Thursday, July 29, 2010


Stewart Home is something of a cult writer, and as such rather an acquired taste. Not that he wants to make it easy to acquire the requisite taste. Indeed, Jenny Turner suggests in her review of 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess for the London Review of Books that the reason this novel is so full of lurid and not particularly erotic hard-core sex scenes is that
It’s an insurance policy taken out against the possibility that a reader might somehow get past all the other blocks and barbs put in to repel her and find the text beautiful, or identify with the narrator, or otherwise recuperate the work in the conventional way.
I feel sure that this insurance policy works well enough, though it no doubt helps that most of the rest of the novel is a mishmash of unconvincing characterizations, half-baked book reviews, snippets of cultural theory, and inconsequential action that hardly adds up to a plot.

Still, there is something fascinating about the book, in perhaps the same way that bad pornography can itself be simultaneously a source of horror, wonder, and not a little humour. Moreover, 69 Things is a bracing challenge to what we may like (as well as dislike) about the dominant model of English novel-writing today.

On his own website, Home describes himself as "radically inauthentic" and characterizes his work "across a variety of media including performance, music, film, writing, installation, graphics etc." as follows:
I have attempted to continually reforge the passage between theory and practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the private and the social.
In this line, the intent of 69 Things is very clearly to breach the boundaries between (for instance) high and low culture, good and bad taste, and narrative and cultural criticism. In itself, of course, it fails in this attempt because it does, after all, fall too easily under the label of "cult" fiction, which is the category that is allotted precisely to such works that set out to undo the very practice of categorization. And yet despite this almost pre-emptive move by which the market of cultural taste marginalizes any threat to its overall mechanisms of classification and hierarchization, the very violence and obscenity of Home's writing is still perhaps enough to give at least pause for thought. This, presumably, is the basis for Turner's rather grandiose assertion that "I really don’t think anyone who is at all interested in the study of literature has any business not knowing the work of Stewart Home."

The novel's premise is that a little-known cult novelist called K. L. Callan (apparently, Home's own birth name) has written a book entitled (yes) 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess, in which he outlines a grotesque conspiracy theory concerning Princess Diana's death and the subsequent fate of her body. According to Callan, "Diana had actually been strangled to death Thugee-style at Balmoral by an unknown assailant," the security services had than passed on her corpse to Callan himself, and he in turn "decided to take Diana around the Gordon District Stone Circle Trail as a means of luring tourists to the prehistoric delights of ancient Aberdeenshire." Rumour had it, what's more, that Callan's interest in Diana's corpse was more than simply touristic; many assumed "that he was the last man to give the people's princess a proper seeing to" (67). On the tracks of this bizarre story, then, a man called Alan (who had once been known as Callum) has decided "to repeat the heroic journey detailed in 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess" (67), testing its feasibility by hauling a ventriloquist's dummy by the name of Dudley, weighted down with bricks for true authenticity, to all the sixty-nine stone circles described in the original text. He also takes with him a woman, called Anna Noon, whom he has met by chance in an Aberdeen bar; it is she who tells most of the tale we are reading, and she also who is the primary object of Alan's (and sometimes, most disconcertingly of all, Dudley's) sexual attentions at each of the prehistoric sites they visit. Along the way, Alan tells her about books and she reads his library as he is slowly disposing of it, preparing for his death. For Alan has come to Aberdeen to die, and Anna's role is "to help him act out his death" (1).

So we have a gross send-up of the many conspiracy theories that circulate around contemporary celebrity, alongside the image of a prolonged death by narration or by reading as Alan passes on his literary prejudices: "Alan admired Kathy Acker but said he could never read through to the end of her books" (16), J. G. Ballard's Cocaine Nights "didn't have a lot to recommend it" (47), Robert McCrum is a "literary time-server" (78), W. G. Sebald a "voyeuristic professor" who purveyed "clichés and inanities" (96), while Julian Cope's "drug-addled brain appeared incapable of producing coherent thought" (98), and so on. Interspersed between these snatches of guerrilla literary criticism are the numerous sex scenes, whose tone can vary within the same paragraph from parodies of delicacy ("My love descended upon me like shadows at dusk enveloping a pretty country town" [114]) to hard-core cliché ("I felt his dear hands groping between the lips of my palpitating sex [. . .]. I murmured that Alan should fill up my cunt, how hot it was in its longing for his prick" [114]).

