Amid the calm beauty portrayed at the novel’s end, as in a Zen parable, or koan, a reader is left to ponder the far-reaching implications of Jerzy Kosinski’s softly stated but disturbing suggestion that at the heart of both the media-obsessed culture and nature is a fundamental absence. What is missing from both, in Kosinski’s estimation, is a fully developed—that is, a thinking, feeling, and socially engaged—human being. The title, Being There, is never explained in the novel, but it is surely meant to be ironic. (Blank Page, one of the working titles for the novel, would have been more self-explanatory but somewhat less resonant.)
Being There tells the story of a displaced person, one disconnected from his environment, from the people around him, and ultimately even from himself. Chance is in many respects never really “there,” never at home or fully engaged anywhere, and he takes this as normal, never questioning or complaining. Although the style of the novel is realistic throughout, it is meant to be a fable on several levels. It is, like so much modern literature, an existential fable, a portrait of a man exemplifying what many consider to be the fundamental human condition—alienation—gliding through a world of which he is not truly a part. It is also a historical fable, rooted in the conditions of contemporary times.
In a previous novel, The Painted Bird (1965), based at least in part on some of his own experiences as a refugee, Kosinski had already written about a dispossessed and wandering person, strikingly akin to Chance in these respects, although in much different circumstances: That character was traumatized by life in the shadow of concentration camps and almost unspeakable horrors during World War II. Being There takes place decades after the war, which is never alluded to, but the world in which Chance lives has found a new way to create nonpersons: by omnipresent technology, television in particular. Such technology is represented as pleasurable and entertaining rather than painful and brutal, but as nevertheless powerfully dehumanizing.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, the general time period of Being There, the media and cultural analyst Marshall McLuhan was very prominent and influential. He argued that the ongoing electronic revolution was one that people should welcome. He warned that the transition from print to electronic culture, from books to television and computers, would be a difficult one, as people clung to the mental habits, morals, and values reinforced by older media. He believed, however, that the inevitable acceptance of new ways of thinking and acting, conditioned by new media, would be liberating: Defining media as extensions and magnifications of humankind’s physical and mental abilities, he argued that humanity’s powers would be expanded by the new media. The sense of place would be altered, as humans would find their home less in...
(The entire section is 1218 words.)