by Nikolina Knezevic
In "The Poetics of Postmodern Subversion: The Politics of Writing in William S. Burroughs’s ’Western Lands’," Frederick M. Dolan argues that "Burroughs…remains decisively within the tradition" (550). Dolan’s argument is based on the postmodernist assumption that it is not possible to step out of language in order to say/write something; thus, any piece of writing is doomed to stay stuck in the paradigm it is trying to overthrow, replace, redescribe, and/or deconstruct. Antiessentialist (post)philosophical discourse - from Nietzsche, via Heidegger, de Man, to Derrida, and Rorty - evidences the apparent impasse. Dolan parallels postmodernist imaginative writing to the practices of the akin theoretical vocabularies, hence accounting in them for a similar cul-de-sac. His argument resonates with Barbara Johnson’s analysis of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand in the essay "The Quicksand of Self: Nella Larsen and Heinz Kohut" in The Feminist Difference. Hers is a psychoanalytical reading, whereas Dolan bases his on a politicalphilosophical approach to postmodernist strategies in literature. Although they use different vocabularies to describe their respective subjects, their arguments are in accord, emphasizing the ineffectiveness of subversion of the texts with countercultural aspirations.
     However, unlike Dolan, Johnson notes that the subversiveness of such endeavors needs to be acknowledged, despite their supposed failure to prescribe a constructive agenda or offer an effective option for change. She claims:" The literature of narcissism does not satisfy the desire for a workable program for social change, but it does offer the warning that any political program that ignores the ways in which the self can refuse to satisfy need or can seek self-cancellation in place of self-validation will not understand where certain resistances are coming from" (60). Yet, it could be argued that it is in the seeming failure of such vocabularies that the subversive potential can be found. More specifically, the text’s failure to escape from the ’prison-house of language’1 at the same time indicates the hopeful fact that absolute control is not possible. In this case it is manifested in the author’s “failure” to control the text; otherwise, this implies the impossibility of total political control. In other words, power is imprisoned in discourse to the same extent literature is. However, although the text remains within the boundaries of language, there is a plane of the narrative which belongs in the realm of the unspoken, non-verbalized, which despite its not being realized or actualized, is present and informing both writing and reading. Typically, it is infused either in the tone, or in the silences, breaks, empty spaces, and/or music of the text, and it is precisely this unsaid content which comprises the uncontrollable aspect.
     The tension between the imprisonment in language and the elusiveness of the unuttered reflects the tension between the melancholy, resulting from the deprivation of freedom on the one hand and, on the other, hope coming from the subversive potential of the non-verbal, paradoxically present in the narrative. Traditionally understood as mutually exclusive oppositions, these concepts are in fact participants in a troublesome conversation, echoing an underlying tension between destruction and creation. The text renders the opposition into a new entity, whose supposedly separate and clashing components are not necessarily reconciled, but are rather in a constant dialogue alternating, reflecting, conditioning, challenging, but also mitigating each other.
     This makes reading an equally ambivalent experience. For instance, reading Virginia Woolf’s novels, I feel massively frustrated, but I at the same time find them fascinating. It is her "oscillation"2 – embracing all the supposedly incommensurable tensions – that makes this somewhat unsettling pleasure possible. The ambivalence in question results from the traces of the unsaid and echoes of the half-thought, leaking through the cracks in the text. These silent vacuum-spots at the same time break the narrative and keep it flowing. Great part of what makes reading an enjoyable and adventurous experience comes from the author’s “forgetting” his or her original design, the text’s ability to speak independently of its creator – fortunate impossibility of total control.
     Virginia Woolf is one of the “mothers of invention”, bringing a sense of uneasiness and safety at the same time. As Vivian Gornick says about her own mother in Fierce Attachments: "With Mama the issue was clear: I had trouble breathing but I was safe" (71). Likewise, with Woolf the issue is clear: she allows us not to stop at each word, instead letting us hop from one verbal flash to another, flow through and between sentences until something stops us and consumes us. And we are safe. But we have trouble breathing too. We learn how to be lonely because she is so aggressively elusive, oscillating between comfort and insecurity. But she also teaches presence because when she is there, it is real. She opens up a venue for replotting. Of course, she is not the only one providing storytelling in a different key. Yet she is among the few whose silences, breaks, and cracks speak in the way which turns intuition free and alive.