In the process, as both literary student and sexual object, Anna experiences something of "an exchange of subjectivities" (23). Or as she puts it later, "Alan was melting into me. [. . .] If I could not expel Alan, then I had to gather him up, not to imprison him but to integrate him into my being" (141). And that is Home's challenge, too: the other side of the avant-garde's inevitable recuperation by the cultural marketplace is that even the most shocking of texts have somehow to be integrated, if not imprisoned. Home is daring us to "gather him up."

I don't think that the means by which Home will be recuperated is through humour: for all its plentiful flashes of a rather dark and mordant wit, 69 Things is not particularly funny. So I'd disagree with Nicholas Lezard (to be fair, reviewing a different Home novel, Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie), who comments that "what's lovely about Home is that he uses laughter to make you think". There's nothing very "lovely" (or, indeed, "homely") about Home; his aesthetic of shock means that the affect here is almost all intended to be negative.

Other means of gathering up the avant-garde are either critical praise or public indifference, and surely Home gets plenty of both. But the combination of distastefulness in 69 Things, combined with its forceful assertion of a decidedly eclectic taste (all those harsh judgements against mediocrity!), puts the onus on us, its readers, to reconsider our own likes and dislikes. "OK," Home seems to be saying, "so you don't like this. Fine. What do you like, and why? Be as aggressive about your tastes as I am about mine."

Finally, this is of course also a book about ruins, and about what can be done in and with ruins: take the corpse of a dead princess on an extended walking tour; converse eruditely about books and history; fuck and be fucked. The one point at which (I think) Anna Noon has a rather brighter idea than Alan is where she suggests that the two could (mis)treat other cultural sites just as they were scandalously acting out in and on the prehistoric remnants of north-east Scotland:
I suggested that we should visit all the supermarkets in Aberdeen and treat these excursions in much the same way as our trips to stone circles. Alan insisted that it would be difficult to have sex in those stores that lacked customer toilets. I told him that he was missing the point, which was poetic, he had to imagine himself living 3000 years from now and pretend he was visiting ruins. (103-4)
This is also the "poetic" force of Home's book as a whole: that we should view the hallowed (and the unhallowed) institutions of the contemporary cultural marketplace as though they were ruins, act out their demise, and feel free to do in them what we like.

YouTube Link: Stuart Home on 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess and the market.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Roland Barthes's analysis of photography, Camera Lucida, claims that photography is ultimately a question of affect, and famously delineates two forms of affect that photographs may provoke, or that provoke our interest--perhaps even our obsession--in photography.

First, the studium is "general interest" or "a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment" to photography as cultural or historical documentation (26). We may be curious or intrigued; our interest may "even [be] stirred sometimes," but in the end our investment in photography for what it tells us (say) about the conditions of life fifty years ago--or about the scenery or customs of distant lands, or even about our friends' children or summer vacations--derives from or constitutes no more (and, I'd add, no less) than an "average affect, almost from a certain training" (26).

Second, however, the punctum is what "break[s] (or punctuate[s]) the studium"; it is what "rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me" (26). Often the punctum arises from a detail, perhaps at the margins of the image: Barthes's own examples, taken from news photographs of the Nicaraguan revolution, include two nuns crossing a road, a "corpse's one bare foot," "the huge eyes of two little boys," or the rag covering a guerrilla's face (23-5). If the studium is "of the order of liking" (27), the punctum by contrast invests the experience of viewing a photograph with a certain shock or surprise, perhaps even disgust, that reveals something of the viewer's desire.

