grip."6 No doubt this is true, and it is interesting that Dowson lets Francis Donne go out happily: "The corporal capacity of smiling had passed from him, but he fain would have smiled" (ibid.).
Even more interesting, however, is the way Dowson describes the death. The "immense and ineffable tiredness" becomes "this utter luxury of physical exhaustion, this calm, this release" (ibid.). Donne's life had been devoted to escaping from life, but his long dying had wrenched him back to the everyday world of change and decay. Much to his delight, he discovers that the transition into death is a release back into a sort of formal perfection, into a kind of changeless nirvana. The lifetime dedicated to living outside time had ended rudely and abruptly when the dying set in, but at the moment of death Donne is transported back to a world of timelessness, into the bliss of blankness and nirvana.
Donne is even granted a moment of ecstasy as he expires, an epiphanic point in time of complete clarity and perception. During these "few minutes of singular mental lucidity, all his life flashed before him in a new relief. . . . All that was distorted in life was adjusted and justified in the light of his sudden knowledge" (ibid.). This extended moment of clarity and insight is of course a surrogate for religious experience. Dowson can find no way to construct an order out of the chaos, and so he must settle for the heightened moment of order. Because the yearning for order is so intense, Dowson has a particularly high emotional stake in the moment when it comes. Thus there is an unmistakable ecstasy in the "singular mental lucidity" with which Donne passes from life. This moment of insight allows him to understand, order, and aesthetically arrange his entire life just as he leaves time for the timelessness he has always yearned for. The generation of the 90's were descendants of Arnold the poet, wandering between two worlds, one lost, and the other powerless to be born. This type of ecstasy is a commonplace in the poetry and fiction they wrote.7
And so at long last Francis Donne completes his dying. He is an aesthete to the very end: as he passes from consciousness "he could yet just dimly hear, as in a dream, the sound of Latin prayers, and feel the application of the oils upon all the issues and approaches of his wearied sense." Then unconsciousness, "and that was all" (ibid.). O death, where is thy sting?
"The Dying of Francis Donne" is richly cadenced and harmonious, and its sharp sense of experience is all the more effective because of its understatedness. The story is something of a miniature, but its economy and compression are such that it is able to confront the largest questions of all. At the same time "The Dying of Francis Donne" contains an important commentary on Dowson's own life and on fin-de-siecle aestheticism in general. It is a mistake to interpret aestheticism exclusively in terms of developments in the arts. The phenomenon is more directly a response to breakdown in the culture at large. Writers retreated to the formal perfection of art and to the doctrine of art for art's sake as a defense against chaos: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." This link between the aesthetic stance of these writers and man's metaphysical dilemma is made clear by the life and dying of Francis Donne.
Dowson seems to be saying that the harmonies of art offer no real escape from the despair of living. Donne is able to escape the tyranny of time only by intellectual detachment and by death. These two forms of escape are directly related, and surely the effect is to question the detachment implicit in aestheticism, in attempting to convert one's life into a work of art.
Donne's "burning sense of helplessness" (p. 106) is emphasized in his dying, but his loneliness throughout is even more terrible. The "eminent surgeon" who dies early in the story is an "acquaintance" (p. 105), not a friend. He goes to Brittany to escape the "intolerable pity of friends," but no friends are in evidence and it is hard to believe Donne has close friends. The simple inhabitants of the fishing village are "kindly" (p. 107), but they necessarily allow him to maintain his shell of isolation. The companions by his deathbed are a nurse, a faithful servant, and a priest. One thinks back to the work Donne tries to do early in the story to take his mind off the recent discovery that he is dying: "He had selected the work of a distinguished German savant upon the cardiac functions, and a short treatise of his own, which was covered with recent annotations, in his crabbed handwriting, upon 'Aneurism of the Heart'" (p. 106). This detail is in the story to tell us that Donne is suffering above all from heartlessness. Instead of coming to terms with man's fate, he has tried to escape it, and as a result his life has been a living death, cold and sterile, without community, without love, without even emotion.
Donne learns that he cannot escape his mortality: no one can. But his decision to seek detachment is also a decision to deny life itself. The deepest and most profound meaning of this story is that the life of aethetic detachment is nothing more than a long dying. "Dust thou art and to dust thou will return," Dowson's epigraph tells us; this is the main fact the story presents. Nevertheless, another message resonates through the carefully measured prose: the aesthete's headling flight from life is a horrible mistake. "The Dying of Francis Donne" is something of a personal testament. Apparently Ernest Dowson had learned to measure the cost of the life he had chosen.
1 Ernest Dowson, The Stories of Ernest Dowson, ed. Mark Longaker, (Philadelphia, 1947), p. 1.
2The Stories of Ernest Dowson, pp. 35-37. Subsequent references to this volume will be incorporated in the text.
3 Dowson himself is responsible for some of the confusion. He called it a "story" when it was just "under weigh" in early April 1896, but three weeks later he referred to it as "my story or study rather" (The Letters of Ernest Dowson, ed. Desmond Flower and Henry Maas, Rutherford, N. J., 1967, pp. 352, 358). In its printed form it is subtitled "A Study." Thomas Burnett Swann classifies it as a sketch because "it lacks both conflict and detailed characterization" (Ernest Dowson, New York, 1964, p. 82). This comment seems to me, however, to misrepresent the piece, for there is ample inner conflict and the author's control of point of view (that of a nearsolipsist) explains the absence of detailed characterization.
Mark Longaker, who should know best, also seems to consider it a sketch in associating it with the five brief prose-poems of Decorations. He vaguely declares that "The Dying of Francis Donne," "Absinthia Taetra," and "The Visit" are "unmistakably poetic" (The Stories of Ernest Dowson, p. 9).
It seems true enough that Dowson wrote his best prose "in the pieces in which he was not burdened by the necessity of telling a sustained story" (Stories, p. 9), but this does not necessarily make "The Dying of Francis Donne" a sketch. Certainly it is confusing to categorize it with the wraith-like pieces in Decorations, all of which are about half-a-page in length, especially since it manages to compress quite an extensive action into eight pages. It may also be germane to observe that "The Dying of Francis Donne" is unlike the other short prose pieces in being devoid of self-conscious literary posturing.
4 Derek Stanford, Short Stories of the 'Nineties: A Biographical Anthology, New York, 1968, p. 204.
5Marius the Epicurean: His Situation and Ideas, London: Dent, 1885, p. 83.
6The Stories of Ernest Dowson, p. 121.
7 Cf. Chapter 7, "Ecstasy," pp. 154-176 of John A. Lester, Jr., Journey Through Despair, 1880-1914: Transformations in British Literary Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968). Dowson is mentioned regularly in this work.
Barbara A. Davis
SOURCE: "Zeno's Ontological Confessions," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 45-56.
[In the following essay, Davis examines Zeno Cosini's struggle to comprehend the meaning of his existence in Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno as a process that can only be understood in relation to his own death.]
Zeno Cosini, the fictional (and somewhat autobiographical) author of Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, writes the following fable:
THE CRAB (impaled on a hook, reflectively):
sweet, but one must watch where one sits down.
THE JOHN DORY (just off to the dentist): Life is
but one must rid it of those treacherous monsters
hide steel fangs in tasty flesh.1
Both the crab and the John Dory fish of the fable are able to accept life in a way that Zeno himself is unable to do despite his efforts throughout most of the writing of his confessions. What Zeno does not realize when he writes the fable for the amusement of his fellow office workers is that the reason his crab and fish are able to accept life is that they are facing death.
Although Zeno in his confessions refers repeatedly to death—the death of others (his father, Copier and Guido) as well as death in the abstract—he does not really confront it or allow it to be incorporated into his vague notions about life until his own habit of daily existence is interrupted by the war. Zeno mentions his experiences and thoughts about death only in order to aid in the process of his psychoanalysis. He feels that he is searching out the basis of a psychological problem; his analyst, Dr. S., has suggested that Zeno write about his life, hoping that "in the effort of recalling his past he would bring it to life again, and that the writing of his autobiography would be a good preparation for the treatment" (preface).
What the psychoanalyst does not realize, and what Zeno does not realize until more than a year after writing the major portion of his confessions, is that Zeno's underlying problem is not one of psychology (although he may indeed have serious psychological problems) but of metaphysics. His concern, even fascination, with death, as revealed in the confessions, indicates the ontological problem which pervades the whole of his expression and explanation of his life. Zeno is actually attempting to identify his being, to grasp the continuity of his essential self as he exists in time. In writing his confessions Zeno reveals his efforts to find pattern and structure in his existence from childhood up to the present. He seems, however, not to be conscious of this intent; he believes himself to be reporting the facts of his existence for analysis by Dr. S.
The very structure of the confessions indicates Zeno's search for order as he writes about his life. By dividing his autobiography into sections, he can classify life as a series of major events: the last cigarette, the death of his father, the story of his marriage, wife and mistress, a business partnership, and finally, psychoanalysis. Svevo has not allowed his character the comfort of fitting into a job category, a category which serves as identification for most men (one is a doctor, a professor, or a business man, for example). He is a man of leisure who is desperate to know what his existence means. He deals with this problem on a subconscious level by attempting to identify himself in relation to the external world of fixed objects and objective knowledge. When this fails, he searches internally for the meaning and explanation of his being—also without success.
Zeno reports his sense of the loss of an external and objective reality with the death of his father. The extremely self-conscious Zeno, who is bewildered by the sense of continual change in life, sees his father as something quite stable in the midst of an otherwise uncertain world: "My pursuit of health had led me to study the human body. He, on the other hand, had succeeded in banishing from his memory all thoughts of that terrible machine. As far as he was concerned the heart did not beat, and he had no need to remind himself of valves and veins and metabolism to explain why he was alive. . . . For him the earth was motionless and solid, poised between its poles" (p. 30).
The death of his father is significant for Zeno psychologically (as Dr. S. later points out), but it is clear from his expression of the experience that it is also significant ontologically. Zeno feels that it is necessary to "go into my father's story in so far as it helps me to recollect my own." He further justifies his recollection saying: "Probably no one will believe me, but this brief note records the most important event in my life" (p. 27). Zeno becomes rather explicit about the ontological effect that his father's death has on him: "My father's death . . . was an unmitigated catastrophe. Paradise had ceased to exist for me, and at thirty I was played out. . . . I cannot help believing I should not have lost that happy and inspiring faith [in my possibilities] if my father had not died. His death destroyed the future that alone gave point to my resolutions" (p. 28). Lee Jacobs, in her article, "Zeno's Sickness Unto Death," explains that "Zeno's father served as a stationary pole around whom the son could freely orbit until the death of his father fragmented Zeno's certainty about ever finding a coherence of identity. The death of his father represents the death of God in Zeno's life."2 His father had been an objective point for Zeno to stand in relation to, a source for his own identity from his earliest memory up to the present. The father provided his son with some sense of continuity through thirty years of existence, and during this time Zeno had remained childishly dependent on his father, as he is later dependent on others, to make decisions for him. Therefore, with the death of his father imminent, Zeno can only ask himself: "What is there for me to do in the world now?" (p. 40).
At the end of the chapter concerning "the death of my father" Zeno asserts that after his father's death "I returned to the religion of my childhood and held to it a long time" and that "I daily with my whole heart commended my father's soul to the care of some unknown being" (p. 54). But a belief in an external and objective "higher being" outside himself is a fabrication, a rationalization for Zeno. He had previously told his father that he looked upon religion "simply as a phenomenon to be studied like any other" (p. 35). Later, after his marriage, Zeno compares his own intellectual study of religion (reading Renan and Strauss and "a critical edition of the Gospels") to his wife's easy-going, non-introspective practice of the conventions of religion: "Religion for me was a very different thing. If I had only believed, nothing else in the world would have mattered to me" (p. 152). Because religion cannot provide the objective knowledge of reality that he is searching for, Zeno substitutes superstition for it, at times, as a guide to behavior. At a dinner party with his in-laws, Zeno listens to his ill father-in-law jealously curse another guest who reaches for a glass of wine: "That is the third! May it turn to gall in his stomach!" Zeno reacts with superstition: "This pious hope would not have troubled me if I myself had not been eating and drinking at the same table, and had not realized that every mouthful of wine I drank would have a like blessing bestowed on it. So I began eating and drinking secretly" (p. 202). During the same meal he reacts similarly to a malicious comment made by his father-inlaw by crossing his fingers "under the table to avert his wish, which I know boded me no good" (p. 205). At another point in the confessions Zeno listens to Guido's statement that it is a bad omen to pay one's debts too quickly, and again he reveals his superstitious nature: "It is indeed a widespread superstition at all gaming-tables that other people's money brings one good fortune. I don't really believe this, but when I play I omit no precaution" (p. 324).
Because he is unable to really believe in a higher being and because he has lost his father as a stable point of reference, Zeno looks to other people in his environment, hoping to identify his place in existence by defining himself in relation to society. One of these people is a kind of father-substitute, in fact his future father-in-law, Giovanni Malfenti. In a search for identity Zeno attempts to imitate what appears to be an enviable reality, the personality of a man he admires. After admitting that Giovanni Malfenti "was so entirely different from me and from anyone whose friendship I had enjoyed up to that time" (p. 56). Zeno continues to explain his own actions: "When I admire anyone I at once try to be like him. So I began to imitate Malfenti" (p. 57). What Zeno admires in Malfenti is not great intelligence, insight or purpose, but rather his ignorance: "He . . . was an important business man, ignorant and pushing. But his ignorance gave one an impression of quiet strength which fascinated me. I loved to watch him and envied him for what he was" (p. 56). Zeno is fascinated with Malfenti for the very reason that the man is "ignorant" in the sense that he does not seem to be constantly questioning the "realities" of everyday life by which he lives. Malfenti, for example, has a list of business commandments, which he copies into Zeno's notebook in order to help him. His world runs quite smoothly by a set of established rules.
Even more fascinating to Zeno—although also somewhat confusing—is the world of women. In his autobiography, his relationship to various women apparently provides him with an illusion of continuity. He is always generalizing about women even when talking about an individual woman such as his wife or his mistress. Because his attitudes towards women (as a category, not as individuals) can provide Zeno with this illusion of continuity in existence, he emphasizes the role of women as he relates the story of his life. Henri Bergson in his essay on art and reality in Laughter explains this kind of emphasis: "My senses and my consciousness . . . give me no more than a practical simplification of reality. In the vision they furnish me of myself and of things, the differences that are useless to man are obliterated, the resemblances that are useful to him are emphasized; ways are traced out long in advance along which my activity is to travel. . . . The individuality of things or of beings escapes us unless it is materially to our advantage to perceive it."3
Admittedly, there is psychological significance in Zeno's comments about women, as demonstrated in his assertion that "it is a great sign of inferiority in a man not to understand women" (p, 74). But Zeno's statements also indicate that his generalizations concerning women are motivated by an attempt to establish the opposite sex as a stable and objective point in his small world. There are both psychological and ontological implications in his vision of a wife: "All the qualities lacking in myself, and which I longed to possess, I gave to her; she was to become not only my wife but a second mother to me, who would equip me for a full virile life, encourage me to fight and help me, to be victorious" (p. 73).
Throughout the Confessions Zeno attempts to define "women" by various characteristics in order to establish them as a fixed point of reference for himself. But even Zeno is unable to do this. He says at one point: "Women always know what they want" (p. 172), but at another time he says: "It is difficult for men to know exactly what it is that women do want, for they often do not know themselves" (p. 331). He also observes: "Women always insist on the fiction that they have been raped" (p. 190), but at another point in his narrative he seems to put at least one woman in the role of seductress: "When I go over the story of my first infidelity I have distinctly the sense of having been seduced" (p. 167). At the very beginning of the confessions Zeno recalls telling the psychoanalyst of "my troubles with women. I was not satisfied with one or even with many; I desired them all!" (p. 12). Later, however, in speaking of his friend, Copier, Zeno says, "I don't know why the poor man had such a mania for talking about women" (p. 155). It is his own emphasis on women that Zeno perceives, and he makes various other generalizations about women: "Women are made like that. . . . Their life can never be at all monotonous" (p. 208);. .. no woman can consent to be slighted in public, whatever treatment she may put up with in private" (p. 226); Women are always like that, and Augusta was unusually excited, even for a woman, at the thought of my personal losses" (p. 294); and . . ."for a woman to remain passive is a form of giving consent" (p. 321).
From the viewpoint of psychology, Zeno might be viewed as the male ego that must assert his superiority over the female species in order to conceal his own feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. From an ontological viewpoint, however, he may be viewed quite differently. By generalizing about women Zeno is able to classify and objectify them. He tries to present them as creatures that exist according to certain predictable and set standards—"women always" . . . or "women never" . . . or "all women" . . . or "no woman . . ." To Zeno, who feels himself to be without any such stable standards of behavior, a lost being in the flux of time, the position of "women" (as he sees it) is somewhat enviable. Women do not seem to have to think about what they are doing, as he does. His comments about his wife, Augusta, illustrate this envy as well as the desire to find such untroubled certitude in existence for himself. He says at one point: "I became so fond of her that I formed the great hope that I might in the end grow like Augusta, who was the personification of health" (p. 140). The insecurity of his own existence and his envy of his wife's existence is evident when he talks about her: "Augusta walked boldly along the path so many of her sisters have trodden before her on this earth: those who are content to find all their happiness in law and order, or else to renounce it all together. . . . I felt obliged to treat it [her security] with the same respect I had previously shown to spiritualism. It might be true, and so might faith in human life" (p. 141).
Poor Zeno who is so bewildered by time and change in life is startled to find in observing his wife that "every act of hers showed that she believed in eternal life" (p. 141). He envies what he sees as Augusta's state of health, that is, her ability to exist in the present moment and to be able to find meaning in objective, stationary forces in a well-ordered sense of time. Zeno explains:
I understood at last the meaning of perfect health in a human being, when I realized that for her the present was a tangible reality in which we could take shelter and be near together. I tried to be admitted to this sanctuary. (p. 141) . . . [For Augusta] the world goes round but everything else stays in its place. And these stationary things are of immense importance; a wedding-ring, jewels and clothes . . . also her evening dress, which must on no account be worn in the daytime, and only in the evening if I put on dress clothes. Then there were hours of meals . . . and also bedtime. All these hours had a genuine existence and were always in their right place. (pp. 141-142)
Zeno finds too, that Sunday Mass, the Austrian and Italian officials ("who made the streets and houses safe for people") and the doctors ("who had gone through all their medical training in order to cure us if by some unhappy chance we fell ill") were all sources of external authority and security for his wife, Augusta.