     In Image, Music, Text, Roland Barthes presents the Text as by definition paradoxical, since it "goes to the limit of enunciation (rationality, readability, etc. ) …plac[ing] itself very exactly behind the limit of doxa" (157-158). Resonating with Derrida’s key concepts of differance and dissemination, Barthes further refers to the creation of meaning as a "deferred action" (158). In that ongoing playful explosion both sounds and silences are heard, and the conversation between them is what Jeff Noon calls "the text’s unconscious”.3 He uses this expression in a not strictly psychoanalytical sense, but rather for the lack of a better word, to refer to the narrative’s unexpectedness located in the cracks of intentionality, cleavages between intentional, unintentional, or semi-intentional fallacy. Hence, the enjoyment in analyzing Derrida’s argumentation of the absence of the signifier in his concept of representation, or in motivational imperfection manifested in Tolstoy’s "unfired guns" in War and Peace, or in the charm of the travesty of Ian McEwan’s narrative conventionalism, the disparity between the lyricism in the sentence "To be lonely in the world, it seemed to me, is to be solely with my mother" (93) and the brutality and violence in the major part of the novel Pussy King of the Pirates by Kathy Acker.
     The same can be said about the inspiration one gets from ironizing Stewart Home’s irony - in exposing the inappropriate, or perhaps unexpected, unpredictable intimacy in his typically affectionless characters: “He touched the back of my knees. Put my toes in his mouth and sucked them. He crawled all over me. Moved my limbs around and licked under my armpits.” (69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess) Characters in Home’s novels are often described as two-dimensional and stripped down to stereotypes. Although this is partly true - meaning that there are no depictions of their inner psychological conflicts – such a claim requires a comment, parallel to Matthew Collin’s observation in his book Altered State (1998). He criticizes common understanding of the lack of social engagement in Ecstasy culture, while exposing the specificities of the subculture
The idea that Ecstasy culture has no politics because it has no manifesto or slogans, it isn’t saying something or actively opposing the social order, misunderstands its nature. The very lack of dogma is a comment on contemporary society itself, yet at the same time its constantly changing manifestations – ravers fighting police to gain access to a warehouse party, criminals shooting each other in feuds over the dance-drug trade, teenage girls baring flesh in baby-doll dresses, black-market entrepreneurs selling records from the backs of vans – serve to dramatize the times we live in (5).
     Similarly, characterization in Home’s novels constitutes an implied social message. For that reason, one can claim that emotionality of the characters is rudimentary, but in that one reads the uncomfort with which one experiences oneself – one's own alienation from himself or herself. Besides, it also suggests isolation and superficiality of the encounters with others. It is small wonder that recurring themes in his novels are detachment, awkward communication, spasmatic emotionality, alienated bodies, brutal physicality, compulsive patterns in everyday experiences, one’s absence from their own experiences, zombified individuality, lost in the process of commodification. Hence, the characterization is different - not lacking or ignored – and it constitutes the unuttered social content. Rather than being explicitly verbalized, it is communicated more on the level of affect, showing how one feels living in the world today. Far from claiming that there is no overt political message – quite the opposite – this is more to suggest that in the content infused in the subtext one reads how the human condition is experienced, rather than theorized, which carries different kind of weight.
     Other literary elements are also used to challenge certain social issues. For instance, in his novel Tainted Love, a ghost-written autobiography of his mother, Home uses genre devices for multiple purposes, including the critique of bourgeois subjectivity as an exponent of a broader social problematics. Elsewhere, freely combining literary features pertinent to anything ranging from traditional narration, through stylistic crossovers, switching from the pulp journalistic style, surrealist tradition, via diary-like prose, pornography , political pamphlets, manifestos, theoretical discourse, social chronicle, formal experimentation, juvenile fiction, travelogue, and autobiography, his novels tell tales of intertextual exchange, playing with plagiarism in order to emphasize dismissal of the notions such as ownership, possession, subject, and author. This is designed to challenge notions of the self and society as absolute, immutable, and, therefore, omnipotent, totalizing, irreplaceable, unchangeable, and overdetermining. The following analysis of the case of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” shows the implications of an attempt to approach the questions of authorship, ownership, and writing differently from the way current culture perceives them.
     To start with, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is not really the title of the well known short story by Raymond Carver. Originally, it was entitled “Beginners.” Besides, the story is not really his either. What we know as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the editor’s cut, in which Carver’s original manuscript was reduced by forty percent. So, the story is not only Carver’s. Then, whose story is it? It’s up to us to figure it out if we want at all to ask that kind of question. In either case, the article “Rough Crossings” published in the December 24th 2007 issue of New Yorker might provide inspiration for refiguring such questions.