Barthes is undoubtedly more drawn to the punctum than to the studium. If we can more or less equate the studium with habit--for what is habit but "average affect" or, perhaps better, affect that has been averaged out?--then Barthes is concerned with rediscovering the ways in which photographs break our sense of routinization, of the everyday. If "Society is concerned to tame the Photograph" (117), Barthes's concern is to show that photography remains wild, untamed. And if the "two ways of the photograph" are to be "mad or tame," then there is no question than that Barthes prefers madness, or what he also terms "the photographic ecstasy" (119).

(Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, might be someone who is more interested in photography as habit, as a regularized affect that coincides with a "certain training"; it would be worth returning to Bourdieu's own book on the subject, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, with this distinction in mind. It would enable us to provide a more generous, let us say, or perhaps simply more complex understanding of photography and "general interest.")

Barthes is interested in the punctum as what supplements the routinized, banalized practice of photography ("it is an addition" [55]) but is "nonetheless already there," ready to prick or shock the unwary observer. Even, indeed, the most everyday snapshots, he suggests, have something "scandalous" about them in that, by "attest[ing] that what I see has indeed existed," they have "something to do with resurrection" (82). Hence "the Photograph" (and note the capitalization, for this in Barthes's view is the essence of photography) "astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly" (82).

This astonishment brings interpretation to a halt. Perhaps strangely for someone known as the founder of semiology, of the "science of signs," who made his name in Mythologies with astute readings of the semantics of the image, Barthes is not here particularly interested in "reading" the photograph. Affect undoes or bypasses the mechanisms of signification and perhaps the symbolic order as a whole. If the studium allows for and indeed motivates interpretation, the punctum actively resists it: "the studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not" (51). Moreover, the punctum is somehow blinding, in that it opens up to what Barthes terms a "blind field" (57). Hence the paradox that "in order to see a photograph well, it is best to turn away or close your eyes" (53), for "to shut my eyes [is] to allow the detail to arise of its own accord into affective consciousness" (55).

(For this reason among others--the punctum as supplement, for instance--Barthes is especially close to Jacques Derrida in this book; see my comments on Memoirs of the Blind.)

We should not be surprised that for Barthes photography is essentially about the body ("What does my body know about Photography?" is his initial question [9]), and about "the return of the dead" (9) not simply as resurrection but as the return of death itself. The sense of astonishment or shock provided by the photographic detail is redoubled (or underwritten) by what Barthes calls "another punctum" (96); for if it is astonishing to realize that what I see has indeed existed, this shock owes to the simultaneous awareness that it no longer is. Death, and so time, is encoded in the photograph. Seeing a photograph of his mother as a young child (and much of this book is sparked by reflections on his mother, recently dead, as he scans through old photographs "looking for the truth of the face I had loved" [67]), Barthes realizes that "she is going to die: I shudder [. . .] over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe" (96).

But photography does not merely register temporality and hence death. For Barthes, photographers are themselves "agents of Death." The photograph "produces Death while trying to preserve life" (92; my emphasis). This is then the second way in which photography is comparable to religion--or even takes the place of religion in that it provides a new location for Death now that religion does not have same hold it once had:
Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final click. (92).
Photographs perform the scandalous miracle of resurrection, but at the price of reminding us of, or even imposing upon us, the catastrophic and uncompromisingly final death that makes that resurrection necessary--and agonizingly desired.

Monday, July 19, 2010


It is perhaps too easy to call Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled "Kafkaesque," and yet from the Central European setting to the befuddled narrator trying to make sense of a vaguely nightmarish world in which there seem to be hidden connections that he can't quite discern, it is Kafka who is surely the reference point here.

One major difference, however, between The Unconsoled and (say) The Trial is that the problems besetting Ishiguro's narrator and protagonist, a pianist by the name of Ryder, come because he is celebrated, rather than persecuted. But as time goes on, the line between celebration and persecution becomes increasingly blurred, and what begins as mere befuddlement approaches closer to nightmare.