But Zeno finds comfort in none of these things. He even attempts to attribute an objective reality to time itself. He finds "significance," for example, in certain dates: "First day of the first month in the year 1901. Even today I feel that if only that date could repeat itself I should be able to begin a new life" (p. 11). Zeno himself states his attempt to make the abstract idea of time a reality: "And then Time, for me, is not that unimaginable thing that never stops. For me, but only for me, it comes again" (p. 11). But as much as Zeno would like to find concrete reality in the concept of time, to be like his wife, or at least "be admitted to this sanctuary," he is a man who finds only that "time is really very ill-ordered" (p. 381) and that there is no reality he can grasp that is external to himself which might help him to affirm his place in existence.
For Zeno then, there is no objective reality by which he can discover the meaning or the value or even the certainty of existence. The concepts of religion, of other individual personalities, of society, and of time do not provide Zeno with the organizing and identifying force for which he is searching. Gian-Paolo Biasin, in his article "Literary Disease: From Pathology to Ontology," explains that through the character of Zeno, Svevo is able to express "the breaking down of a whole 'vision du monde' which is to be replaced by another: the world of objects is no longer a 'datum' of certainty; the world of others is no longer meaningful in itself or its institutions. What comes to the fore is awareness of the self, with all the ambiguities and the anguish inherent in the discovery of how unstable, contradictory and absurd the relationship of the self to the world of others and of objects can be.4
By the time Zeno begins his confessions he has turned to the "self," trying to find identity and continuity of existence within himself rather than through the external world and its concepts of objective reality—which indeed present him only with contradiction and confusion. When Zeno does attempt to look within himself, however, it is not consciously for the meaning of existence but for the basis of his so-called psychological problems. Indeed, he begins his autobiography with his account of "the last cigarette:"—"When I spoke to the doctor about my weakness for smoking he told me to begin my analysis by tracing the growth of that habit from the beginning" (p. 5). Zeno explains how enduring his habit has been: "My days became filled with cigarettes and resolutions to give up smoking, and, to make a clean sweep of it, that is more or less what they are still. The dance of the last cigarette which began when I was twenty has not reached its last figure yet" (p. 9). But the "last cigarette" problem is deeply based in Zeno's ontological dilemma. The fact that he chooses to emphasize this habit in his confessions indicates the meaning of the last cigarette as a symbol of continuity in existence. Zeno the boy smoked cigarettes and tried to stop just as Zeno the man over fifty smokes cigarettes and tries to stop. Although he has physically altered and his world has been constantly changing, Zeno can feel that there is still something that is essentially his own being, that is, the organism that smokes cigarettes and tries to break his habit. That the problem is metaphysically based can be demonstrated in the fact that Zeno couples his "last cigarette" with attempts to discover the meaning of life: '"2 February, 1886. Today I finish my law studies and take up chemistry. Last cigarette!!' That was a very important last cigarette. . . . I was irritated by canon law, which seemed to me so remote from life, and I fled to science in the hope of finding life itself. . . . That last cigarette was the emblem of my desire for activity (even manual) and for calm, clear, sober thought" (p. 9).
More evident than the last cigarette throughout the autobiography is the development of various diseases, aches, and pains in the physical organism, Zeno Cosini. Again, it is the psychological aspect, the problems of the "malade imaginaire" that Zeno thinks he is revealing for Dr. S.'s benefit. But again, he actually indicates that his psychological need is stimulated by an ontological concern. Zeno's condition of ill-health is caused by his constant efforts to observe his own actions and thoughts, to conduct his self-analysis. Disease in any form is for Zeno a manifestation of this extreme consciousness of self. Perhaps the best example of this problem, as noted by several critics, is Zeno's limp.5 His friend, Tullio, has told him that "when one is walking rapidly each step takes no more than half a second, and in that half second no fewer than fifty-four muscles are set in motion." Zeno reacts characteristically: "I listened in bewilderment. I at once directed my attention to my legs and tried to discover the infernal machine. I thought I had succeeded in finding it. I could not of course distinguish all its fiftyfour parts, but I discovered something terrifically complicated which seemed to get out of order directly I began thinking about it. I limped as I left the cafe." (pp. 94-5).
Because Zeno wishes to observe life at every point he is unable to deal with the constant flux of time. He describes his problem of ill-health in connection with his violin playing and metaphorically demonstrates his inability to give himself up to the flow of time and the rhythm of life:
I could play well if I were not ill, but 1 am always pursuing health even when I am practicing balance on the four strings of a violin . . . after I have been playing one of those rythmic figures it clings to me and I can't escape from it, but get it mixed up with the following figure so that I play it out of time. . . . The music that is produced by a well balanced physique is identical with the rhythm it creates and exploits; it is rhythm itself. When I can play like that I shall be cured. (pp. 103-104)
Zeno's problems in writing his confessions are much the same as his problems in playing the violin—trying to be conscious of each act and thought, and trying to arrange all of these individual moments of action and thought into a coherent pattern that will define "Zeno." The very act of writing is a conscious attempt to organize the events of his life and to impress the account with a sense of continuity in order to assert the reality of his existence in time. From the beginning, however, Zeno realizes the difficulty (if not the actual impossibility) of bringing the whole of his life to conscious expression. Bergson has explained this problem in saying that "between nature and ourselves, nay, between ourselves and our own consciousness a veil is interposed; a veil that is dense and opaque for the common herd,—thin, almost transparent, for the artist and the poet" (Bergson, p. 151). Zeno begins with this problem in his introduction: "See my childhood? Now that I am separated from it by over fifty years, my presbyopic eyes might perhaps reach to it if the light were not obscured by so many obstacles. The years like impassable mountains rise between me and it, my past years and a few brief hours in my life. . . . The present surges up and dominates me, the past is blotted out" (p. 3). And in the final chapter of the confessions, Zeno shows himself well aware of what he has attempted to do in writing his autobiography. He asserts that "a written confession is always mendacious. We lie with every word we speak" (p. 368). He realizes that he has not presented "reality" at all: "And by dint of pursuing these memory-pictures, I at last really overtook them, I know now that I invented them. But invention is a creative act, not merely a lie . . . I thought my dream-pictures really were an actual reproduction of the past. . . . I remembered them as one remembers an event one has been told by somebody who was not present at it" (pp. 368-69).
Zeno's last chapter, "Psychoanalysis," is written in May of 1915 and finally March of 1961. There is a space of time of one year between this last section and the earlier confessions, which were interrupted by the war. Within this time, Zeno has confronted the paradox of life and has discovered why all his attempts to find the meaning of existence, whether in external objects and objective knowledge or in the depths of his own personality, have failed. He has determined that life cannot be defined except in death. His attempts to classify specific behavior, particular thoughts, and certain moments have not been successful because each succeeding act or thought or moment in time has modified, in some way, the preceding actions, thoughts and moments. Only at the end point of all these fragments can the totality be asserted or defined. John Freccero in his article, "Zeno's Last Cigarette" explains that "in Zeno's purely spatial imagination, the present moment is conditioned by the one that went before, that one in turn conditioned by its predecessor, and so on, back into the past, toward the origin of the individual and of the species. In a sense, then, the past exists in the present, and moves with it into the future."6 It is through this concept that Zeno Cosini is analogous to the ancient Zeno of Elea. Freccero explains the "puzzle of Zeno of Elea:"
If we imagine the trajectory of an arrow flying through space, it must be said that at any given moment it occupies a given space and is therefore momentarily motionless, requiring another moment before it can occupy the next successive position. Hence the trajectory is made up of an infinity of successive moments for the gradual transition from place to place. But these infinite moments cannot be said ever to reach the continuity that we perceive. Motion itself cannot be deduced. At each separate moment the arrow is motionless, all the time it is moving. Just as one can never place enough mathematical points side by side in order to make up a straight line, it is impossible to deduce the trajectory of the arrow from the logical states, the transversal cuts, that go to make it up. It will never reach its target. (Freccero, p. 52)
The "arrow" is analogous to the present moment of consciousness in Zeno Cosini's imagination. This present consciousness follows a path from the past into the future. The path, the pattern of all those present moments, can only be viewed at the end point—death. Actually, Zeno has unconsciously hinted at this concept throughout his confessions showing himself concerned but also frightened by the final "present moment." It may even be said that he has a certain preoccupation with death—but little real understanding of its possible significance for him. On the night before Zeno's father takes to his death bed, the father tells his son: "I feel as if I knew almost everything. It must be the result of my great experience" (pp. 36-7). He wants to pass on this great knowledge to Zeno but is unable to express himself: "What I am after is not at all complicated. It is only a matter of finding a single word, and I know I shall find it" (p. 37). But if he did actually grasp a kind of totality of experience, it went with him to his death. Zeno later realizes that "the word he had been searching for, which he so much wanted to confide to me had escaped him forever" (p. 51). The arrow must complete its trajectory; the present moments are completed at the moment of death.
At one point, Zeno even expresses the idea that life must be viewed in terms of death, not because he believes it, however, but because he is trying to impress Ada in the days of courtship: "I stuck to my idea, and asserted that death was really the great organizing force of life. I was always thinking about death and so I had only one sorrow: the certainty that I must die. Everything else became so unimportant that I could welcome it with a smile, even laugh at it. I think my reason for talking in this way was that I wanted to show them I had a sense of humor, which had often before made me popular with women" (p. 71). It is only after the shock and violence of war that Zeno realizes the truth of such a statement. In his last entry (in March of 1916), Zeno relates his realization that his past attempts at analysis (both self-analysis and psychoanalysis) have been useless. To be classified in the context of the Oedipal Complex does not allow for life's totality, for the completed path of the ancient Zeno's arrow. Categorization is false, as Zeno sees it, because it does not admit to the flux of time and life. Zeno Cosini says of his written confession: "I should be able to write it all over again with absolute certainty now; how was it possible for me to understand my life when I did not know what this last part was going to be? Perhaps I only lived all those years in order to prepare for it!" (p. 397).
In his final vision, Zeno places himself in the context of all mankind. Life for all men is finally defined only in the face of death: "Life is a little like disease, with its crises and periods of quiescence, its daily improvements and setbacks. But unlike other diseases life is always mortal. It admits of no cure" (p. 397). And it is man who has made life a disease, according to Zeno. "Health," he says, "can only belong to the beasts, whose sole idea of progress lies in their own bodies"—not in the machine which "creates disease because it denies what has been the law of creation throughout the ages" (pp. 397-398). His vision for the world, as for himself as an individual, can only be death. As an individual, only at the last moments of all the moments in a life can the whole, the totality, be grasped—without the diseased and distorted interpretations of analysis. Similarly, the world of man can only be restored to wholeness, to health, by death: "Perhaps some incredible disaster produced by machines will lead us back to health" (p. 398).
Zeno's is a dark view of man—"parasites and disease." It is not his Oedipal Complex or any other psychological problem that leads Zeno to his viewpoint, however. It is his attempt and subsequent failure to grasp reality within life—before death—that has led him to his pessismistic onotology. There is no hope here for the "death and resurrection" conversion that might be expected at the end of one's "confessions." And Zeno's truest words are expressed in his final vision:
We need something more than psychoanalysis to help us. (p. 398)
1 ítalo Svevo, Confession of Zeno, trans. Beryl DeZoete (1923; rpt New York: Vintag-Knopf, 1958), p. 279.
2Italian Quarterly, 11, No. 44 (Spring 1968), 59.
3 Henri Bergson, Laughter, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: MacMillan Co., 1911), pp. 151-152.
4Modern Language Notes, 82 (Jan. 1967), 80.
5 See especially P. N. Furbank, Italo Svevo: The Man and the Writer (London: Secker and Warburg, and Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966) and Gian-Paolo Biasin "Literary Disease: From Pathology to Ontology" (note 4 above).
6Modern Language Notes, 77, No. 1 (1962), rpt. in Sergio Pacifici, ed., From Verismo to Experimentalism; Essays on the Modern Italian Novel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), pp. 36-37.
Larry R. Dennis
SOURCE: "Mark Twain and the Dark Angel," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 2, January, 1967, pp. 181-97.
[In the following essay, Dennis discusses Mark Twain's handling of death in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in his unfinished "The Great Dark. "]
The confrontation with death, the Dark Angel, is a recurring thematic element in Mark Twain's writtings, from the rhetorical refrain of "Is he dead?" which punctures the narratives of the native guides in The Innocents Abroad to the specter of the spider-squid which lurks in the waters of "The Great Dark," the incomplete manuscript Bernard DeVoto includes in Letters From the Earth. Sometimes the confrontations are frankly autobiographical, sometimes they are elaborations of incidents Twain has merely read or heard about, and sometimes they are purely imaginative, but regardless of their genesis, each represents an earnest attempt to place the fact of death in a tenable perspective. Necessarily, this perspective implies an attitude toward the whole of life. It is the intent of this essay to explore some of the perspectives which Twain's creative imagination allowed him to take.
In Life Against Death, Norman O. Brown writes that "the construction of a human consciousness strong enough to accept death is a task in which philosophy and psychoanalysis can join hands—and also art." If I understand him correctly, what Brown means by a consciousness strong enough to accept death is a consciousness where life and death are reconciled, where they form an organic unity. The conditions of "civilization," however, negate this possibility, and life and death are seen as antithetical.
From boyhood on, neither death nor violence were alien to Mark Twain, as DeLancey Ferguson points out in Mark Twain: Man and Legend:
Young Sam in the course of his boyhood saw a Negro killed when his master flung a lump of slag at his head. He saw old man Smarr shot down in a drunken brawl, and watched the wounded man cough out his life under the weight of a Bible some pious fool had laid upon his chest. He saw the rowdy young Hyde brothers try to kill their uncle—one kneeling on his chest while the other repeatedly snapped an Allen revolver that would not go off . . . He saw a drunken tramp burn to death in the jail, because some of the boys had kindly given him matches and tobacco. One night he saw a drunken ruffian set off with the avowed purpose of raping a widow and her daughter at "the Welshman's," and saw the sequel when the elder woman, after warning the scoundrel to be gone before the count of ten, riddled him with slugs from a steadily aimed shotgun.
The Dark Angel was an intrinsic part of the Hannibal, Missouri, community of Twain's boyhood. He is also an acknowledged element in St. Petersburg, the village where Huck lives in the opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn. But Huck is given a perspective toward death which is denied to all the other characters in the novel and which is impossible for Twain himself to assume.
Richard P. Adams, in his introduction to Twain in American Literary Masters, rightly sees the pattern of death and rebirth as the most significant structural element in Huckleberry Finn, but he fails to consider the psychological and philosophical import of the pattern. Nowhere else in Twain's output is the theme of life and death treated more fully, and nowhere else is what Norman Brown calls "the possibility of redemption . . . in the reunification of instinctual opposites" offered as it is in Huck himself.
The theme of death is introduced in the first chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time, so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.
Huck does not attach any meanings or values to life that are beyond life. For Huck, death is the act of dying, but even to be dying is an act of living. To be dead is to be external to both living and dying. The antithesis does not exist in Huck's particular perspective.
It would be incorrect to categorize Huck as Adamic in his attitude. As Twain points out in "Reflections on Religion" (published in the Hudson Review, Autumn '63):
To Adam is forbidden the fruit of a certain tree—and he is gravely informed that if he disobeys he shall die. How could that be expected to impress Adam? Adam was merely a child in stature; in knowledge and experience he was in no way the superior of a baby of two years of age; he could have no idea what the word death meant. He had never seen a dead thing, he had never heard of a dead thing before. The word meant nothing to him, If the Adam child had been warned that if he ate of the apples he would be transformed into a meridian of longitude, that threat would have been the equivalent of the other, since neither of them could mean anything to him.
Huck's is not Adam's innocence; Huck has seen death. In a very real sense his response is nonhuman altogether, that is, his awareness is instinctive at almost animal level. Huck's journey brings him into contact with the multiple guises that civilization grants death, and although Huck remains uncorrupted by these encounters and maintains his essential vision, it is only because Twain himself wills it so.
The conclusion of the first chapter juxtaposes life and death in the nonhuman way that Huck acknowledges them. It is after his lesson about Moses and everyone else has gone to sleep for the night except Huck. Listening, Huck hears the wind, an owl, a dog, and a whippoorwill, and each is associated with death. But within nature life and death are not contradictive, that is, the possible outcome of dying plays no role in living. This is essentially Huck's perspective. The world outside the Widow Douglas' house is alive, teeming with noise and pulsing with life, but as Huck himself notes, " . . . the house was all as still as death now." There is a vital distinction. Death, in this case, is "still," and there is no life associated with it. In fact, it is death as antipodal to life.
Houses continually form a viable threat to Huck's very existence. Living within houses means imprisonment to Huck, physically and psychically, for they deny him that perspective which permits a wholeness to the life-death unit and fragments the unit into polarities. Growth under Miss Watson's tutelage is a series of negative imperatives: "Don't put your feet up there, Huckleberry," "Don't scrunch up like that, Huckleberry—set up straight," "Don't gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry—why don't you try to behave?" Each of Miss Watson's attempts to civilize Huck, to regiment his behavior into society's accepted etiquette, even involves physical restriction.
Pap, Huck's father, is essentially a victim of society, yet at the same time he is a representative of that society. In one sense he frees Huck from the restraints of civilization by taking him from the Widow Douglas, but this new freedom becomes imprisonment in the literal sense of the word. Pap takes Huck off to a cabin across the river, but each time he goes into St. Petersburg he leaves Huck locked in the shack. During one of Pap's alcoholic fits, the cabin almost becomes a real house of death for Huck as his father chases him with a knife. When Pap collapses in alcoholic stupor, Huck says, "Then he laid stiller, and didn't make a sound. I could hear the owls and the wolves, away off in the woods, and it seemed terrible still." This reflection echoes the feelings Huck had voiced at the Widow Douglas'.
The associations between houses and death are undeniably established in the episode which has come to be called by critics and commentators "the house of the dead." The house which comes floating down the Mississippi even contains its own corpse, as Huck and Jim discover when they climb into it to see if there is anything they can salvage for their own use.
The stillness of the corpse again illustrates the dual way in which death is regarded: Death as still, the way in which "civilization" regards it, and death as dynamic, the vision of nature. Death as stillness exists where there is no longer life potential. Huck also states, in response to Jim's warning that the corpse is "too gashly" to look upon, that he doesn't want to look at it. Huck's declaration places him on the side of nature.
Huck does manage to effect an escape from the cabin where Pap has imprisoned him. In order to guarantee his freedom Huck is compelled to devise a plan which will liberate him from all future restrictions. The experiences with Pap have been a bitter lesson, and Huck does not wish to jeopardize his liberty again. The means of a complete escape is by a ritual slaying of the self. It is Huck's simulated death that is the agent of his freedom, and this is consistent with his attitude toward death and life, because in his framework, unarticulated, life and death are not antipodal. Dying is living; living, dying. Life is growth, change, potentiality, while death, when opposed to life, is fixed, static, and negative. The pig is slaughtered and evidence is placed to indicate the murder of Huck Finn. For Huck the slaying of the self results in the effacement and freeing of the self. In all subsequent social intercourse, each time he leaves the river for the shore, he assumes a new identity. At one time he is Sarah Williams, and in order to convince the watchman to go out to the Walter Scott and "save" the murderers, he invents a history for himself; he tells Buck Grangerford his name is George Jackson; at the Phelps' farm he even becomes Tom Sawyer.