     Curiously enough, the piece is anonymous, which further complicates the issue of authority, accountability, and trust. However, investigating that issue would be beyond the scope of this analysis, so we’ll try to put it aside and see what the “text itself” informs. It does present the June 1980 drama whose protagonists are Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Carver’s friend and editor for Alfred A. Knopf. At that point Carver was a newly recovered alcoholic and a rising writing star, emerging from lo-life obscurity, financial perplexities, and severe depressions. Lish’s support and editorial collaboration on “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” and onwards spurred Carver’s recognition in the public eye. Professors William L. Stull’s and Maureen P. Carroll’s research in cooperation with Carver’s widow - poet Tess Gallagher - sheds light on the correspondence between Carver and Lish. Details are further explored and exposed in 1998, ten years after Carver’s death, in an article which the journalist D.T Max wrote for the Times Magazine. The research shows troubling communication between Carver and Lish after Lish’s interventions on the manuscript of the collection of short stories to be published and later celebrated under the title What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The letters show that Carver was desperate and asked that the manuscript be withdrawn. He states that until then, he was pleased with the way Lish had read his stories and contributed to perfecting them, strongly stressing how grateful for that he was. But he also admits that this time, it was just too much – he had the stories read by his friends and he could not imagine having them now reread in so severely altered form. He states that as a consequence he might not be able to write again. Along with the ongoing insecurity as a recovering alcoholic, it threats to throw him back to the old devils.
     Two days after exposing his deepest fears and true desperation, Carver sends to Lish another letter. This time making comments about minor editorial cuts, suggesting where and what should be trimmed/kept. Radically different from the previous one both in tone and content, this letter was written after the telephone conversations of which, of course, there is no record - the gap between Carver’s darkest confession and pleading for the text’s withdrawal on the one hand, and the following agreement cannot be reconstructed. The correspondence shows, however, that later, while they were working on the collection Cathedral, Carver insisted that decision what was going to be included as the final text was going to be his. It is also known that their collaboration and friendship didn’t last long after it and that now Ms. Gallagher attempts to recuperate the original texts.
     The academic debate around these issues is focused on artistic integrity and authorship, reflecting the primacy of ownership in social terms. This means that the critique is officially aimed at the acknowledgement of the original creation and giving credit to the author, but the way questions are framed indicates the primacy of the concerns regarding possession. This is manifested in the prevalence of examining the problem of loss – the questions about who was deprived of what, who got cheated on, who was betrayed, and who was silenced. These considerations reflect the supremacy of the property-based issues, which turn exchange and mixing into the indicators of inauthenticity and exponents of loss.
     In a different kind of trade – where the accent is not on whose, but rather on either ‘what, ’how,’ or ‘what it might be like’ - these (exchange and mixing) would be understood as gain. However, in the economy prioritizing possession, gain is reduced nearly to an extent of a sideffect, while actually, the dual voice of the story is what lends it the specific allure. “Beginners” is richer in detailed plotting of the psychodrama, but it lacks the edginess - Lish’s “cutting it to the bone,” as Carver complained. Cutting it to the bone,’ Lish did eliminate perhaps superfluous sentimentalism, replacing it with specific dryness. As a result, the story’s erotic flavor comes from the tension between latent lyricism and apparent emotional inhibition. The story is a mashup created through suspicious, literary sinful blending; frigid heat - the beauty of this hybrid - enables the story to speak independently. However, the rhetoric of lament (over lost property) oversees that authenticity lies where it is believed that it was lost. Such approach also fails to encounter ‘the text’s unconscious’ - the text’s abject or other, enabling freeing of the narrative and releasing its subversive potential.
     The mystery of the two days during which Carver’s radical turn occurred will remain in the realm of silence. From this silence was born the crossbreed, whose authenticity paradoxically lies in arguable plagiarism. Such peculiarities of creation signal the possibilities of refocusing the debate from the questions about whose and what is lost to what is gained in the mix and remix. Accordingly, the shift of the discussion (and practice) from the issue of legitimizing authenticity would lead to authenticity’s taking care of itself.
1 A reference to Frederick Jameson
2 Marianne Hirsch’s term from "The Darkest Plots" in Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, and Feminism. Bloomington and Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.
3 The expression appears in an interview he gave to Vana Goblot for the spring 2001 issue of the Theme Park magazine.
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