Ryder has been invited to give some kind of recital in an un-named town that features a hotel in which Frederick the Great may once have stayed, run by a manager who is a little too eager to be of service; a historic Old Town with a Hungarian Café at which the hotel's porters relax, gossip, and give rousing displays of their bag-handling prowess; a more modern, windswept housing estate a bus-ride away in which a committee of busy-body housewives rule the social roost; and a series of other more or less shadowy locales and colourful but slightly creepy characters.

Just about everyone that Ryder meets declares themselves incredibly honoured to make his acquaintance at last, and almost all of them have some little favour to ask--if it is not too much trouble, though they swear that it will surely not take more than a minute or two. The hotel manager, for instance, would like the great pianist to glance at some scrapbooks his wife has put together; the hotel porter hopes that, in the speech that Ryder somewhat belatedly finds he is due to give at the recital, he may spare a moment to mention the work done by porters such as himself; and so on and so forth. All these small favours add up, most of them come to take up much more time and effort than anticipated, and soon Ryder finds he is slowly being suffocated by these small requests for kindness.

At first sight, people are simply being over-familiar. But in fact Ryder starts to realize that some of these new-found acquaintances are familiar, and include old schoolfriends strangely displaced. Others should be rather more familiar to him than they are. Above all there is Sophie, the porter's daughter, and her son, Boris. She treats the distinguished visitor as though he were her estranged lover, and her son as though he were Ryder's own offspring, and soon Ryder is almost convinced that she is right. Everything seems to resonate some dim memory somewhere. And if everyone has some small stake in Ryder's visit--the housewives' committee, for example, aggrandize themselves with the honour of looking after the musician's parents--in some cases Ryder slowly realizes that he, too, has some kind of stake even though he can't fully work out what it is himself.

It is tempting to try to come up with a rational key to this otherwise mysterious story. Is the answer, say, that Ryder is suffering from amnesia, shock, or delusions of some sort? There are certainly hints towards such narrative "solutions," and there is for instance no doubt that very many characters are in the grip of a variety of delusions--not least concerning the role of art and the way that this obviously much-anticipated visit by a celebrated musician might improve the profile and prospects of the town. And yet, on the one hand, there are a number of strange occurrences that really can't be fully explained away: space and time both appear warped, as when Ryder finds his childhood car rusting in a field outside a reception given in his honour. We find it hard to discern any hard border between delusion (or dream) and sanity (or consciousness); both are delineated with the same measure of realism. Moreover, on the other hand, it is as in Kafka precisely the search for logical explanation that gives rise to the greatest madness. Here, too, it is a bureaucratic logic (if in the form of making things easy for an honoured guest, rather than difficult for a suspected criminal) that ultimately throws up the "utterly preposterous obstacles everywhere" that are "quite typical of this town" (388).

In the same vein, it is hardly spoiling the plot to reveal that the recital never ultimately goes ahead... and, indeed, that it never particularly matters, either for the plot or for the experience of reading the book. In the end, if there is any logic to the long-anticipated event at all, Ryder slowly discovers that it has less and less to do with him. However much he is told he is the centre of the fuss and activity all around him, he comes to see that really he is only an excuse at best, a vehicle for other people's desires to play out as they try to position themselves within the community, or to reposition the community itself. The means by which they establish their positions is art, or the (often rather abstruse) discussion of what is apparently defiantly difficult modern art--in some ways The Unconsoled is almost a case study in the (il)logic of Bourdieusian symbolic capital. And finally even the art itself hardly matters.

So Ryder finds himself, as the book ends, a "rider" on a tram whose route is an apparently endless circuit of the town, or perhaps a rhizome that brings everything together. For "you can go anywhere on this tram" and it seems to offer its riders a full breakfast of "eggs, bacon, tomato, sausage" (533). Soon the pianist, now that the time for the recital has come and gone suddenly at a loss if no longer as lost has he once was, is happily eating and chatting, in no hurry to get off or go anywhere in particular. Despite everything, "Things had not, after all, gone so badly," he muses (534). He might even agree with his new friend: "Oh yes, this is a marvellous tram" (533).