Immediately after his ritual self-slaying Huck gets into the canoe he has cached in a brake nearby. The slaying becomes even more emphatically a form of rebirth when the river is recognized as a symbol of life in the Freudian tradition. The river itself provides Huck with the means of his escape: The canoe that comes floating downstream. For Huck the rebirth even involves a new awareness of his sense faculties, as if he were discovering them for the first time:
I got out amongst the driftwood and then laid down in the bottom of the canoe and let her float. I laid there and had a good rest and a smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky, not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights!
The river is really a double symbol. At the same time that it is a symbol of life, it is also a symbol of death. The swift waters which carry the canoe downstream are part of a flood farther upstream. ("The House of the Dead" is also carried downstream by the destructive power of the river.) But the death aspects of the river are integral to its life-giving force. That is, these two qualities, life-giving and death-bringing, are not antithetical. They are in fact part of one force. Huck's perspective toward death and life is identical with the river's reconciliation of these two forces. For Huck, death can free one from life and free one for life at the very same time. Death forms an integral element of the whole.
Huck's attitute toward death is quite different from that manifested by his father, who in his fit of delirium tremens cries out: "Tramp—tramp—tramp; that's the dead; tramp—tramp—tramp; they're coming after me; but I won't go—Oh, they're here! don't touch me—don't! hands off—they're cold; let go—Oh, let a poor devil alone!" The associations Pap makes with death are traditional. For Pap death is a physical thing: It is sensory; it is cold. He has accepted the objective personification of death common among the primitive, the unsophisticated. Pap's vision of death is an emotive response, nonrational, and as if to emphasize this very aspect Twain has Pap deliver his version of death in an alcoholic fit.
The threat of death is very real to Pap, and he believes that the only way he can come to terms with it is to kill the Dark Angel. Pap chases Huck around the cabin, calling him the Angel of Death, and attempts to slay death with a clasp knife, believing that then he will be free of mortality. Because Pap has objectified death, he mistakenly believes that Huck is the Dark Angel. His blurred, blind vision seizes on Huck as the only other being in the room, the incarnation of his fears.
In one sense Pap's mistaken identification of Huck as the Angel of Death is not altogether inaccurate. After his own ritual self-slaying Huck is free of the actual threat of death. (The episode with Pap comes prior to his simulated death, and the one other time he is threatened, the threat is instantly dispersed.) A number of deaths occur throughout the remainder of the book where Huck is a witness.
The first time Jim sees him after the ritual self-slaying, he mistakes Huck for a ghost: "Doan' hurt me—don't! I hain't ever done no harm to a ghos'. I awluz liked dead people, en done all I could for 'em. You go and git in de river agin, whah you b'longs, en doan' do nuffn to ole Jim, 'at 'uz awluz yo' fren'." Later when Huck and Jim have been separated by the fog on the river, Jim's first words on seeing Huck again are: "Goodness gracious, is dat you Huck? En you ain' dead—you ain' drownded—you's back again?" Jim's incredulity is not unwarranted from the traditional perspective, but then Huck offers a vision which is more encompassing. (It should be remarked that the dynamics of this vision occur between Huck and the reader, not between Huck and those he encounters in the progress of the narrative. Huck is not a proselytizer.)
Pap's fear of death is one guise that society has granted the fact of death, but the attitude of the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons places death in an entirely different perspective. The Grangerfords and Sheperdsons have made death acceptable by cloaking it in romanticism and sentimentality. Emmeline Grangerford is the high priestess of the cult of romantic death and, appropriately enough, she herself is dead. Her room has been turned into a shrine, and her paintings have a place on the living room walls. In the series of paintings Twain is burlesquing the stylized response to death: "Shall I Never See Thee More Alas," "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas," "And Art Thou Gone Yes Thou Art Gone Alas." These tableaulike drawings represent the stock responses of a sentimental heart. Huck's reaction reflects his philosophy: "These was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn't somehow seem to take to them . . ." Emmeline's drawings are static, stylized. They are theatrical postures without validity experientially. A flair for the dramatic characterizes the entire Grangeford family—from the elaborate morning greetings to the arrangement of the furniture in the house.
Death has become a way of life for the Grangerfords in their feud with the Sheperdsons. It is a way of life unfamiliar to Huck, as Buck Grangerford discovers to his surprise when Huck asks what a feud is. Huck is surprised in his own turn to learn that Buck does not even know the origins of the feud. He merely subscribes to it without questioning its validity. Huck cannot comprehend this way of life which is committed to death. As Huck sees it, and as Twain sees it, these terms deny any value to life. The values, as Colonel Grangerford points out, are either in killing honorably or dying bravely. This emphasis on death negates the intrinsic wholeness of the life-death unit.
Huck happens to be present when his friend Buck Grangerford falls victim to the terms of death as the way of living. (Huck is in a tree watching the scene below, which hints of Pap's allegation of Huck as the Angel of Death.)
All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns—the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river—both of them hurt—and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them! kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't going to tell all that happened—it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night, to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them—lots of time I dream about them.
Huck's moral revulsion at the futility and waste of the feud-life is shared by Twain. Huck's dreams echo Twain's. The romantic, sentimental attitude toward death becomes an anaesthetic, numbing one to the potentialities and possibilities of life. The episode concludes with Huck's reunion with Jim and the renewal of their life on the raft. Huck tells us that he "never felt easy till the raft was two mile below there and out in the middle of the Mississippi."
Huck's encounters with death as a corruption of the life-death unit generate a rhythm. Ashore, death becomes antipodal to life, that is, it is not felt as integral, but is something suspected of being external, separate. It is conceived as something imposed from without, and this is reinforced in the novel by the fact that death generally means being shot. Experience of the river acknowledges the life-death organic unit. One generates the other.
On shore Huck sees the methods by which death, and consequently life, have been corrupted by society, and he is repelled by this vision back to the unpolluted river. Each attempt to reconcile himself with life ashore only makes Huck aware of how impossible the task is.
The Boggs-Sherburn episode emphasizes this pattern. Death is again the central issue. Some commentators have read it as a treatise on mob psychology, but it seems to me that Henry Nash Smith's reading is closer, although he cannot relate Huck's visit to the circus which follows Sherburn's contemptuous speech to the lynch mob. In Mark Twain, The Development of a Writer, Smith sees Sherburn as ultimately a precursor of "the mysterious stranger," and compares his cold-blooded killing of Boggs to Satan's indifferent murders of the small people he has made. He writes that "Sherburn belong to the series of characters in Mark Twain's later work that have been called 'transcendent figures' . . ." However, Satan in "The Mysterious Stranger" is in the literal sense a transcendent figure, whereas Sherburn, after all, is only a man. Sherburn's "transcendent" powers are not manifestations of his supernaturalism but only parts of a pose, similar to that of the Grangerfords and Sheperdsons, The pose is another way of coming to terms with death. Sherburn shoots Boggs without hesitancy, without regret. In his scheme, death is negligible because life is equally so, as he clearly indicates in his speech to the lynch mob. Again Huck is witness.
Huck first encounters Boggs "a-tearing along on his horse, whooping and yelling like an Injun, and saying out—'Cler the track, thar. I'm on the waw-path, and the price of coffins is a gwyne to rise.'" He addresses Huck, asking him if he is prepared to die, but he rides on before Huck can answer. Huck does admit he was scared, but the threat was never really a potent one. Boggs, whooping and hollering "and weaving about in the saddle," is a travesty of the Dark Angel. As one of the townsmen points out, "I wisht old Boggs 'd threaten me, 'cuz then I'd know I warn't gwyne to die for a thousan' year."
Smith points out that the Boggs-Sherburn episode is linked with Twain's own experience, and that the shooting resembles the slaying of "Uncle Sam" Smarr in Hannibal when Twain was only nine. Sherburn shoots Boggs cold-bloodedly, without remorse, for threatening him with death and then contemptuously dismisses the lynch mob which has congregated to avenge Boggs' killing. In this instance neither Huck nor Twain evaluates the episode editorially, as Huck does the Grangerford-Sheperdson feud. But the circus scene which immediately follows the dispersal of the lynch mob offers an imaginative evaluation.
The parallels that can be drawn between this scene and the Boggs-Sherburn episode are too obvious to neglect. What the circus scene does is to reverse the previous situation. The ringmaster can be equated with Sherburn, in that he seems to control life in the ring as Sherburn controlled the mob; Boggs is again drunk, but this time it is the feigned intoxication of a clown-athlete. The audience represents the townspeople, who are merely spectators at both events, as Huck is. The "drunk" pesters to be allowed to ride one of the circus horses, and the ringmaster finally, arrogantly, concedes. The "drunk" frantically attempts to remain astride the galloping horse as the audience howls with glee, and as the townspeople laughed at Boggs. But Huck does not share the crowd's feelings: "It warn't funny to me, though; I was all of a tremble to see his danger." The "drank," shedding layers of clothes, metamorphosizes into a handsome young acrobat to the chagrin of the ringmaster and the pleasure of Huck. The circus scene represents an attempt to check the arrogance of Sherburn, his indifference to both life and death, by checking the arrogance of his prototype, the ringmaster. This reversal of the earlier action is qualified by being set in a circus, a fantasy world. In reality on shore the possibility of metamorphosis does not exist, only the alternatives of Sherburn and Boggs, both equally unacceptable to Huck.
The next major episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals with the Duke and the Dauphin's attempt to steal Peter Wilks' estate from the lawful heirs. It is clear from this episode that Twain thinks death within the framework of civilization has been corrupted and that instead of giving meaning to life, it gives only opportunity for degradation and depravity. It blinds people to the truth, as it blinds Peter Wilks' family and friends to the true identities of the Duke and the Dauphin. For Huck the obsequities to the forms and rituals of death are as much pretense and sham as the Duke and the Dauphin's titles. He even describes the funeral piety in terms of acting; "It worked the crowd," "give the next woman a show." Huck's description of the funeral as an orgy is apt. "I never seen anything so disgusting," Huck concludes, as the Duke and the Dauphin act out their remorse above Peter Wilks' coffin. Huck's remark applies to his other encounters on shore with the phenomenon of death as well.
In Huckleberry Finn Twain seems to be saying that the vision, Huck's perspective, which can give life its full value is that vision which can give death its full value. Huck's encounters ashore with the Dark Angel illustrate the negation of these value possibilities when life and death are seen as opposite poles. Life ashore sees death cutting off life, while Huck is just as aware of death's life-giving possibilities, and as if to firmly underline this thesis Twain ends the novel with the Dark Angel giving life to Huck and Jim again. Jim is freed from his slave status by the Widow Douglas' deathbed gesture, while Huck is finally told that the corpse in the house of the dead was his father, freeing him from authority and reprisal. The pathos of Huckleberry Finn is that Huck's perspective is no longer possible for Mark Twain. It is an imaginative position at best. As Twain himself discovered in Life on the Mississippi, the river herself had been civilized.
In Roughing It, Twain describes what it felt like to be dying:
We were all sincere, and all deeply moved and earnest, for we were in the presence of death and without hope. I threw away my pipe, and in doing it felt that at last I was free of a hated vice and one that had ridden me like a tyrant all my days. While 1 yet talked, the thought of the good I might have done in the world, and the still greater good I might now do, with these new incentives and higher and better aims to guide me if I could only be spared a few years longer, overcame me and the tears came again. We put our arms about each other's necks and awaited the warning drowsiness that precedes death by freezing.
Of course this passage is suspect, placed as it is at the end of a chapter for the greatest possible comic effect—something like the tall-tale teller who ends his narrative by being consumed by the bear. But at least this passage does represent another perspective. The foreboding of the Dark Angel"s presence is expressed in terms of regret. He does not fear death, and in the world of Roughing It death was too frequent to be feared, but it still remains in opposition to life. The perspective is only a stance, and one which Twain shares with the Southwestern humorists. Hennig Cohen and William B. Dillingham, in their introduction to Humor of the Old Southwest, state that these men "sought through humor to reduce this fearful spectre (death) to less awful proportions . . . The reader is taken into a real-unreal place where suffering and ugliness and death do not clash with horseplay so much as they become part of it." It would be impossible to imagine Huck saying what the hero of Roughing It says. Huck would stay alive as long as he possibly could, not because he feared death, but because being alive he had no alternative except to live. He would not be deeply moved by the presence of death. For Huck, death has no presence, only life has presence.
Twain's later writings shift from the perspectives held by Huck and the personna-hero of Roughing It. In "Reflections on Religion" he believes that "the dead are the only human beings who are really well off . . ." and he says in his autobiography that his daughter Jean "has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts—that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor—death." The Twain who could write this way was a man who could no longer see the value of life. But his attitude toward death is not the romantic and sentimental vision of Emmaline Grangerford. There is no alternative to the disenchantment of the shore. Only Huck could "light out" for the better world because he hadn't been there. Twain had, and it was all the same.
Death becomes release from a life which is essentially dead—that is, dead to the possibilities of self-fulfillment, self-expression. "The Mysterious Stranger" attempts to reconcile the facts of life and death in dream. There is an awakening to a supraconsciousness that includes both life and death, but is beyond them. Huck's consciousness reconciles life and death in life.
Freudian psychology asserts that in dreams going away on a journey can be a symbolic form of dying. The journey motif is central to both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the incomplete manuscript, "The Great Dark." In "The Great Dark" the journey, which is literally to death, occurs within a dream framework.
The central figure in the manuscript, Mr. Edwards, "was thirty-five years old, and seemed ten years younger, for he was one of those fortunate people who by nature are overcharged with breezy spirits and vigorous health, and from whom cares and troubles slide off without making an impression." Mr. Edwards can be seen as Huck reborn at the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn; his wife's motherly solicitude makes him as young as his children. He is the innocent again, the naif, who must make a journey of discovery. Edwards' life suddenly begins anew on board ship in a way similar to Huck's rebirth on the river.
In the world of "The Great Dark," however, there are no shores. The ship sails in pitch darkness—the stars which Huck saw lying on his back in the bottom of the canoe have been extinguished. The Mississippi which Huck came to know has become a black and unfathomable expanse where all the laws of nature have been suspended. The garrulous mate, Turner, tells Edwards that the gulf stream has gone to the devil, and informs him surreptitiously, "Well, you spoke of tonight. It ain't tonight at all; it's just noon now."
The mate's astonishing revelations do not really frighten Edwards. He has the Superintendent of Dreams who he believes is controlling the world. His presence is a justification in Edwards' mind for the terrors of the great dark and for the suspension of nature's laws. Besides, Edwards cannot feel real terror in the nightmare which surrounds him because he does not think it is real. When the Superintendent asks Edwards, "Are you quite sure it [the nightmare voyage] is a dream?" Edwards' self-assurance is suddenly shaken: "It was as if he had hit me, it stunned me so. Still looking at me his lip curled into a mocking smile, and he wasted away like a mist and disappeared." And the Superintendent never reappears. The terrible phenomena of the great dark have to be accepted as reality and not as fantasy. This is an extension beyond the view offered in "The Mysterious Stranger" where the possibility of life as dream still existed.
The first book of "The Great Dark" establishes life at sea as the only life; the second book defines that life in images of death, the most nightmarish of which is the spider-squid. The image of death as a spider also appears in Huckleberry Finn in one of Emmeline Grangerford's unfinished paintings in which a young woman is represented with three sets of arms. But Emmeline has died before deciding which set of arms is best. Buck says that although the woman in the picture has a sweet face "there were so many arms it made her look too spidery, seemed to me." The inhabitants aboard ship in the great dark cannot romanticize death in the way Emmeline Grangerford was capable of doing. Here, too, as in the world of the feud, death is a way of life, but for Edwards, his wife, and his friends, no other possibility exists.
The ship becomes the house of the dead which comes floating down the Mississippi. Edwards, his wife, and family have their own apartment—"chairs and carpets and rugs and tables and lamps and books and everything lovely, and so warm and comfortable and homey; and the roomiest parlor . . . ever struck in a ship too."
All the possible perspectives toward death explored in Huckleberry Finn are denied to Edwards. Be cannot romanticize it as Emmeline Grangerford could—the spider-squid must be accepted on its own terms; and when the Superintendent of Dreams wisps away, the advantage of Sherburn-like assurance is denied Edwards. Even the captain, who must face the threats of the mutineers in a fashion similar to Sherburn's facing the lynch mob, no longer is able to command arrogance and superiority in the face of death. In "The Great Dark" life is seen as horror and death is seen as horror, and there is no possibility of viewing them as a unit with the magic potentialities of fulfillment as Buck does. For Edwards there is no reality beyond the nightmare.
The only human consciousness Twain had discovered that was strong enough to come to terms with death was Buck's. But Buck's perspective could only exist in a special world. Once the river dried up, as even the pitch-like waters of "The Great Dark" do, life is symbolically and literally denied. And when life cannot be understood, neither can the Dark Angel, death.
Wendy B. Paris
SOURCE: "1000 Words: Fiction Against Death," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 811-30.
[In the following essay, Faris investigates the modern use of narration as the postponement of death—culled from the tradition of The Thousand and One Nights—in the work of such writers as Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Vladimir Nabokov, and others. ]
When Scheherazade staves off her death for 1001 nights by telling a continuously enthralling chain of stories to her captor, the king, she dramatizes an intriguing aspect of all literary discourse: its capacity to simulate the postponement of human death through the prolongation of fictional life. For narrators and readers alike, the end of a text represents a small death of sorts; its postponement, continued life.1 Scheherazade's story has endured and continues to fascinate modern writers and theorists because it pictures the basic human desire to live on and on, but also because it is susceptible to varied and—as we shall see—often contrasting interpretations. After investigating some theoretical implications of Scheherazade's stance and her strategy, I will turn briefly to modern texts by Proust, Borges, Barth, Nabokov, and several others which illustrate in varying degrees and forms a resurgent interest in her story.
That Scheherazade's stance symbolizes fiction which postpones its own closure at first appears to contrast with, perhaps even to contradict, the idea that we crave "the sense of an ending" in life and in literature.2 According to Frank Kermode, one of the imagination's mercies is closure. I am tempted to counter that another of the imagination's mercies is the postponement of closure—especially when it is imagined as death—but the problem is more complicated than this, as Kermode recognizes. Man's desire for endings can be seen as a particular instance of his desire for form. The imposition of form on chaos may represent the affirmative power of life over the dissolving power of death. One might argue, with Kermode, that novels that postpone their endings must have a strong sense of closure to fight against in order to play this game. And Scheherazade's stories, which constitute the The Thousand and One Nights, would never have been told without her deathly sense of her ending, and that of her family. Nevertheless, I believe the paradigm of Arabian Nights (as it is most commonly known) does represent a narrative impulse that complements the one Kermode describes. Perhaps Scheherazade and her literary descendants provide a protest from inside fiction against necessary but nonetheless frightening endings. Scheherazadian narrators fight bravely, if uselessly, against the end which figures their own deaths.
This oscillation between ending and continuing, between apocalypse and renewal, appears in the very number 1001. In the context of Scheherazade's achievement, it stresses man's power to begin over and over again, to keep on narrating—or living—forever. Visually, too, the sign constitutes a symmetrical, self-reflecting, regenerative pattern. If one imagines a conceptual mirror between the two zeros in 1001, the number consists of a perpetual reflection of its two parts. Bruno Bettelheim maintains that "'thousand' in Arabic means 'innumerable,' so 1001 signifies an infinite number," and he notes that translators and compilers who worked on the tales often took the figure 1001 literally, adding tales to make up the count.3 Nevertheless, for western readers, the number 1001 perhaps represents not so much the indefinite notion of infinity as the moment of endless beginnings, the idea that there is always "one more," even when a millennial point has been reached. Scheherazade's own tale does end, but, as we shall see in a moment, it funnels into the new beginning of children.
Bettelheim interprets the frame tale of Arabian Nights as a parable for the integration of a personality. Because he wishes to study the "uses of enchantment," he emphasizes the therapeutic value of Scheherazade's tale. For Bettelheim, King Shahriyar and Scheherazade "meet in the great crises of their lives: the king disgusted with life and full of hatred of women; Scheherazade fearing for her life, but determined to achieve his and her deliverance" (p. 87). It seems to me that Bettelheim exaggerates a bit here. Scheherazade's crisis is not really her own; it is brought on by the king's disgust. His problem is psychological, while hers may be political. Nevertheless, a crisis it is. Scheherazade manages to restrain the king, the "uncontrolled id," from vengefully laying waste the kingdom only through telling a wide variety of fairy tales. (Man's psychological problems are too complex to be cured by single stories, according to Bettelheim; the necessary catharsis takes many.) Scheherazade symbolizes the ego, but an ego so dominated by superego and separated from the selfish id that it risks its own life to obey a moral obligation: she wishes to save the king's future victims from death. But as Bettelheim argues, Scheherazade's present strategy can only postpone her execution, not abolish it. She needs more than her single moral motivation to be fully successful: only when "superego (the wish to deliver 'the daughters of the Muslims from slaughter') and id (her love for the king, whom she now wishes to deliver from his hatred and depression) both endow the ego—has she become a fully integrated person. . . . As she declares her love for the king, he declares his for her" (p. 89).
Bettelheim's idea of Scheherazade's initial selflessness is strengthened by Emmanuel Cosquin's early historical study of the frame tale of Arabian Nights.4 Cosquin claims that the primary motive for Scheherazade's actions is saving her father, the Vizir, from the king's anger when the supply of virgins runs out: Scheherazade's narration thus holds off not only death but unjust vengeance; it overcomes absolute power. The narrative voice that wishes never to stop speaks not only against its own death but against the deaths of its father, sisters, future husband—and readers. It stresses the communal nature of the narrative act.
Tzvetan Todorov would presumably disapprove of these psychological interpretations of Scheherazade's story: for him The Thousand and One Nights "can be considered as a limit-case of literary a-psychologism," a refutation of the idea that character and action are inevitably linked in fiction and that action serves the primary function of revealing personality.5 In a narrative like Arabian Nights, according to Todorov, all character traits are immediately causal. In Sinbad's story, for example, we learn no more of his character than is necessary to provoke his actions: "Sinbad likes to travel (character trait) Sinbad takes a trip (action): the distance between the two tends toward a total reduction" (p. 68). Todorov illustrates his own theory by proceeding immediately to Scheherazade's stories—her verbal action—without discussing her character or situation. In The Thousand and One Nights itself, just after we learn that Scheherazade is clever, she begins to tell the tales, and for the rest of the book, they, not she, hold our interest. Her artistic vocation—her "speech-act," as Todorov terms it—stems less from her character than from her situation, which is in turn caused by the actions of others: "The speech-act receives, in the Arabian Nights, an interpretation which leaves no further doubt as to its importance. If all the characters incessantly tell stories, it is because this action has received a supreme consecration: narrating equals living . . ." (p. 74). Scheherazade must narrate to avoid death, not to "express herself."
In discussing both Arabian Nights and the works it has inspired, it will be useful for us to keep in mind both Bettelheim's psychological interpretation and Todorov's "a-psychologism." Indeed, as I've suggested earlier, this interaction of contrasting interpretations may help explain the continuing popularity of the tales. Todorov's attention to formal causal action and his consequent elucidation of fictional structure points toward a consideration of the particular narrative strategies used by Scheherazade and her successors. But Bettelheim's focus reminds us that it is also essential to consider the emotional force that underlies these strategies in Arabian Nights and in its modern descendants. Scheherazade's tales insistently impel the reader forward, away from the teller, to another tale; yet sometimes it is rewarding—and moving—to reflect the whole tale backwards onto the teller, as a measure of his—or, in this case, her—need.
Roland Barthes provides a slightly different view of The Thousand and One Nights when he locates narrative, and particularly Scheherazade's stories, in the realm of "exchange." According to Barthes, "narrative (as an anthropological activity) is founded on some kind of exchange: a narrative is given, is received, is structured for (or against) something, of which it is in some sense the counterweight. . . . In The Thousand and One Nights each new story buys a day of survival for Scheherazade. . . . The narrative recounts the contract of which it is the stake."6 Barthes compares Scheherazade's bargain with that of the storyteller in Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom. The latter makes an agreement with a group of libertines that if she will entertain them with stories, they will never harm her, no matter what they do to other women. It is true, as Barthes claims, that Scheherazade is in a similar situation. But unlike Sade's storyteller, she never has an explicit bargain. She must rely on the force of her narrative to stay alive; her implicit "contract" must be renegotiated each night.
Besides presenting Scheherazade as the archetypal narrator, narrating for her life, Arabian Nights contains various textual strategies for the prolongation of fictional life, strategies which reiterate stylistically the situation of Scheherazade and prefigure numerous modern literary conventions. Of course, any narrative employs numerous techniques to keep itself going, and the incentive to keep on narrating can be applied to storytelling of all kinds; this explains in part Scheherazade's continuing position at the center of literary tradition. Some form of embedding, some "Chinese box" structure, is probably the most striking Scheherazadian technique. The end of narration is postponed by stories within stories within stories that may lead forever onward, changing their narrators. This structure may contain an example of mise-en-abyme (a miniature portrait of a narrative within itself) noted by André Gide, though Gide's original idea does not necessarily imply repetition ad infinitum.7 Narration may also, of course, be puffed up, drawn out, by extensive repetition of words or scenes, or by the inclusion of unusually large quantities of intertextual allusions. Or the finality of a fictional ending may be postponed by a circular structure of one kind or another. The presence of theories of cyclical time achieves conceptually a similar effect. This circular form characterizes The Thousand and One Nights as a whole, for it begins and ends with Scheherazade, but it does not describe the story of Scheherazade herself. Her story ends with an exit to the world that includes death. Though she has provided the model for (an albeit feverish) immortality of sorts, Scheherazade accepts her own mortal status gladly in the end and lives happily with her husband until they are visited by "the Destroyer of delights and the Severer of societies."8 On the other hand, the cycles of the natural world affirm her continuity, holding the promise of ongoing life through her children at the end of the story.
Because Scheherazade has become a powerful sign of the storyteller—of either sex—discussion of her specifically feminine qualities is rare.9 It is an essential point, however, that within the story of Arabian Nights, Scheherazade redeems the honor of her sex. The reason that King Shahriyar sleeps each night with a virgin and has her beheaded in the morning is that he and his brother have discovered that many women—including their own wives—are unfaithful. During her three years of storytelling, Scheherazade is presumably faithful to the king. But more than just faithful, Scheherazade is clever; her victory over the king not only redeems women, it also achieves a kind of revenge on men like him who wish to punish women for insubordination. Outside her own story, Scheherazade serves a similar corrective function by standing in contrast to Belladonna, or the fatal lover. If sex is a death game which the king plays, then fabulation in this case counteracts it; and when combined with sex, it is a source of renewal rather than revenge, for Scheherazade's children by Shahriyar have grown up parallel with her narrative. They are not a substitute for literary creativity; rather, they confirm the life-sustaining powers demonstrated by Scheherazade's narration. They also, of course, link her substantively, indissolubly, with her "reader"—or listener—King Shahriyar. Viewed in this context, the structure of her tale is like a genealogical chart: from one unit is born another. And it is just such a chart, a royal one, to which she contributes with her children. The old metaphor of the male poet coupling with the female muse to produce the word-child undergoes a reversal of sorts. Here the inspirational force, the muse, is death; Scheherazade confronts death, couples with the king who represents this threat, and produces her stories and her children.
Robert Alter maintains that self-conscious novels often prove to be long meditations on death. The writer's mortality receives more explicit scrutiny in texts where he or a surrogate appears. Alter suggests that a consideration of death in the novel might therefore be instructive. Such a study could investigate "how the novel manages to put us in touch with the impossible implications of human mortality through the very celebration of life implicit in the building of vivid and various fictions."10 The narrative impulse behind The Thousand and One Nights fits Alter's idea of mortality's presence as seen through the building of fiction: Scheherazade's continuing presence in texts by Proust, Borges, Barth, and Nabokov records the urge to fight against death, or at least to postpone it, with narrative itself.
Proust's Marcel is possibly the most eminent modern admirer—and imitator—of Scheherazade. His fondness for Arabian Nights is well known; he mentions it over and over again throughout Remembrance of Things Past. Most significantly, of course, near the end of Time Regained he directly compares his own work to The Nights. In doing so, he first points up only the most superficial similarity between the two texts—their great lengths. He finally acknowledges, however, a kind of subconscious current of continuity:
. . . And I should live in the anxiety of not knowing whether the master of my destiny might not prove less indulgent than the Sultan Shahriyar, whether in the morning, when I broke off my story, he would consent to a further reprieve and permit me to resume my narrative the following evening. Not that I had the slightest pretension to be writing a new version, in any way, of the Thousand and One Nights. . . . But . . . you can make a new version of what you love only by first renouncing it. So my book, though it might be as long as the Thousand and One Nights, would be entirely different. . . . And only if you faithfully follow this truth will you sometimes find that you have stumbled again upon what you renounced, find that, by forgetting these works themselves, you have written the Thousand and One Nights or the Memoirs of Saint-Simon of another age. But for me was there still time? Was it not too late?11"
This passage is embedded in thoughts of death. It is as if the pages Marcel writes must force their way through the idea of death, putting off its takeover of his system. He invokes the powerful precedent of The Nights and Scheherazade's earlier success in postponing death as an antidote to the mortal weakness he feels ereeping through him and also, perhaps, to stave off with words the deaths of his grandmother, his mother, Albertine. (Has not Scheherazade saved an entire female population with her fictions?12) The allusions might also indicate a desire for narrative life to continue on and on like Scheherazade's stories.13 That this reference appears near the end of the novel heightens Marcel's sense of urgency, his fear of not finishing; but it also suggests his fear of finishing—and reinforces our sense that he keeps himself alive by continuing to write.
Throughout the novel, Marcel's narrative means of drawing out instants of involuntary memory prolongs their time-killing effect.14 Georges Poulet argues that Marcel's use of memory to structure his work serves principally to bolster a fragile self, to affirm continuity in the face of dissolution and death.15 By establishing the continuity of his past and present selves, Marcel can also believe in his future. This is Why the tales in Arabian Nights make such appropriate bedtime stories; in fact, it is one of the favorite bedside books in Remembrance of Things Past. A child always wishes bedtime stories to continue forever, to postpone endlessly the approach of darkness and sleep—clear, if unconscious, analogues for death. Marcel's fear of death, like Scheherazade's, is associated with the nighttime embrace, and his fear, like hers, motivates an ingenious narrative strategy: a story within a story. Marcel feels as if he will die unless his mother comes upstairs to him. Before he "buries himself" in his bed, however, he decides to write her a note summoning her upstairs for something too important to put into writing. But the chain of invention goes beyond this initial tale. In order to get his grand aunt's servant, Françoise, to take the note to his mother, Marcel must invent a story: he says that his mother has requested that he 1er her know about a missing object, and he claims that she will be angry if she's not informed via the note.
Just after this episode in Swann's Way, the "petite madeleine" scene provides a seminal revelation that will eventually culminate in Marcel's assumption of his role as narrator: like the bedtime scene it is also preceded by the presence of death. Marcel explains that so far he had only evoked Combray through his voluntary memory:
. . . To me it was in reality all dead.
Permanently dead? Very possibly.
There is a large element of chance in these matters, and a second chance occurrence, that of our own death, often prevents us from awaiting for any length of time the favours of the first. (1, 47)
The repetition of the word dead in an incomplete sentence, unusual in Proust, makes it seem almost as if death has cut the narrative impulse temporarily short in those two minimal phrases comprising a scant paragraph. He goes on to explain that he thinks there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that "the souls of those whom we have lost" are captive in trees or animals until we chance to pass by and release them. Marcel is, of course, not literally threatened by death here. The idea appears indirectly. He speaks of "our own death" as a second hazard that further endangers the incomplete resurrection of the past. But in a sense the impersonal expression "the souls of those whom we have lost" makes it possible to include Marcel in their ranks: the same verb tressaillir ("tremble") describes both their reawakening from death and Marcel's shuddering sensation when the crumbs of tea-soaked madeleine reawaken his past and point towards the future narration that seems to prolong his life.
At the very end of Swann 's Way, a remembered scene in the Bois de Boulogne progressively loses life until Marcel cries, ". . . and houses, roads, avenues, are as fugitive, alas, as the years." In a sense, the past dies, and with it the self, as the narration comes to an end, though in this particular case it is only a temporary end. One of the attractions of a many-volume work like Proust's is perhaps the sense of survival that each new volume permits.
The most striking similarity between the work of Jorge Luis Borges and The Thousand and One Nights, which he, like Proust in his time, has long admired, is the technique of récits enchassés, or Chinese box stories.16 Borges' stories, unlike Scheherazade's (and Proust's), are generally very short, so that the technique postpones endings in a metaphorical rather than a structural sense. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," for example, contains several layers or boxes: the "I" of the narrator finds in a particular set of encyclopedias an article on the land of Uqbar, whose literature of fantasy in turn mentions the imaginary region of Tlön. Two years later he comes upon a volume of the first encyclopedia of Tlön, which, interestingly enough, has 1001 pages, and from which we learn about Tlön's philosophical and linguistic systems. These two boxes are finally encased in a third, for Borges adds a postscript which recounts another "intrusion" of Tlön into our world and further delays the end of the story. Postscripts are perhaps the most frequent of Borges' frames, but other stories are framed in other ways. The text of "The Garden of Forking Paths" is introduced by a reference in a history of the First World War and constitutes the statement of Dr. Yu Tsun as reported by another narrator. "The Immortal" is introduced as a manuscript inserted in a volume of Pope's translation of the Iliad and succeeded by a postscript describing various reactions to it. The short story of "The Two Kings and Their Two Labyrinths" is embedded in the longer story of "Abenjacán el Bojarí," which precedes it.
Another common element in Borges' stories is the final death of the narrator; this is, of course, one reason for the postscripts. In "The Secret Miracle," Jaromir Hladik is miraculously granted a year's time to finish his play in the moments before he is killed by a firing squad. The story seems to dramatize the uncanny sense we often have that a narrator's death at the end of a text has been postponed by the very force of his desire to keep on narrating. A different kind of postponement occurs in pieces where a Borges figure speaks of himself. This 1/ Borges practices an infinite regression into the self. The famous ending of "Borges and I" describes this retreat from the deathlike immobility of definition: "Years ago I tried to free myself from him [Borges] and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him."17
Besides these implicit similarities to Arabian Nights and Borges' numerous references to it throughout his works, Borges renders explicit homage to The Nights in two recent poetic works. "Metaphors of the Thousand and One Nights," is filled with such elements as Sinbad, the genie, and the queen—to which Borges adds images to describe Scheherazade's tale (including a map of time and his "own" symbol, a labyrinth) that serve to expand The Nights into a metaphor of temporal and spatial infinity. His one-word sentence—"Todo." ("Everything.")—signals this comprehensiveness. Borges' poem is a tribute to the richness of Arabian Nights as a storehouse of images for later literature, and like its subject it has a progressive structure in which one unit springs from the last. Moreover, as in his essay "Partial Magic in the Quixote,"18 Borges proposes that Scheherazade, on the six hundred and second night, tells her own story, which necessitates the infinite retelling of all of the tales she has told the king.
"The Book is in the book. Without knowing it,
The queen tells the king the already forgotten
Story of them both."
The poem ends:
The arabs say that no one can
Read to the end of the Book of Nights,
The Nights are Time, which never sleeps.
Keep reading as the day dies
And Scheherazade will tell you your story.19
The text, in contrast to the day that dies, continues into the reader's life and proves the Arabs correct: the poem might be considered an imaginary prologue to The Nights in which the reader, like the king, will find one of the series of stories to be his own.
Borges' one-page parable "Someone" evokes a distinguished literary ancestor by describing the imaginary composition of The Thousand and One Nights in a nostalgically elegiac tone. In a dusty plaza, at the center of a circle of listeners, "The man talks and gesticulates. He doesn't know (others will) that he belongs to the lineage of the confabulatores nocturni, to the nighttime rhapsodizers, which Doublehorned Alexander assembled as consolation in his sleeplessness. He thinks he's speaking to a few people for a few coins and in a lost yesterday he weaves the Book of the Thousand and One Nights."20 One thinks immediately of Funes the Memorious (whose endless interwoven memories resemble Arabian Nights and whom we meet at night) and also of Borges, now blind, himself a perpetual confabulator nocturni.
Over twenty years before these two works, Borges devoted an uncharacteristically long essay to "The Translators of the 1001 Nights." Consideration of its translation fits one more box around the story composed of many boxes. Borges goes even further in this direction, for he inserts the first translators he discusses into a serial structure that resembles Arabian Nights itself: "Lane translated against Galland, Burton against Lane; in order to understand Burton one must understand that hostile dynasty."21 Here it is not Scheherazade who keeps herself alive by storytelling, but her translators, who wish to obliterate their predecessors so that they can live on through their own translations.