And perhaps The Unconsoled, for all its gloomy title and Kafkaesque ambience--and the title is justified by the fact that everyone here is wounded in some way or another, and consolation would require some portion of the resolution that Ishiguro refuses--resembles somewhat the tram with with which the novel finally and rather arbitrarily ends. Perhaps it's because we ultimately don't care enough about the petty squabbles that occupy the townsfolk so, but the book turns out to be a sort of Kafkaesque comedy: rather aimless, and mysterious in its constant circuitous motion, but the journey alone is enjoyable enough for a while, even if it means we miss our stop a few times.

Friday, July 16, 2010


The notion of rewriting or creatively adapting a classic text is hardly new. From Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea to Apocalypse Now or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the idea is to take a cultural ur-text from which in some way we cannot escape, and to reform it for contemporary concerns or sensibilities.

Sometimes the aim is simply to recontextualize or update a story that is now thought to be stale or over-familiar (as with the numerous reimaginings of Shakespeare such as 10 Things I Hate About You). But often these always parasitical texts also present strong misreadings that are implicit, or even explicit, critiques of the original; Rhys's novel could be the (by now itself classic) instance of such a critical rewriting.

J. M. Coetzee's Foe belongs to this tradition, but in some ways his text is as much an unwriting of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as it is a revision or extension of the original. Coetzee purports to reveal and so undermine the writing strategy that gives us Defoe's book; Foe is a parasite that aims to kill its host by imaginatively troubling the very process of its production. It poses as less supplement than antidote.

Hence, then, the novel's title. In the first instance, "Foe" is a deformation of the name by which we have come to know Robinson Crusoe's author. It strips him of the claim to privilege that Daniel Foe attempted to assume when he changed his name to Defoe in order to imply some kind of aristocratic lineage. But second, Coetzee's book also treats Defoe as the enemy of the story that Coetzee, or his proxy Mary Barton, wishes to tell about desert islands, so-called savagery, but above all story-telling and writing itself.

Barton is Foe's protagonist and, in one way or another, its narrative voice. To remind us of this notion of voice, the first two-thirds of the novel is written, literally, in quotation marks: this contains Barton's own account of her arrival on a desert island in which Cruso (for so she spells his name) and "his" man Friday are already established, of the trio's rescue by an English merchantman, and of Cruso's subsequent death on the voyage home; it also includes her increasingly anguished letters, from various lodgings in London, to the author Daniel Foe to whom she has entrusted her story with the hope that he will produce a polished account of her travails. The final third of the book (apart from a very brief section that is more of an epilogue) then consists of Barton's conversations with Foe when she finally tracks him down to find out what kind of narrative the author is making of her experience.

The problem for Barton is that, at least initially, she doesn't trust herself to put things into suitable words. She is told by the captain of the ship taking her to England that hers "is a story you should set down in writing and offer to the booksellers" but replies that "a liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art." To which the captain responds that "the booksellers will hire a man to set your story to rights" (40). Enter Daniel (De)Foe, then, as the man who will set Barton's story "to rights."

Setting Barton's story to rights, however, introduces a series of apparent wrongs. For one thing, art seems to require embellishment. Life on the island was, after all, on the whole rather boring, not least because Cruso had been far from an entertaining conversationalist: so engaged was he in interminable agricultural labors that he had "nothing left to talk of save the weather." Barton therefore muses at the time that "Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world; the idea of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England" (34-5). It is Foe's task, then, to preserve the idea of Cruso from the disappointing reality.

This embellishment, though, further requires a whole series of other changes. Passion has to be added to the mix: if there was "too little desire in Cruso and Friday: too little desire to escape, too little desire for a new life," then something needs to be done because "without desire how is it possible to make a story?" (88). And as a counterpoint (or perhaps, prompt) to desire, Foe injects also fear of exotic difference and strangeness: the island needs to be under the threat of encroaching cannibals, even though Barton herself notes that "As for cannibals, I am not persuaded" for "I saw no cannibals; and if they came after nightfall and fled before the down, they left no footprint behind" (54).

No footprint: Foe's task, his art, is to supply signs such as the famous footprint in the sand that will conjure up the range of affects that may transform Barton's tale into one that satisfies English readers' desires for... well, desire itself.