At the end of the essay, after discussing the relative merits of the various translations, Borges suggests additional reasons for his fascination with the tales which tie his own tales to Scheherazade's. First, history and fantasy are inextricably mixed: "When the magical events ran out, the scribes had to fall back on historical or pious bits of information, whose inclusion seemed to sanction the good faith of the rest. In the same volume the ruby that ascended to heaven coexists with the first description of Sumatra" (p. 132). Then Borges points to the six hundred and second night when Shahriyar hears his own story from the queen: like the frame tale, one story contains others. Finally, Borges describes the encased tales in The Nights as seeming more concrete than the ones they grow out of, antechambers confused with mirrors, masks behind faces, until "no one knows which is the real man and which his idols" (p. 133). Now we sense that we have passed from an account of Arabian Nights to a description of the Borgesian works it has engendered. Borges' tales prolong Scheherazade's series.
John Barth provides the most explicit rewriting of The Thousand and One Nights in his novella Duny azadiad. Here he suggests that the relationship between writer and reader assures that every narrator's life hangs figuratively on his powers of narrative invention as surely as Scheherazade's hangs literally on hers. In his essay "Muse, Spare Me," Barth comments on the affinity that he feels for Scheherazade, her narrative position and procedures: "The whole frame of those thousand nights and a night speaks to my heart, directly and intimately—and in many ways at once, personal and technical."22 Barth continues in the tradition of The Nights by creating multiple frames for his fictional text.23 His principal innovation is to dwell on comparisons between erotic and narrative activities—perhaps his individual strategy for avoiding death in the commercial literary world.
In the Dunyazadiad, the story of Scheherazade is told by her younger sister Dunyazade, after which an omniscient narrator tells the story of Dunyazade herself. Dunyazade's account of her sister's activities includes a figure she calls the genie, an obvious analogue for Barth himself, who appears to Scheherazade in her hour of need. His presence adds to the original frame tale yet another frame—from the inside, so to speak—that turns out to suggest an infinite regression of frames. This genie as an archetypal department-of-English narrator (bespectacled, balding, continually struggling to produce a worthy addition to the world's store of literature), temporarily usurps the function of Scheherazade: he tells her the tales she will tell the king. But the genie, in turn, remembers these tales from his copy of Arabian Nights, whose existence this Scheherazade in this story apparently ignores. So we ask ourselves, who "really" came first, the genie or Scheherazade? And since the chicken-and-egg question reverberates infinitely, the origin of the narrative oscillates dizzily between the two figures, between ancient and modern stories, implicitly questioning the origin of narration per se. (As Todorov has pointed out, The Thousand and One Nights itself posits no true beginning for its storytelling, since it starts with the words "it is told" [p. 78].) As if to suggest the continuing nature of all narrative experience, the Dunyazadiad begins in medias res.
The generalized narrator figure of the genie wishes to participate in the ancient and seminal literary scene of Arabian Nights, to adopt Scheherazade's powerful narrative stance and return reinforced to his own worktable. He inserts himself in the origins he admires, couples intellectually, imaginatively, with Scheherazade as his muse, saying that "he desired her only as the old Greek poets their Muse, as a source of inspiration."24 The Scheherazadian need to oppose death with fiction also appears in the story of Dunyazade and Shahzaman, King Shahriyar's brother, which follows the tale of Scheherazade. The machinations that lead up to this scene are too complicated to summarize here (they are delightfully ingenious, in true "Arabian" fashion); but finally, to gain the trust—and the love—of Dunyazade, Shahzaman lets her hold a razor blade ready to castrate him, and says: "All I ask is leave to tell you a story, in exchange for the one you've told me; when I'm finished you may do as you please" (p. 49). He lends force to his narrative by duplicating the scene where fear of death motivates the narrator—and perhaps softens the listener.
Shahzaman's strategy works, partly because he persuades Dunyazade to believe in the "philosophy of as if," central to both the art of storytelling and the art of love. As if— the sign of the storyteller—is the genie and Scheherazade's favorite expression, too; they even apply it to the equation between narrative and sexual art:
. . . they seemed to mean that writing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally ways of making love. Whether this was in fact the case, neither [the genie] nor Sherry cared at all; yet they liked to speak as if it were (their favorite words), and accounted thereby for the similarity between conventional dramatic structure—its exposition, rising action, climax, and dénouement—and the rhythm of sexual intercourse from foreplay through coitus to orgasm and release. Therefore also, they believed, the popularity of love . . . as a theme for narrative. (pp. 32-33)
Here, as always in a discussion of Arabian Nights and its descendants, thematic and structural concerns merge: loving and storytelling are interdependent. Discussion of two famous examples, the Odyssey and the Decameron—the first largely told in bed, the second "a kind of substitute for making love"—confirms the idea; repeated comparisons between love- and story-making invest the narrative process with sexual energy, and vice versa. Both are then, of course, increasingly powerful weapons against death. Cleverly polivalent phrases like "passionate virtuosity" and "narrative inexhaustibility or profligacy" cement the connection between narrating and loving. "Narrative, in short," the genie and Scheherazade agree, "was a love-relation, not a rape: its success depended upon the reader's consent and cooperation, which she could withhold or at any moment withdraw; also upon her own combination of experience and talent for enterprise, and the author's ability to arouse, sustain, and satisfy her interest . . ." (p. 34). In the original tale, the reciprocal nature of narrative is indicated by the king's insomnia: he has something to gain from Scheherazade's storytelling.
The Dunyazadiad illustrates a central point in Barth's well-known essay on "The Literature of Exhaustion."25 Just as Shahriyar and his brother Shahzaman are disenchanted with the repetitiously unfaithful conduct of women, so Barth and his double, the genie in the Dunyazadiad, claim to be disenchanted with the repetitive and exhausted nature of narrative. If there's nothing new to say, nor any new ways of saying it, why not be quiet. But for a writer to fall silent is almost to die, so that narration—of any sort—means continued life. Barth suggests in his essay that the solution to the problem of "exhausted" literature is to write about the problem. The magic sentence in the Dunyazadiad with which Scheherazade inadvertently summons the genie dramatizes this idea. Scheherazade has been trying to imagine which story will change the king's mind and save everyone, just as exhausted writers have been trying to imagine a new subject, style, or point of view. When "Sherry" says, "It's as if—as if the key to the treasure is the treasure," the genie appears (p. 16). We realize that it is not the content of a particular story that will save her, but storytelling itself, the structure of the narrative, especially the kind of endless narrative that glorifies invention and is nourished by love—the mutual trust of teller and listener.
Just as the relationship between teller and listener, or writer and reader, is reciprocal, so too the resolution of Scheherazade and the genie's modern narrative problems requires a similar cooperation. No narrative can exist alone. Literary discourse is a communal enterprise and asks that we recognize the interdependence of ancient and modern texts. Scheherazade suggests her implicit awareness of this literary communality early on, when she claims that the only stories she knows are the ones she tells Dunyazade at bedtime—"the ones that everybody tells" (p. 20). Similarly, the genie says that he has "gone forward by going back, to the very roots and springs of story. Like Scheherazade herself, he has used materials received from narrative antiquity and methods older than the alphabet for entirely present ends; in the time since Sherry's defloration he had set down twothirds of a projected series of three novellas" (p. 36). These are, of course, the ones we are reading. Like the king and Scheherazade, we see ourselves in the tale. The Dunyazadiad ends with Scheherazade) and the genie's magic sentence, as if to conjure up another storyteller and deny once again the deathlike ending of narrative.
The first chapter of Barth's novel The Floating Opera ("Tuning My Piano") forms an interesting postscript to this discussion. Here the narrator, Todd Andrews, claims that he will have a hard time getting started in his role as narrator. So he seems not to fit my paradigm of narrators desperate to save themselves from extinction by telling endless stories. But Todd also says that "I know enough about myself to realize that once the ice is broken and the ink is flowing, the pages will follow all too easily, for I'm not naturally a reticent fellow, and the problem will be to stick to the story, and finally to shut myself up."26 Already we can see Todd oscillating-between two opposing tendencies—one, never to start narrating, and the other, never to stop: between fictional death and fictional life. This opposition is suggested by Todd's very name, as he himself points out: "Tod is death, and this book hasn't much to do with death; Todd is almost Tod—that is, almost death—and this book, if it gets written, has very much to do with almost-death" (p. 9). Todd has the subject matter of his novel in mind here, but I would argue that, in a larger context, his discussion suggests the life and death aspects of all narration. This book, precisely because it may not even get started, has to do with "almost death" for its narrator.
Just before this last passage, Todd reveals his Scheherazade-like tendencies: "Every new sentence I set down is full of figures and implications that I'd love nothing better than to chase to their dens with you, but such chasing would involve new figures and new chases, so that I'm sure we'd never get the story started, much less ended, if I let my inclinations run unleashed" (pp. 8-9). Todd makes several comments about trying to get on with less digressions, but is not really successful in doing it. Digressions are healthy signs of life in Scheherazadian narrators. From their point of view, "Everything, I'm afraid, is significant, and nothing is finally important" (p. 12). He decides to "stick to the facts," and not comment. That way, he may digress, but at least he will have some hope of reaching the end: "and when I lapse from grace, I shall at any rate be able to congratulate myself on my excellent intentions" (p. 13). And so it goes: back and forth, back and forth. He must reach the end without digressions but he won't be able to resist digressions. "Now watch," he says, "how I can move when I really care to." He doesn't really care to, however, since in his capacity as narrator this sort of movement only draws him nearer to the end, and to death. Significantly, Todd combines the constant presence of death in his life with a reference to his writing. His chronic heart trouble means that "someday, any day, I may fall quickly dead, without any warning—perhaps before I complete this sentence . .. " (p. 11). We venture to hope that, somehow, the flow of his sentence will assure the continued beating of his heart. We learn in Barth's most recent work, Letters (1979), that Todd has, in fact, continued to write, continued to live. Barth postpones the end of his character's narration and so postpones the end of his own as well.
I have saved Nabokov until last because Ada contrasts so markedly with the Dunyazadiad. Whereas Barth explicitly retells the story of The Thousand and One Nights and suggests that Scheherazade is the very model of the modern narrator, Nabokov mentions The Nights only obliquely. In Ada the implications for narrative theory are indirect, yet the text insistently adopts Scheherazade's stance, for it constitutes a masterful artifice of postponement. It can thus serve as a bridge between Proust, Borges, and Barth, who invoke Scheherazade overtly, and a number of other texts that illustrate the paradigm of Arabian Nights though they do not allude to it specifically.
Ada is a story of gaps, of continually displaced desire-hence part of its erotic charm. Van and Ada meet first as children and conduct hurried trysts in gardens and palatial country houses throughout their youth, but Ada marries someone else, and so the full satisfaction of their mutual desire is endlessly delayed.27 The love story consists of moments snatched here and there. Near the end of the novel, after the death of Ada's husband, when she and Van are finally about to meet for a good long rendezvous at a Swiss hotel, the strategy of delayed satisfaction reaches a peak of marvelously comic exaggeration. After an intimate dinner for two, when Van tells Ada fondly that they have their old rooms back, plus, significantly, an extra bedroom, Ada announces that she has bad news for him: she must return to Geneva "to retrieve my things and maids" from customs.28 Van is left that night to cool his "ardor" alone, by writing (of course). Ada comes back to the hotel in the middle of the night, and they reunite joyfully the next morning. The delay (besides keeping the reader waiting) has permitted Van to finish his work on "The Texture of Time." Indeed, it is almost as if satisfied desire signals a kind of death (deflection of the energy to write?), for "a little later" that morning (presumably after their lovemaking), "Van . . . was kissing her dear cold hands, gratefully, gratefully, in full defiance of death" (p. 427).
Before this encounter, when Van is waiting for Ada, we overhear parts of "The Texture of Time" as Van composes it. At first, Van's purpose appears to be to describe (yet again—there are references to Bergson and Proust) the nature of time. He does touch on various theoretical concerns—time and space, relativity, the past, present, and future. But, more significantly, Van has couched his study of time in amorous terms. It forms an integral part of his love for Ada. He begins by saying that "I wish to caress Time." He wants to measure "the Tender Interval," to extract time "from its soft hollow." In writing about time with sensual words, he conquers time by having his love assimilate it.29 Van's description of his literary project also describes Ada itself. Very near the end, he applies to himself the kind of countdown that readers experience as they finger the few pages left in a book, pages that announce the imminent fictional end of the characters and of reading. Van tries to sleep "on one side only, so as not to hear his heart: he had made the mistake one night in 1920 of calculating the maximal number of its remaining beats (allowing for another half-century), and now the preposterous hurry of the countdown irritated him and increased the rate at which he could hear himself dying" (p. 430). Like Proust, then, to counteract this sense of personal death, Van uses time against itself in his work. At the end of Part Four, which contains passages from "The Texture of Time," time remains undefined, except in amorous terms. Ada wonders whether it is worthwhile attempting such a definition, and the part ends with her words: "We can never know Time. Our senses are simply not meant to perceive it. It is like—" (p. 427). Van and Ada's love prevails—its end, like that of the openended novel that contains it, repeatedly postponed.
A final postponement/perpetuation of "Vaniada" is fore-told just before it occurs: "One can even surmise that if our time-racked, flat-lying couple ever intended to die they would die, as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb" (p. 443). This is just what does happen: Van and Ada die into the finished book, into fictional life; the remaining pages of Ada do contain just this "blurb." After cliché-ridden summaries, the puff ends with a promise that the book also contains "much, much more." The final change of voice constitutes the narrator's metamorphosis into a generalized literary voice—the book reviewer, a comically reduced and reductive yet still eternal reader.
A specific reference to Arabian Nights is woven into a love scene between Van and Ada: "on a willow islet amidst the quietest branch of the blue Ladore," Van says:
"Now I'm Scheher, . . . and you are his Ada, and that's your green prayer carpet."
Their visits to that islet remained engraved in the memory of that summer with entwinements that no longer could be untangled. (p. 167)
Their "entwinements" of memory recall the complications of Scheherazade's narrative and its descendants, and they too are strengthened by embraces. In the phrase Van utters on the islet, we witness the merging of Van and Ada into "Scheher-his-Ada," into "Vaniada," a cooperative narrating voice similar to Barth's combination of the genie and Scheherazade. In Ada, Van narrates, but Ada reads and annotates, as we do. Together they constitute a replica of Scheherazade, delaying the end of their desire, their book, and their lives. At the end of this chapter, the aging Van makes an addition to his earlier text concerning Ada's identity. As he thus lengthens his narrative, he admits that "I am weak. I write badly. I may die tonight. My magic carpet no longer skims over crown canopies and gaping nestlings, and her rarest orchids. Insert" (p. 170). As with Marcel, Jaromir Hladik, Todd Andrews, and Scheherazade, the reader senses that his storytelling is keeping him alive.
The list of strategies for postponing fictional death in modern literature and of texts that incorporate them seems, appropriately enough, to be almost endless. Several of Faulkner's narrators—Addie Bundren, Quentin Compson, Rosa Coldfield—project the sense that they are somehow staving off death and dissolution by telling their stories. Their descendants in The Death of Artemio Cruz, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Obscene Bird of Night do the same. The frantic narrator of Death on the Installment Plan fights with words against the sure approach of death in the title. He emits them so fast they are punctuated primarily by ellipses, as if his world would cave in on him were he ever to stop talking. Likewise, as Barbara Hardy points out, many of Beckett's characters seem to "narrate for dear life."30 Earlier in the century, the dialogues between Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain take on a similar urgency, though in an entirely different mode. The narrative on the mountain owes part of its magic to the presence of death it fights against. More recently, the narrator of Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth postpones the end of his text with numerous repetitions of scenes and details before his final, disillusioned exit from the stage. There, particularly, the reader confronts what seems like a pure desire to narrate, and perhaps all that keeps him going is his pure desire to read.
Carlos Fuentes has recently called Finnegans Wake a "scheheracharade"; the term can extend to the self-generative tendency of much modern fiction that, like Finnegans Wake, prolongs itself through extensive word-play: "Through puns, Joyce destroys one word so that another or several more are born from the ruins of the mangled term. So in its very definition Finnegans Wake is a Scheheracharade, a vicoclometer, a collidoscope or kaleidoscope of collisions, a multiformograph and a meanderthal, a story of meanders, a valley of labyrinths."31 In Finnegans Wake narration can perhaps be imagined to have gone beyond death and emerged on the other side; even death has not stopped the force of words.
In Gide's The Counterfeiters, when we look over Bernard's shoulder as he reads Edouard's diary (which includes among other things Laura's letter and the plans for Edouard's novel), we re-create the embedded structure of Scheherazade's tale, though here the pattern lacks some of the urgency of her story and plays on the idea of bad faith—counterfeiting—involved in narrative invention. It is almost a voyeuristic rather than a lifesaving endeavor. Here, as in The Thousand and One Nights, it is clear what is the frame and what the tale, though the reader may forget a given tale's frame when he is in the midst of it. This clarity often disappears in the Chinese box technique of Scheherazade's more recent descendants. As we have seen in Barth's retelling of The Nights, the end of a series of boxes may be indefinitely postponed by the oscillation between "pictures" and "frame," This is the case in Nabokov's Pale Fire also: has Shade invented Kinbote—or Kinbote, Shade?
Perhaps Julio Cortázar achieves the ultimate postponent of narrative death in his novel Hopscotch. There the fearful sentence of individual and narrative death ("bang, it's over") is commuted indefinitely by directions to go on to another set of chapters, the last two of which contain directions that lead to one another and back again ad infinitum. A cheap trick, perhaps, but one that Scheherazade might not scorn to use, for wouldn't she agree that all's fair in fiction's war with death?
1 Steven Cohan deals with some of these same issues in an excellent article, "Narrative Form and Death: The Mill on the Floss and Mrs. Dalloway," Genre, 11 (Spring 1978), 109-29.
2 See Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966).
3 Bruno Bettelheim, "The Frame Story of Thousand and One Nights," in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Knopf, 1976), p. 87.
4 Emmanuel Cosquin, "Le Prologue-cadre des Mille et une nuits," in Etudes Folkloriques (Paris: Champion, 1922), pp. 264-347,
5 Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), p. 67.
6 Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Paris: Seuil, 1971), p. 165.
7 André Gide, Journal: 1889-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 41.
8The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, trans. Richard F. Burton (New York: Heritage Press, 1934), p. 3641.
9 An exception to this critical lack is Judith Grossman, "Infidelity and Fiction: The Discovery of Women's Subjectivity in Arabian Nights," The Georgia Review, 34 (Spring 1980), 113-26.
10 Robert Alter, Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975), pp. 243-44.
11 Marcel Proust, Time Regained, trans. Andreas Mayor, in Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1981), III, 1101-2. All subsequent Proust citations are to this edition.
12 See Michel Butor, Les Sept Femmes de Gilbert le Mauvais (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1972), p. 45, in which Butor imagines Marcel in terms of both Shahriyar, compelled to kill off the women he loves, and Scheherazade, attempting to save by narration the female population of his world.
13 Leo Bersani discusses Marcel's strategies for maintaining an open-ended personality in "Proust and the Art of Incompletion," in Aspects of Narrative: Selected Papers from the English Institute, ed. J. Hillis Miller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 119-42.
14 Leo Spitzer discusses many ways in which Proust retards the ending points of his sentences, as he does the end point of the novel, in "Le Style de Marcel Proust," in his Etudes de style (Paris: Gallimard, 1970). See also Susan Suleiman, "The Parenthetical Function in A la recherche du temps perdu," PMLA, 92 (1977), 458-70.
15 Georges Poulet, "Proust and Human Time," in Proust: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Réné Girard (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1962), pp. 154-56.
16 Both Borges and Nabokov refer in formal autobiographical pieces to old family editions of Arabian Nights. For both of them, the encounter with the tales was a seminal experience and stands near the origin of their literary careers. See Jorge Luis Borges, "An Autobiographical Essay," in The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-69 (New York: Dutton, 1970), p. 209; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1951; rev. ed. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1966), p. 244.
17 Borges, Labyrinths, trans. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962). In "The Zahir," the Borges persona resists in similar fashion a final self-definition.
18 Borges, Labyrinths, pp. 193-96. Todorov cites this as a supreme example of literary embedding: "Nothing will ever again escape the narrative world, spreading over the whole of experience." The Poetics of Prose, p. 72.
19 Borges, "Metáforas de las mil y una noches" in Historia de la noche (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1977), pp. 21-23, my translation.
20 Borges, "Alguien," in Historia de la noche, p. 27, my translation.
21 Borges, "Los traductores de las 1001 noches," in Historia de la eternidad (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1953), p. 99, my translation.
22 "Muse, Spare Me," Book Week (26 September 1965; reprinted in The Sense of the Sixties, eds. Edward Quinn and Paul J. Dolan (New York: Free Press, 1968), pp. 440-44.
23 The Chinese box structure is common to many of Barth's tales. At one point in "Menelaiad," for example, dialogue is carried on from inside nests of up to seven sets of quotation marks. Punctuation like this constitutes a kind of shorthand, a sign, that refers to Scheherazade's stance. And as John O. Stark argues, "The reader, after he peels off all the layers of the onion, finds in the last layer only the impetus of storytelling," the vital impulse of fiction fighting death. See The Literature of Exhaustion (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1974), p. 121.
24 Barth, "Dunyazadiad," in Chimera (New York: Fawcett, 1973), p. 24.
25Atlantic Monthly (August 1967), pp. 28-35.
26 Barth, The Floating Opera (New York: Avon, 1967), p. 7.
27 Ellen Pifer stresses the inhuman, unearthly nature of Van and Ada's passion; in this, Nabokov continues the fairy-tale atmosphere of the original 1001 Nights; Nabokov and the Novel (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 132-57.
28 Vladimir Nabokov, Ada (New York: Fawcett, 1969), p. 423.
29 Nabokov has suggested that "both memory and imagination are a negation of time," and perhaps also of death; "An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov," by Alfred Appel, in Nabokov; The Man and His Work, ed. L. S. Dembo (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 32.
30Tellers and Listeners; The Narrative Imagination (London: Athlone Press, 1975), p. 167.
31 Carlos Fuentes, Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura (Mexico: Joaquín Mortiz, 1976), p. 107, my translation.
SOURCE: "The Self-Annihilating Artists of 'Pale Fire'," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1985, pp. 421-37.
[In the following essay, Galef equates Kinbote's retreat from reality and ultimate suicide in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire with the creation of his distorted and self-reflexive work of art.]
The self-reflexive quality of Nabokov's Pale Fire, a fictional creation governed by its fictional creator, applies not only to the structure but also to the characters. As a group, they are self-referential, appearing as shadows, twins, and inverted images of one another. Though one may assign a central position to Kinbote as the author or manipulator, the source of his art remains in question. Critical suggestions for tracing the real Kinbote are numerous: Kinbote as a merging of Shade's artistic vision and Gradus' urge toward destruction; Kinbote as Shade's aggrandizer, with Gradus as foreshadowed doom.1 In the scholarly scuffle, not enough attention has been paid to a humbler figure, the character of Hazel Shade, the poet's daughter who commits suicide. Hazel functions as an interpretive key, revealing much about Kinbote and his grand extrapolation. In her cameo role, she represents the book's confabulation in miniature, the mixed success of art and annihilation.
As a character, Hazel appears only as a shadow across the work, an evoked memory. Though Shade never mentions his daughter's name in the cantos, her name is significant and provides a literary reference, a line from Scott's The Lady of the Lake; a stag who "deep his midnight lair had made / in lone Glenartney's hazel shade."2 The romance of the Western Highlands serves as an ironic commentary on the real Hazel Shade, who is utterly devoid of dark beauty. Shade's descriptions, from the anxious parents' point of view, are both sorrowful and telling:
Nature chose me so as to wrench and rend
Your heart and mine. At first we'd smile and say:
"All little girls are plump" or "Jim McVey
(The family oculist) will cure that slight
Squint in no time." And later: "She'll be quite
Pretty, you know"; and, trying to assuage
The swelling torment: "That's the awkward age."3
The picture is clear enough: Hazel is obese and unattractive, saddled moreover with a disfiguring squint. The little parental lies soon give way to Shade's confession, "It was no use, no use" (p. 44). Left out of most social activities, Hazel becomes moody and introspective, a bookish type by default. In one particularly wrenching passage, Shade relates:
while children of her age
Where cast as elves and fairies on the stage
That she 'd helped paint for the school pantomime,
My gentle girl appeared as Mother Time,
A bent charwoman with slop pail and broom. .. .
The image directly invokes Hardy's Father Time, another child wise and soured beyond his years, also doomed to die. In Hazel's situation, the ugly appearance of life extends unforgivably to herself.
Escape into books affords a temporary solace. Academia even offers a chance to excel, albeit to the exclusion of social life:
The prizes won
In French and history, no doubt, were fun;
At Christmas parties games were rough, no doubt,
And one shy little guest might be left out.
Inevitably, the scholastic seclusion becomes its own prison. She reads alone in her bedroom and the words themselves become emblematic of isolation: she pronounces grimpen as "Grim Pen" (p. 46), the four walls of her world.
The brief summation of Hazel's adolescence affords the same dismal view: "Alas, the dingy cygnet never turned / Into a wood duck" (p. 44). Teen-age romance is forever denied her, and the telephone remains silent. Since Hazel has become her own plaguesome reality, a change of scenery does her no good, and a trip to France only occasions more unhappiness:
And she returned in tears, with new defeats,
New miseries. On days when all the streets
Of College Town led to the game, she'd sit
On the library steps, and read or knit. . . .
She has gradually withdrawn from society but can take no comfort from her isolation. Since the world remains alienating and unchangeable, she tries to create a world of her own.
As Shade points out in his description, Hazel "might have been you, me, or some quaint blend" (p. 43), but she becomes perverse: "She had strange fears, strange fantasies, strange force / Of character . . ." (p. 45). Her father represents an edifying contrast. By his own admission, in his childhood he was "lame, asthmatic, fat" (p. 37), but was able to turn outward reality into art. Nabokov presents no clear source for the creation of good art. Hazel grows stunted from nurturing parents, while John Shade, orphaned early in life and brought up by "dear bizarre Aunt Maud" (p. 36), produces viable (there is no other word) art. If Nabokov does put forth a statement regarding art, it is concerned with the importance of connections. Aunt Maud, for instance, may have a taste for "realistic objects interlaced / With grotesque growths and images of doom," but she also lives "to hear the next babe cry" (p. 36). Morbid associations are fine, provided they are connected to life at one end.
Hazel's vision eventually turns inward, the imploded art of fantasy. The first indications are harmless enough, reversals of normal vision through palindromes: "She twisted words: pot, top, / Spider, redips. And 'powder' was 'red wop'" (p. 45). In her games with the lexicon of everyday life, she resembles her father, who enjoys the permutations of Word Golf. When words fail to transform reality to her satisfaction, however, she reaches beyond reality.
One of the words associated with Hazel is chtonic [sic] (p. 46),4 a key to her developing interest. Forsaking the world which has forsaken her, she finds some romance in the creation of a private spirit world. As with Eliot in Four Quartets, from which the words chthonic, grimpen, and sempiternal are borrowed, she wants to go beyond mortal experience. Unlike Eliot or her father, however, she cannot write verse but can engage only in eidolism. Taking her cue from the recent death of her great-aunt Maud, she makes havoc in the name of the returned spirit; she tries to bend natural law. A dog basket flies through the air; a scrapbook perambulates itself. Throwing things about is insufficiently arousing, however, and she succumbs to artistic elaboration. Kinbote narrates:
But soon the poltergeist ran out of ideas in connection with Aunt Maud and became, as it were, more eclectic. All the banal motions that objects are limited to in such cases were gone through in this one. Saucepans crashed in the kitchen; a snowball was found (perhaps, prematurely) in the icebox; once or twice Sybil saw a plate sail by like a discus and land safely on the sofa; lamps kept lighting up in various parts of the house; chairs waddled away to assemble in the impassable pantry; mysterious bits of string were found on the floor; invisible revelers staggered down the staircase in the middle of the night; and one winter morning Shade, upon rising and taking a look at the weather, saw that the little table from his study upon which he kept a Bible-like Webster open at M was standing in a state of shock outdoors, on the snow. . . .
As the parents quickly realize, Hazel is the instigator rather than the observer of these phenomena, the author of a private world of signs and images. What one may term an artistic universe, however, Shade's former typist Jane Dean labels "'an outward extension or expulsion of insanity'" (p. 166). The appraisal is not far from the truth. Where creation ceases to have any relevance to outward reality, it borders on madness. When art loses the vital connection to a world outside the artist, it becomes bound up with death. Art and obsession can become dangerously, fatally mixed.
True artistic obsession does not consume itself at once; it first expands its scope. Hazel's exploration of the spirit world resurfaces in a night vigil in an old barn, as she listens for personal messages. The barn episode is briefly mentioned in lines 345-47 of the poem and enlarged upon in Kinbote's commentary. Kinbote even goes so far as to create a mock scenario entitled "THE HAUNTED BARN" (p. 190), in which Hazel cannot bear the homey, deflating common sense of her parents. Her contact with the spirit world is moot; her hope of abstracting a pattern from what she envisions remains just a wish:
The jumble of broken words and meaningless syllables which she managed at last to collect came out in her dutiful notes as a short line of simple letter-groups. I transcribe:
pada ata lane pad not ogo old wart alan ther take feur far rant lant tal told
In "'The Viewer and the View,'" David Walker tries to piece together the bits to form a vague prophecy of Shade's death, but the analysis seems more wishful thinking than solid scholarship.5 The meaning of Hazel's recopied farrago lies rather in the process itself, as Shade notes in Canto Two: ""Life is a message scribbled in the dark"" (p. 41). The allusion is nonetheless sympathetic. If Hazel looks for meaning in a patternless existence or attempts to impose her own meaning, at least she cannot be blamed. As Nabokov has Kinbote relate at the close of "THE HAUNTED BARN," "Life is hopeless, afterlife heartless" (p. 192). Nabokov's tone, filtered through Kinbote, is that of a practicing artist: Hazel's necrotic vision is a perversion of art; hence, her art is a jumble. The sympathy is not for the artistic failure, but for the suffering of another human being. Significantly, John Shade later makes a poem from the incident, showing that art can be derived from any materials, provided it does not lose its attention to life. Mad art deals too much with death.
By the time of her sad blind date, Hazel has come near to madness. Reality is once more impinging upon her, forcing her half out of this world:
She hardly ever smiled, and when she did
It was a sign of pain. She'd criticize
Ferociously our projects, and with eyes
Expressionless sit on her tumbled bed
Spreading her swollen feet, scratching her head
With psoriatic fingernails, and moan,
Murmuring dreadful words in monotone.
The urge for creation and the will to hate have reached a terrifying balance. The same madness which reduces her days to misery, however, also keeps her alive. She continues to believe, in the face of all opposing evidence, that somehow circumstances may change. As Shade notes, "I think she always nursed a small mad hope" (p. 46).6 The failure of the date with Pete Dean kills that last hope, turning hate into self-destruction and creative evasion into the ultimate escape.
Hazel's last evening is actually her attempt to rub out her old identity. Images of blurriness and blankness pervade the scene, particularly during the fateful bus ride:
More headlights in the fog. There was no sense
In window-rubbing: only some white fence
And the reflector poles passed by unmasked.
"I think, " she said,
"I'll get off here. " "It's only Lochanhead. "
"Yes, that's okay. " Gripping the stang, she
At ghostly trees. Bus stopped. Bus disappeared.
The ghostly landscape of Lochanhead is evocative of Scott's Glenartney, but in a dreary, spiritually effacing enclosure. In this white, nonreflecting scene, Father Time patrols the lake, an adumbration of death. Hazel meets no one, however; in her last act of retreat, she is in perfect isolation: "The lake lay in the mist, its ice half drowned. / A blurry shape stepped off the reedy bank / Into a crackling, gulping swamp, and sank" (p. 51). The lake, elsewhere in the work a great reflective body, has become an opaque surface. If mirrors are reflecting surfaces elsewhere in Pale Fire, they are even there no substitute for life. Mirrors, rather, represent art, and both, when blurred, are an attenuation of life. Hazel herself, a "blurry shape" halfway to evisceration, has lost the contours of her appearance. In an odd sense, by submerging herself, she has become Scott's "lady of the lake." Her final remove from reality is permanent. In a last irony that Hazel might have appreciated, she remains in her parents' memory as "a domestic ghost" (p. 41), a spirit at last.
In comparison to Hazel Shade, Charles Kinbote is a far grander artist, and a work of art in his own right. In his need to transform base reality, he creates the entire kingdom of Zembla through his bizarre annotation. Moreover, the true conundrum of Pale Fire revolves around Kinbote, since his warped commentary creates not only new facts and characters, but also "the monstrous semblance of a novel" (p. 86), the text itself. Nonetheless, Kinbote—be he Charles II or demented Botkin—suffers the same fate as Hazel. Based on a labyrinthine structure of false mirrors and props, his fantasy world eventually encloses him, leaving him in darkness.
Through Kinbote's magniloquent self-revelations, one learns a good deal more about him than about Hazel, but without the same objectivity. One may speculate about the change in Hazel's story if she had related it herself; the fact remains mat Kinbote cannot bide his madness, since it is inexorably linked with his Zemblan creation. Delusions of grandeur and attendant paranoia shine through the most glittering passages describing his royal past:
A group of especially devout Extremists calling themselves the Shadows had got together and swore to hunt down the King and kill him wherever he might be. They were, in a sense, the shadowy twins of the Karlists and indeed several had cousins or even brothers among the followers of the King.
Kinbote's use of the third person, rather than serving as modesty's cloak, only allows the conceits of Zembla and King Charles II full exposure. Where Hazel's art is solipsistic, Kinbote's creation is megalomaniac. Hazel, for example, shuns real mirrors, whereas Kinbote glories in them, from using "a fop's hand mirror" (p. 121) to gazing at his multiple reflection in "a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond . . ." (p. 111). As in Nabokov's art, Kinbote's images collect and reflect endlessly.
If the magnitude of Kinbote's creation dwarfs Hazel's, the etiology is the same: an aesthetic retreat from reality. On the most pedestrian level, Kinbote is a boringly tenacious pedant with homosexual urgencies, a lonely expatriate in America whose one claim to fame is a book on surnames. Though one cannot judge how far back Kinbote began to construct his imaginary kingdom, the conditions for its creation are well established by the time he settles in New Wye:
Often, almost nightly, throughout the spring of 1959, I had feared for my life. Solitude is the playfield of Satan. I cannot describe the depths of my loneliness and distress. There was naturally my famous neighbor just across the lane, and at one time I took in a dissipated young roomer (who generally came home long after midnight). Yet I wish to stress that cold hard core of loneliness which is not good for a displaced soul.
The same embittered isolation that encompassed Hazel surrounds Kinbote. As an expatriate, he is far from home; as a homosexual in staid New Wye, he leads an inverted life; as a social misfit, he alienates everyone. As he relates in his foreword, a clubwoman "said to me in the middle of a grocery store, 'You are a remarkably disagreeable person. I fail to see how John and Sybil can stand you,' and, exasperated by my polite smile, she added: 'What's more, you are insane'" (p. 25).
Apparently, Kinbote gets along with almost no one, and his endless sexual trysts are probably more than half-imaginary. If one adds up all the people in his claimed liaisons, the figure might total half of New Wye. More revealing is the betrayal by a roomer named Bob, who brings in "a fiery-haired whore from Exton who had left her combings and reek in all three bathrooms" (pp. 26-27). Most of Kinbote's sexual escapades seem to stem from bribes on his part, and one is even led to question the handsome physiognomy with which he credits himself. A fellow faculty member, Gerald Emerald, refers to him as "the Great Beaver" (p. 24). The discrepancy between Kinbote's imagined life and his real circumstances may be greater than many critics assume. David Walker has suggested that Kinbote's motel room is actually the padded room of an asylum.7 One cannot rule out this possibility; in any event, Kinbote's alienation is incontrovertible.
All the factors which circumscribe Kinbote in his own little hell do not, of course, make him an artist; they merely provide the impetus for escape, Kinbote's resemblances, or Zemblances, to Hazel do not apply only to mental anguish, though. The transformations they ring on reality are also of the same mind. Discussing Hazel's fascination with palindromes, Kinbote mentions his own predilection for turning things backward: "But then it is also true that Hazel Shade resembled me in certain respects" (p. 193). Playing with words leads inevitably to playing with worlds in a Joycean mode.8 As always, Kinbote's efforts eclipse Hazel's. Where she is content with "red wop" from "powder," Kinbote changes Jacob Gradus into d'Argus, Jacques de Grey, Jack Grey, all reflections in "a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay" (p. 111). The obnoxious faculty member Gerald Emerald becomes, through a Russian twist, Izumrudov, "of the emerald." Nodo and Odon, two of the Shadows, are half-brothers and reversals of one another. The shades and reflections become ubiquitous. What turns up in Shade's poem may be enfolded into Kinbote's gossip anent New Wye, or triply folded into his chronicle of Zembla. The pair of Soviet spies who appear in one incarnation as Andronikov and Niagara and in another as Andron and Niagarushka (pp. 244, 255) may just be a transformation that gets out of control. The point is that while Hazel synthesizes a mirror level of meaning through words, Kinbote develops an entire world around such principles, an exegetical edifice of words. The kingdom of Zembla and Kinbote's role in it grow to include a deposed king, secret passages, crown jewels, and its own Shadows. Kinbote, though mad to think that Shade would write a poem about such an unbelievable landscape, is right in one respect: his Zembla is a work of art. Nabokov has stated, in a typically Nabokovian manner, "art, at its greatest, is fantastically deceitful and complex."9 In this respect, at least, he accords Kinbote an accolade.
Kinbote's dealings with reality are another matter altogether. The result of Kinbote's exegesis on Shade's poem, for instance, is deranged poetry. He consistently warps everything around him into reflections of himself, his own type of art. Fortunately for the text, Nabokov has endowed Kinbote with a brilliant imagination, in many ways more inventive and lexically interesting than Shade's. In describing a process as mundane as the ventilation of a house, he can be absolutely coruscating: "The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers on the floor where from the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund's last breath" (p. 19).
He is a verbal prestidigitator, not unsurprisingly in the Nabokovian vein, capable of turning dross into flowers like the conjurer mentioned in the foreword. Shade, too, is capable of artistic transformation—Kinbote uses the conjurer analogy to apply to the poet, not himself—but his art remains grounded in the mundanities of everyday life. He does deal with life, art, and death, but his approach is the opposite of Kinbote's reading public events out of his private fantasy. As Lucy Maddox points out, "Shade attempts to translate public fate into private significance. . . . "10 Kinbote, on the other hand, moves toward structures as vaporous as Hazel's spirits.
Kinbote's commentary on his word-creations is elucidating if somewhat skewed. He sees himself as an appropriator of patterns, a thief with artistic tendencies, but his language belies the statement:
Although I am capable, through long dabbling in blue magic, of imitating any prose in the world (but singularly enough not verse—I am a miserable rhymester), I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web. Solemnly I weighed in my hand what I was carrying under my left armpit, and for a moment I found myself enriched with an indescribable amazement as if informed that fireflies were making decodable signals on behalf of stranded spirits, or that a bat was writing a legible tale of torture in the bruised and branded sky.
Kinbote's art is as beautiful as it is otherworldly, but by now one must be wary of his pronunciamentos. His evaluation of the package he carries—"I was holding all Zembla pressed to my heart" (p. 289)—is a fantastic importation to the scene, having no basis in reality. Rather, all of Zembla resides in his head. The references to charmed fireflies or a Myotis sublatus writing messages hearken back to Hazel and her private world of signs. Shade's art is solid in its reassuring weight of index cards. Kinbote's and Hazel's arts, while not inferior conceptions, represent ethereal, escapist visions.
One may view the emerging parallels between Kinbote and Hazel as just that: not exact equivalencies but correspondences between the characters. Nabokov puts it more strongly: "There are no 'real' doubles in my novels."11 In the absence of outright doppelgängers, then, the suicide-daughter is a hazel shade of Kinbote. The affiliation between the two even helps explain certain phenomena outside their mad art. Shade's infinite patience with Kinbote, for example, makes perfect sense when one realizes that Shade sees his deranged daughter again in his next-door neighbor. If Shade is overly tolerant to Kinbote through an Oedipal link, the relationship also works in reverse. As Phyllis Roth notes in her analysis: "The evidence of the Oedipal situation in the novel is extensive. To begin, Kinbote sees himself as the child of Sybil and John, The most apparent manifestation of this is his rivalry with their deceased daughter Hazel Shade."12 In fact, Kinbote's constant desire to see Shade represents more than collaring the nearest available neighbor; it is a childish bid for attention. Similarly, Hazel's attempts to subvert her parents' reality with her own fantasy are monstrously realized in Kinbote's perversion of Shade's poem. The danger lies in the fantasy taking over the artist, as well as reality.
Kinbote and Hazel suffer ultimately from a lack of relevance to their surroundings. If, as June Perry Levine suggests for a reading of the novel, "Significance is achieved by interconnection,"13 betrayal arises through a loss of connection. The relation between the made-up image and the self is blanked out, as if one looked into a mirror and saw no reflection. Rejected by Pete Dean, Hazel becomes hazier, as others simply ignore her presence. Wrapped in her spiritual fancies, she has become a wraith even before her death. Kinbote encounters a similar betrayal when reality excludes him. Attaching his entire identity to Shade's presumed exposition of Zembla, he becomes mentally disjointed when he finds nothing of himself there:
I started to read the poem. I read faster and faster. I sped through it, snarling, as a furious young heir through an old deceiver's testament. Where were the battlements of my sunset castle? Where was Zembla the Fair? Where her spine of mountains? Where her long thrill through the mist? And my lovely flower boys, and the spectrum of the stained windows, and the Black Rose Paladins, and the whole marvelous tale? Nothing of it was there! The complex contribution I had been pressing upon him with a hypnotist's patience and a lover's urge was simply not there. Oh, but I cannot express the agony!
Apart from his personal myth, he is less than real; he is nonexistent. Accordingly, he attempts to re-create the entire structure of Zembla in a lonely motel room in Cedarn, Utana. Here, Kinbote shows greater imaginative force than Hazel, trying once more to resurrect himself through art. The burden of maintaining such a fantasy is too heavy, though. Not only does it exhaust the creator, but it also drags him down, further and further away from any connection with the real world. In his lucid moments, he dreams of the end of the farce he has created, the extinction of himself.
In a self-reflexive fiction, even the end is internally generated. If Hazel engineers her own finish, Kinbote creates a character for that purpose, a destructive anti-force named Gradus lurking in the Zemblan terrain. Though in some senses a mere construct, Gradus has a motivation, the act of regicide, and a personality which stands for all that Kinbote detests:
Mere springs and coils produced the inward movements of our clockwork man. He might be termed a Puritan. One essential dislike, formidable in its simplicity, pervaded his dull soul: he disliked injustice and deception. He disliked their union—they were always together—with a wooden passion that neither had, nor needed, words to express itself.
Gradus is against deception, Kinbote's delight; he cannot use words, Kinbote's stock-in-trade. Nonetheless, Kinbote works upon him as with all his other creations, granting him a half-dozen aliases and a woefully inept record of assassinations. As the idea of creation blooms in Kinbote's brain, so does the idea of annihilation.
Once Kinbote has created Gradus, the henchman assumes a seemingly independent existence. He leaves Zembla and follows the path of the exiled king through Europe. He even appears in Shade's poem—as noted by Kinbote—through the sinister permutations of "gradual," "gray," and the unused variant "Tanagra dust" (pp. 77, 231). Since Kinbote associates the gunman who kills Shade with Gradus, the death Gradus represents becomes paired with Shade:
His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.
The link between Shade's poetry and Gradus' journey toward America is based on Shade as the creator, yet Kinbote's own fiction is based on the poem. David Packman comments on the relation: "The novel measures its unfolding in relation to Gradus's trajectory. The road he covers is the text's narrative line. In his journey Gradus covers real roads that, in the representation, become lines of words upon the page."14 Words create the situation and its undoing, and therein lies the double nature of Kinbote's logorrhea. As with Hazel, his art is fatally tinged. Reading Gradus into Shade's poem, he sees beyond art into death: "we cannot help reading into these lines something more than mirrorplay and mirage shimmer. We feel doom . . ." (p. 135). The artistry which produced Gradus is flawed. It embraces and encompasses death as an alternative to reality.
Though Gradus begins as something of a nullity, he begins to achieve a larger-than-life quality, overshadowing the other Zemblan figures as the notes progress:
Gradus is now much nearer to us in space and time than he was in the preceding cantos. He has short upright black hair. We can fill in the bleak oblong of his face with most of its elements such as thick eyebrows and a wart on the chin. He has a ruddy but unhealthy complexion. We see, fairly in focus, the structure of his somewhat mesmeric organs of vision. We see his melancholy nose with its crooked ridge and grooved tip. We see the mineral blue of his jaw and the gravelly pointillé of his suppressed mustache.
The physical closeness is startling, as if one were looking through a microscope. The personification to end the fiction has become of interest in himself as Kinbote focuses in. Nabokov, too, believes in the microscopic approach:
There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world, a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small things, that is intrinsically artistic.13
Nabokov, however, is capable of maintaining the proper proportion and distance. When Kinbote employs the same technique, he has fallen in love with his creation again, in this instance collaborating with his demise. He has assumed the role of a royal fugitive tracked by a gray assassin, all part of his intricate pattern. As always, the attempt is to dislocate reality, not that his friend Shade was killed by a criminal madman from the local asylum, but that the killing was the result of a continental web of intrigue and a tragicomically inept aim. In transforming Jack Gray into Jacob Gradus, though, Kinbote internalizes me figure as part of his creation. Kinbote's future promises "a bigger, more respectable, more competent Gradus" (p. 301), but since this new Gradus really sprang into being after Shade's death, he is present from the start of Kinbote's foreword. He has become part of Kinbote's art, a destructive force in the artist's mind.
Evidence of Kinbote's concomitant desire to murder and create occurs throughout his notes, usually adjacent to a particularly unpleasant reality. Describing his betrayal at the hands of his former roomer Bob, he posits a way to halt the memory:
At times I thought that only by self-destruction could I hope to cheat the relentlessly advancing assassins who were in me, in my eardrums, in my pulse, in my skull, rather than on that constant highway looping up over me and around my heart as I dozed off only to have my sleep shattered by that drunken, impossible, unforgettable Bob's return to Candida's or Dee's former bed.
Self-destruction and self-aggrandizement meet in Kinbote's mind as twin evasions of circumstance. As his creation progresses, however, its poetry is insufficient to mask his drab hideaway, and the secondary solution poses an escape. The retreat into the dark, the vitiation of his creation, begins to have physical effects: "Whatever energy I possessed has quite ebbed away lately, and these excruciating headaches now make impossible the mnemonic effort and eye strain that the drawing of another such plan would demand" (p. 107). The plan referred to is the drawing of Onhava Palace, once an invention that Kinbote could have elaborated on endlessly. Now, elaboration in the face of dumb reality is draining him. When his creation draws to an end, his created existence may also flow away. In a not-to-be-missed parentheses, he hints "(see eventually my ultimate note)" (p. 101 ).16 In fact, as Hazel's failure at living is discernible from the start, Kinbote's end, too, begins with his introduction of himself. It is a portrait of a mind tearing itself to pieces, spewing out polychrome fragments for an imagined audience.
Kinbote heralds his mental decline from the start of his extravagant foreword. Unable to marshal his thoughts on the page, he complains of a competing reality: "There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings" (p. 13). Lunacy has bloomed in the third paragraph. Even before that non sequitur of non sequiturs, though, he talks of "Canto Two, your favorite" (p. 13), as if he were conversing with an invisible confidant. Actually, the work is as much a confession as it is an arrogation of the text. In the conclusion to his foreword, he claims, "without my notes Shade's text simply has no human reality at all" (p. 28), but even at this early juncture one is aware of inversions. Kinbote's own commentary is precisely the self-referential creation he claims Shade's poem is. He does have some realization of the truth, and his greatest moments of expatiation contain, as Nabokov would have considered anagramatically apt, some expiation.
As a master creator, Kinbote bows to an even greater creator, though in typically Kinbotian fashion he promulgates "our Zemblan brand of protestantism" (p. 224). Just as Hazel hung on a spirit world, Kinbote depends on an afterlife, which he views more and more as a welcome relief from "these dark evenings that are destroying my brain" (p. 123). As he develops the idea of religion in his notes, God provides the divine afflatus, the opposite of nihilistic despair. More important, God provides a comforting afterlife which Kinbote uses as a rationale for suicide:
With this divine mist of utter dependence permeating one's being, no wonder one is tempted, no wonder one weighs on one's palm with a dreamy smile the compact Firearm in its case of suede leather hardly bigger than a castlegate key or a boy's seamed purse, no wonder one peers over the parapet into an inviting abyss.
Kinbote's interest in suicide corresponds to his tendency to fantasize. Ever the artist, he imbues the final act with a poetry of its own. Of the various means of divorcing soul from body, he prefers falling:
The ideal drop is from an aircraft, your muscles relaxed, your pilot puzzled, your packed parachute shuffled off, cast off, shrugged off—farewell, shootka (little chute)! Down you go, but all the while you feel suspended and buoyed as you somersault in slow motion like a somnolent tumbler pigeon, and sprawl supine on the eiderdown of the air, or lazily turn to embrace your pillow, enjoying every last minute of soft, deep, death-padded life, with the earth's green seesaw now above, now below, and the voluptuous crucifixion, as you stretch yourself in the growing rush, in the nearing swish, and then your loved body's obliteration in the Lap of the Lord.
Seen in this light, self-murder becomes more a change of scenery than the onset of darkness. Life is a shootka ("little joke" in Russian). The phrase "death-padded life" shows an artistic merging of two extremes—but death precedes. As for the scenery around him, it has become repulsive: "We who burrow in filth every day may be forgiven perhaps the one sin that ends all sins" (p. 222). Kinbote's original fantasy was to occlude base reality, and the dream of death which supersedes it is another such attempt. What he cannot abide is a void, and once he has assured himself of a hereafter, he moves ineluctably toward it.
By the time of his last note, he has arrived at the same spiritual nadir as the suicidal Hazel. The final paragraphs have an uncanny valedictory note: "Yes, better stop. My notes and self are petering out. Gentlemen, I have suffered very much, and more than any of you can imagine" (p. 300). As to his future plans, he is hazy: other disguises, other semblances. The stage play he thinks of writing, however, shows his realization that he has invented himself: "a lunatic who intends to kill an imaginary king, another lunatic who imagines himself to be that king, and a distinguished old poet who stumbles by chance into the line of fire, and perishes in the clash between the two figments" (p. 301).
With the recognition that his existence has been a figment, he has little to do but end the game. His projections for continued existence are merely a last misdirection, an unwillingness to go out without the possibility of an encore. If, in this day and age, one can still trust the author's judgment of his work, one has only to go to Nabokov for the eschatology. In an interview, he refers to "the day on which Kinbote committed suicide (and he certainly did after putting the last touches to his edition of the poem). . . . "17 A consummate artist, with an emphasis on "consummate," Kinbote finishes first his commentary and then himself. As Hazel's headnote, so to speak, was "Life is a message scribbled in the dark" (p. 41), Shade's poem also provides an italicized tribute to Kinbote: "Man's life as commentary to abstruse / Unfinished poem" (p. 67). The twin epitaphs represent two existences almost irrelevant to reality, lived out rather through transmutation and fantasy. Final judgment, if not suspended, is at least moot. Nabokov obviously applauds consummate artistry, but when the vision consumes the artist, one can only laud the art and lament the means.
Though one may resent Kinbote's falsification of reality as opposed to Shade's poetic extension of life, the sympathy of the work seems to rest in the end with Kinbote. Against the arrogance of the artist, one detects a maundering vulnerability, Kinbote's recognition of himself as an aberration. "Imagine a soft, clumsy giant" (p. 17), he puts forth as a self-description in his foreword, and the evocation is apt. Here, the parallel with Hazel lends a useful perspective: both figures are freaks, in Nabokov's artistic conception and in their own artistic dreams. The author extends appreciation for their art, sympathy for their lives. This compassionate bond goes a long way toward refuting those critics who insist that Nabokov's vision is brilliant but cold. His sense of affection, though belittling at times, might almost amount to love. As Mary McCarthy wrote:
Love is the burden of Pale Fire, love and loss. Love is felt as a kind of homesickness, that yearning for union described by Plato, the pining for the other half of a once-whole body, the straining of the soul's black horse to unite with the white. The sense of loss in love, of separation . . . binds mortal men in a common pattern—the elderly couple watching TV in a lighted room, and the "queer" neighbor watching them from his window. But it is most poignant in the outsider: the homely daughter stood up by her date, the refugee. . .. .18
The fatal vision of a flawed artist is always of interest to the depicter, and not just as a cautionary tale, or for the setting up of a reflexive frame. One feels tenderness for one's creations, particularly those who seem too frail for life. As for the art produced by such figures, a distorting mirror has its own special reflection.
1 Andrew Field, in Nabokov: His Life in Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), goes so far as to suggest that Kinbote is a creation of Shade's.
2 Sir Walter Scott, The Complete Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Cambridge ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900), p. 156. I am indebted to Mary McCarthy's article "A Bolt from the Blue" (New Republic, 4 June 1962, pp. 21-27) for this reference.
3 Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (New York: Putnam's, 1962), pp. 43-44. All subsequent references refer to this edition, and are cited parenthetically in the text.
4 Though this misspelling of chthonic may be only a typographical error, it appears that way in all editions of Pale Fire.
5 David Walker, '"The Viewer and the View': Chance and Choice in Pale Fire," Studies in American Fiction, 4: 213.
6 See William K. Wimsatt, ed., Alexander Pope: Selected Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, 1972). "A small mad hope" is the modern, reduced equivalent of Pope's "Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never Is, but always To be blest" (An Essay on Man, Epistle I, lines 95-96). Shade was a scholar of Pope and wrote his poem in Popeian couplets. The original reference to Zembla, "At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where," also stems from An Essay on Man: Epistle II, line 224.
7 Walker, "'The Viewer and the View,'" p. 219.
8 The comparison with Joyce is particularly salient with respect to a passage from Ulysses, where Martha writes a letter to Henry Flower, a.k.a. Bloom: "I called you naughty boy because I do not like that other world" (James Joyce, Ulysses [New York: Random House, 1961], p. 77). The overflow from words to worlds crops up continually in ensuing passages.
9 Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), p. 33.
10 Lucy Maddox, Nabokov's Novels in English (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1983), p. 19.
11 Alfred Appel, Jr., "An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov," in L. S. Dembo, ed., Nabokov: The Man and His Work (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 37.
12 Phyllis A. Roth, "The Psychology of the Double in Nabokov's Pale Fire," Essays in Literature (Western Illinois University), 2:222-23.
13 June Perry Levine, "Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire: 'The Method of Composition' as Hero," in International Fiction Review, 5:108.
14 David Packman, "Pale Fire: The Vertigo of Interpretation," in his Vladimir Nabokov: The Structure of Literary Desire (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1982), p. 83.
15 Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York: Putnam's, 1966), pp. 166-67.
16 Nabokov's use of parentheses would make a small study in itself. He is the only author I am aware of who regularly locates the most significant part of a sentence within real or tonal brackets.
17 Appel, "An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov," p. 29.
18 McCarthy, "A Bolt from the Blue," p. 26.
Bruce A. Goebel
SOURCE: "'If Nobody Had to Die': The Problem of Mortality in Gertrude Stein's 'The Geographical History of America'," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 237-52.
[In the following essay, Goebel probes the interwined crises of personal identity and mortality in Gertrude Stein's fiction.]
While still quite young, Gertrude Stein overheard that her parents had planned for only five children. As the seventh child, it made her "feel funny" to think that her birth had depended upon the deaths of two earlier Stein children. This sudden awareness of mortality, or as she put it, this loss of the "everlasting feeling," haunted her the rest of her life. In Everybody's Autobiography, written at the age of sixty, she acknowledges:
Then there was the fear of dying, anything living knows about that, and when that happens anybody can think if I had died before there was anything but there is no thinking that one was never born until you hear accidentally that there were to be five children and if two little ones had not died there would be no Gertrude Stein, of course not.1
Feeling the tenuousness of mere animal existence, she struggled to counter such a limited definition of herself. As a child she was adventurous and thought of ways of becoming immortalized in the "folklore of California."2 Thus, even in her youth she was aware of the transcendent quality of language and stories. Later in life, she would increasingly turn to her writing as a means of countering the self-doubt brought on by her awareness of death.
Her concern with mortality is one of the unifying elements underlying her oeuvre, so much so that one could claim this fear as the driving force behind her innovative aesthetic project. As Catherine N. Parke suggests:
Stein's invention of an alternative to scepticism, an alternative for which she invented a new kind of narrative to embody her radical, non-sceptical theory of knowledge, arose paradoxically from her own radical self-doubt—a doubt quite literally about her existence. . . .3
Stein's work is, in this sense, persistently ironic, simultaneously striving to create an immortal testament to the human mind that can erase and transcend the flawed, mortal nature of human existence. In the tradition of Utopian visionaries, she uses the drawbacks of human nature as a motivational muse for the creation of a more perfect world in art. As a result of this paradox, my own discussion of Stein may appear paradoxical as well. While her ultimate goal may have been to create a transcendent text, thoroughly understanding her work requires taking into account the very human human nature from which she desired to escape. By connecting the living Stein with her aesthetic, almost mythic persona, my critical project necessarily includes what she hoped to deny.
For her, the very process of writing was a means of continually defining and redefining her self, taking command of her own existence. As a result, she spent a great deal of time thinking about the formation and function of identity, what effect external influences had upon it, and how she might best replicate its essence in language. In the early part of her writing career, she saw relationships as a primary source of an identity which existed beyond a person's physical being. By bonding her own identity with that of an other, or a group of others, she could transcend the mortal limitations of the isolated individual. A number of critics, especially Richard Bridgman in his discussion of QED and Jayne Walker in her explanation of The Making of Americans have noticed Stein's concern with identity and mortality in her early work.4 Perhaps Stein anticipated the immanent self of Virginia Woolf s Mrs. Dalloway in the way she relied upon the connections between people to safeguard identity. But her version of a communally constructed self was, at this stage, particularly naturalist. In one of her Radcliffe themes she wrote: "You must submit yourself sooner or later to be ground in the same mill with your fellows . . . Be still, it is inevitable."5 She embraced this deterministic attitude about the formation of identity as the foundation of her early writing. QED, her first novel, explores the possibilities of human connection. The story loosely follows one of her first lesbian relationships and represents an early attempt to define herself and understand her sexuality. Much of her approach to the love triangle in the novel can be found in the implications of the title, Quod Erat Demonstrandum, or freely translated as What Had She Proved. This classic signature to a geometric problem suggests that she saw the relationships of the characters in a mathematically determined way. By placing herself, in the role of Adele, within a sort of human equation, she hoped to determine a definitive self. But this attempt ends up in stalemate and exclusion when the characters transcend such limiting intentions and can no longer communicate, leaving the idea of transcendence through human connection rather questionable. The conflict between the content—lesbian relations which in themselves constitute a denial of biological and cultural determinism—and the form of the novel—a sort of determined Victorian romance with hints of naturalism—left no possibility for resolution. The resulting sense of frustration and isolation could only have served to intensify her fear.
She experienced a similar dilemma within her next major work, Melanctha. This naturalist novella, based upon much the same relationship with variations in gender, reveals Stein's perception of her characters as essentially static, and she portrays this through the rhythmic repetition of their "thinking, loving, and resisting." Her style of characterization blends a less radical form of what she would later call the "continuous present" with her early belief that that an individual's essence, the ingrained patterns of repetition that hide beneath seemingly varied but largely irrelevant behaviors, could be captured at any single moment in her life. The overriding definition of identity is fixed. Melanctha spontaneously experiences the moment, Jeff analyzes experience from a distance, and neither can ever break from their respective modes. With Melanctha's death, the sense of inevitable fate abounds. Despite her innovations with dialogue and her first tentative movements toward a "continuous present," Stein again found herself trapped in a literary genre which denied any possibility of transcending death.
It wasn't until the writing of The Making of Americans that she discovered a satisfying literary means of escaping mortality. She begins the novel as a sort of family chronicle in yet another attempt to define herself within a historical and biological context. Indeed, after reading Otto Weininger's Sex and Character, an anti-feminist tract that categorized people along a continuum that stretched from "total male" to "total female," she embraced the idea of creating an all-encompassing typology of humanity and set out to define everyone in order that "the enigma of the universe could in this way be solved."6 By discovering the right types and constructing a system of classification which might permanently identify her, she could negate history, condense all humanity into a structural definition, and discover her own part in it. However, she quickly became aware of the reductiveness of such an approach and still couldn't avoid the fact that each of her characters eventually died. Death always seemed to be the last word. Significantly, upon the recognition of her failure, she writes of her own mortality:
I tell you I cannot bear it this thing that I cannot be realizing experiencing in each one being living I say again and again I cannot let myself be really resting in believing this thing, it is in me now as when I am realizing being a dead one, a one being dying and I can do this thing and I do this thing and I am filled with complete desolation.7
This situation was all the more painful because she had projected much of her own identity into David Hersland, the final character in The Making of Americans. With his death, Stein faced the necessity of creating a new source for that "everlasting feeling."
Leon Katz suggests that she found such a source in another of Weininger's tenets. He quotes Weininger:
Memory only vanquishes time when it appears in a universal form as in universal men. The genius is thus the only man—at least, this and nothing else is his idea of himself; he is, as is proved by his passionate and urgent desire for immortality, just the man with his strongest demand for timelessness, with the greatest desire for value . . . His universal comprehension and memory forbid the annihilation of his experiences with the passing of the moment in which each occurred; his birth is independent to his age, and his work never dies.8
While her fear of death and the corresponding desire for immortality may have come early in her life, Katz claims that upon reading Weininger, she accepted the idea of this "highest 'type' of human being—the only true individuality—in terms of achieving the promise of immortality by escaping from the contingency of time." Katz says that "Stein follows Weininger's system of values to its end by insisting that victory over time is achieved only by means of those qualities and capabilities of mind and spirit that belong to the genius or the saint alone" (16). While such a claim gives more credit to Weininger than he probably deserves, it does help to explain the experimental nature of her works that follow The Making of Americans. By recognizing herself as a genius, she might claim a sense of timelessness and do away with, at least in her art, the need for genealogical relationships.
Stein quickly developed the literary means by which to demonstrate her genius. Recognizing that historical connections necessarily tied one's identity to time and thus mortality, she began more actively experimenting with a "continuous present." By writing in the present and ignoring the past and the future, she found a comfortable means by which to avoid thoughts of death. As Janet Hobhouse notes in her biography of Stein:
By constant returns to a point of beginning, the "continuous present suspends the inevitability of arriving at this end. To someone who, since adolescence had a fear of "death, not so much of death as of dissolution," the discovery would obviously have deep pssychological appeal . . . It became a form of meditation that enabled her to remove herself from the real world, with its real and cruel passage of time.9
In effect, Stein found a temporary resolution by shifting her focus from character to language itself. Significantly, at this same time she also separated from her brother, Leo, a severing of connection to her genealogical past, and began her relationship with Alice, one which denied biology, genealogy, and patriarchy. Having discovered a means to deal with, or avoid, the threat of death, she finished The Making of Americans, a project that had been in a frustrating state of inertia for years, and she went on to write some of her most famous experimental works—Tender Buttons, her portraits, and her plays.
For the most part, the problem of mortality thematically disappeared from her work for the next twenty years, surfacing only by implication in the stylistic means by which she avoided it. Not until the writing of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas did she once again experience a major crisis of identity and mortality. The writing of AABT may have triggered old fears in a number of ways. Much has been made of the possibility that Alice co-authored the book. The need for such a collaboration may have led Stein to question the permanence of her artistic gift by which she had successfully countered death. Also the necessity of writing to please an audience bothered her a great deal. With the great success of AABT, her relationship to her audience increasingly disturbed her, in part no doubt because of a fear of the power of the public to shape her later work and force a social identity upon her. Catherine N. Parke suggests that Stein was particularly concerned by the presence of an audience because of "the political, social, and personal dangers of immature dependence on others to prove one's identity" and believed "such immaturity to be one of the motives of the kinds of institutionalized violence (betrayal, lying, war) which we perform against ourselves and one another" (562). Perhaps more immediately important, however, was Stein's sense that an audience threatened her control of time and mortality. In Stanzas in Meditation, written concurrently with AABT, she acknowledges the presence of this new audience, "I have tried earnestly to express / Just what I guess will not distress . . . ," but it leaves her disturbed: "I feel very carefully they can be there / Or in no pretence that they change the time / Time which they change. / It troubles me often which can or can it not be / Not only in and because their share."10 She believed the audience to be usurping her artistic power over time. She knew the public demanded the kind of autobiography that conforms to the traditional narrative time of history.
Significantly, she infused many of her works immediately subsequent to the publication of the autobiography with images of death. In Blood on the Dining Room Floor, she ostensibly wrote a murder mystery about a woman who falls to her death. The detective novel fascinated her because it so closely paralleled what Brooks Landon refers to as the "discovery process of perception."11 She apparently attempted to create a detective novel that violated generic expectations by not offering a solution or even an ending, but rather continuously circling and recircling the narrator's perceptions. By her own admission, however, she failed. The circumstances about the woman's death are sufficiently unclear, and Stein creates suspicion through innuendo suggesting the character Alexander as potential murderer. However, this misdirection fails to hide the novel's deeper concerns with suicide and death.
It was during this intense struggle with mortality and identity that Stein began to write The Geographical History of America and for the first time openly confront her fears. Thus GHA assumes a significant place in both her psychological and literary development. She begins simply enough, "In the month of February were born Washington Lincoln and I,"12 returning to her fortunate birth and her subsequent desire for fame and immortality. But in case we might miss the seriousness of her intent she immediately follows with "Let us not talk about disease but about death. If nobody had to die how would there be room enough for any of us who now live to have lived. We could never have been if all the others had not died. There would have been no room" (53). While this simplistic justification for the necessity of death belies the importance that the problem of death poses, it did provide Stein with a focal point upon which she could deliberate the question:
Now the relation of human nature to the human
mind is this.
Human nature does not know this.
Human nature cannot know this. .. .
But the human mind can. .. .
This is the way human nature can sleep, it can
sleep by not knowing this.
The human mind can sleep by knowing this.
Thus, Stein directly confronted the problem that had haunted her throughout her career, and she set out to discover the ways in which the knowledge of death was beneficial or detrimental to humans being and the corresponding literary work of a transcendent genius.
In order to more clearly understand the kind of reasoning which the rest of GHA demonstrates, one must first come to grips with Stein's conception of human nature and human mind, a task made difficult by a lack of linear argument. GHA digresses and regresses, but nevertheless moves toward resolution. Rarely focusing on any subject for long, Stein rethinks, contradicts, circles, and returns to original pronouncements or suddenly changes her mind. Because of this, any distinction of what she meant by human nature and human mind must be tentatively pieced together. It helps to approach GHA as she approached a painting by Cezanne—not looking for a linear progression, but rather taking it all in and resolving it as a whole. In this way certain patterns do appear.
As Allegra Stewart notes in her discussion of GHA, Stein structured her response to mortality around the duality of being and existence.13 For Stein, human nature was most closely tied to daily life, the actions and impulses of an individual. It consisted of memory, emotions, desires, and a connection to history. She closely associated human nature with animals, especially dogs. In so doing she suggested that it partly consisted of a primal, instinctual quality which was not interesting in comparison to other things human. One of the central paradoxes of human nature was that while within it there was no awareness of death, its historical nature rooted itself in death. Writing of wild animals she notes:
wild ones are as if they were there with nothing to happen to them as if they lived there which they do so that nobody thinks they die there which they do.
That is what peace is but always there is some one who has not felt that this could be done that any wild animal living where it it is living could naturally go on being living until it became dead. Dead is not uninteresting and yet it is not any more uninteresting than that to any animal or human nature.
So that is peace. (84)
Thus while animals die, they are not disturbed by death, and so it is with human nature. While we act, we are not conscious of death. It is only in a reflective state, when we observe from outside the repetitious cycle of birthdying-death, that fear is generated, or so Stein seemed to think. For this reason, the pleasure she found in her daily life with Alice, with Paris and rural France, with food and sex, did not contradict her claim that daily life was not a fit subject for reflection or art.
One of the peculiar problems that human nature presented to Stein was its relationship to identity. She writes, "human nature acts as it acts when it is identified when there is an identity" (143), and exemplifies this concept by referring to a bicycle race: "They are they because all who are there know they are they and on no account cannot they not be no not as long as they are in the race" (142). This imposing of identity from the outside, defining one's self by association the other members of the race, parallels Stein's early attempts at classifying people in The Making of Americans and runs counter to her belief that a genius is self-created and thus only has the identity that she herself chooses. Memory, too, in its role of creating and sustaining historical identity, was suspect. Stein felt, as Allegra Stewart says, "that memory (with its freight of the past) interferes with creation" and identity, as a part of human nature, is uncomfortably "part of cosmic existence and the temporal order" (37). Because these other-created selves were inherently temporary, she found them to be at best unimportant and at worst a threat to her sense of transcendence. Precisely "because everyday human nature tells what it was" Stein associated it with history and traditional literary narrative.
The human mind, on the other hand, generated a creative process which allowed her to transcend animal reality in favor of the symbolic. Stein closely associated it with the act of writing. It had no connection with memory, reflection, or truth; it simply "knows what it knows." It "plays," creates, "says yes" to new experience and "does not cry." To her the human mind was not concerned so much with right, wrong, or true as with what worked in her attempt to create an acceptable illusion of order in the world, to create a new self unbounded by space and time. Allegra Stewart believes that Stein achieved her goal through a meditative state in which:
another self seems to have momentarily emerged, as a result of one's detachment from the net of ordinary care, worry, or self interest. During such moments of focus, time, place, memory, and identity sink into nothingness . . . time cease[s] to flow. (36)
Her association of the human mind with writing points to the importance of art as a means of transcending the problem of existence. In essence Stein tried to create both an alternative world and an alternative entity, rather than identity, which would grant her immortality.
In effect GHA represents the history of Stein's personal search for transcendent identity. Sensing a threat to her artistic vision, she began gradually to reexamine and refine her definitions of human nature and the human mind and explore their connection to art. As a result GHA concurrently functioned as her example of the human mind at work—writing, experimenting with and challenging a variety of literary techniques and genres. She first attacks chronological narrative, both argumentatively and stylistically. She proceeds from Chapter 1 to Chapter one, to Chapter 3, followed by 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 2, 3, 1 and so on. She refused to acknowledge a progression and flatly states "There is no reason why chapters should succeed each other since nothing succeeds another" (90). Such succession is part of human nature not human mind. By disrupting narrative progression Stein hoped to deny both time and the daily sequential events of human existence. Such disturbing coincidences of daily life motivated her to write Blood on the Dining Room Floor, and she returns to the central crime of that novel in GHA in order to exemplify the inevitable outcome of traditional narrative:
So Madame Reverdy was the wife of a hotel keeper . . . She had four children that is they did three boys and a girl and the girl had a curl but she got very stout. She still is but not as stout as she was.
The three boys were very good looking when they were younger.
Now it is just the same as the older is married and the younger is a one lunger and the third is a cook. But all this had not happened when the mother was no longer their mother as she had become dead that is she had killed herself just as much to be dead as not . . . No one can care to know what happens to anyone although everybody listens to any one who tells about what happened to any one.
I feel that it is a failure not to live longer. (71)
This kind of story, not unlike Three Lives, follows traditional narrative progression which inevitably leads to death, thus threatening Stein's sense of transcendence. Understandably she saw this as a failure. As a result she made every effort to subvert chronological order and negate the necessity of decay.
For much the same reason she laments "what is the use of being a little boy if you are growing up to be a man" (58), an exclamation made in GHA and many other works. Within the understanding of the human mind, a person exists only in the present moment. In this sense one's childhood is irrelevant. At best it is merely time wasted getting to the present. In What Are Masterpieces, however, she reveals its more ominous implications by prefacing this same claim with, "It has been said of geniuses that they are eternally young,"14 and going on to explain that "no one is content with being a man and boy but he must also be a son and a father and the fact that they all die has something to do with time but has nothing to do with a masterpiece" (93). Because of her need to transcend death in her writing and remain eternally young, Stein had no choice but to ignore such sociohistorical referents as family and childhood. She even went so far as to claim that she thought "nothing about men and women because that has nothing to do with anything." Since the very definitions of men and women (the subject of The Making of Americans) are based upon difference and social relationship, to explore them would immerse her in a time bound, mortal context.
Stein located the source of her denial of social relationships in the fact of her Americanness. She perceived the United States to be a vast flat-land, an image reinforced by the aerial view she saw when flying across country during her 1933 lecture tour. This image was crucial for...
(The entire section is 112259 words.)
SOURCE: "Death and the Native Strain in American Poetry," in Social Research, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 449-62.
[In the following essay, Bloom selects a representative poem from both Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats in order to contrast American and British poetic conceptions of death, and observes that the former is generally more solipsistic than the latter.]
Shall we be found hanging in the trees next
Of what disaster is this the imminence:
Bare limbs, bare trees and a wind as sharp as salt?
The stars are putting on their glittering belts,
(The entire section is 30453 words.)
Philip M. Armato
SOURCE: "Tennessee William's Meditations on Life and Death in 'Suddenly Last Summer', 'The Night of the Iguana' , and 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 558-570.
[In the following essay, Armato studies Williams's portrayal of human perceptions of death in his dramas, concluding that "underneath the guise of southern decadence, Tennessee Williams practices the art of a decidedly Christian playwright.]
In Tennessee Williams' autobiography, the chapter dealing with his life in the sixties might well be entitled "The...
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Enright, D. J., ed. The Oxford Book of Death, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 351 p.
Offers literary selections from throughout history on the subject of death.
Ackerman, R. D. "Death and Fiction: Stevens' Mother of Beauty." ELH 50, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 410-14.
Studies the figure of the Mother of Beauty in Wallace Stevens's writing as a symbolic construct that encompasses the ideas of "natural decay and procreative renewal."
Barreca, Regina, ed. Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. London: Macmillan, 1990, 264 p.
(The entire section is 956 words.)