His enterprise is made easier, though its result all the more troubling, by the fact that not only is the sullen Cruso no longer around to disappoint would-be interlocutors, but Friday is mute, his tongue mysteriously removed by person or persons alone (other "savages"? Cruso himself?). The subaltern subject can only have his tale told for him: "The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday" (118). And yet Friday's silence pervades the book, garnering almost physical presence as it is compared to "smoke [. . .] a welling of black smoke" (118).

Soon Barton, if not Foe, realizes that Friday's story, which will remain forever untold, "is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative" (121). Foe is apparently set on making up for this unfillable hole at the center of his story "by inventing cannibals and pirates," but Barton continually and resolutely rejects such narrative solutions to the problem of mute subalternity.

So if Cruso is sullenly and uninterestingly silent, and Friday is mute because of some unnameable and unlocatable violence, Barton's own lively but resistant voice, which gives Foe its substance, will in turn have to be silenced so as to give proper literary form to the text that will become Robinson Crusoe. The third and final silence, then, is the silencing of Barton for the sake of the story. As she herself imagines it, Foe will come to think "Better had there been only Cruso and Friday. [. . .] Better without the woman" (72).

The paradox, as Barton observes it, is that she is both essential to the story ("Yet where would you be without the woman?" [72]) and at the same time resistant to the process of story-telling and the sureties that it seems to require: "I am not a story, Mr Foe," she asserts (131); "But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me. [. . .] Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me?" (133).

If then, Robinson Crusoe is a tale of destitution overturned or compensated for by (male) hard work and ingenuity (though as I have suggested, some markers of the doubt that undoes its claims remain), Foe is an account of a different kind of destitution: of the way in which in which literature itself is a means by which to deny the subaltern (woman) her questioning, doubt-filled voice, and to project other desires onto the mute subaltern (savage) that remains.

Foe is a reminder, moreover, of what Barton terms "the life of a substantial body" even though that life is "abject. It is the life of a thing" (125-7). Barton consistently affirms substance and "substantial being" (90) while recognizing the power of writing and the way that even substance can be written out, written over, or lost. "Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe," she entreats (51).

Foe suggests that that only way to do justice to such loss of substance is to take up arms against the writers of the classics, to undo their claims of authorial mastery--though of course one of the many ironies of this contest is that the masterful Coetzee emerges from the fray with substantial authority himself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Reading Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is a somewhat uncanny experience. You know, or you think you know, the general lineaments of what has become a classic narrative and founding myth of modern civilization's relationship both to nature and to (purportedly) premodern barbarism. This is, after all, a familiar or even over-familiar story. Crusoe is the name of a seventeenth-century castaway who reconstructs a civilized life on a remote island with primitive tools; he finds a footprint on the beach and realizes he is not alone on the island; he subsequently is aided by and tutors his man "Friday."

Presumably at some point Crusoe and Friday are rescued, but the story as it exists in popular consciousness doesn't have (and perhaps doesn't need) any particular conclusion: it is a tale about origins, not conclusions. Any destiny the tale may imply is that incarnated in the process of gradual civilization itself, a process that is (it's suggested) without any fixed end.

Coming to the book itself, however, is a disconcerting reminder of how much is omitted, simplified, or corrupted as narrative becomes myth. For Defoe's novel bears at times little more than a passing resemblance to this idea of Robinson Crusoe that has become embedded in our cultural (un)consciousness.

To begin with, the story as told by Defoe takes an awfully long time to get to the famous island. Crusoe isn't shipwrecked until almost forty pages in, and before that point he's already had a whole set of other adventures and misfortunes: a terrible storm in the North Sea on his maiden sea voyage; kidnap and captivity at the hands of Barbary Coast pirates; escape across the North Atlantic, in the company of a young Spanish Moor, Xury; and a stint as a planter in Brazil.

So the origin (if the book is really a story about origins) is several times deferred or, perhaps better, foreshadowed and so repeated in advance. The North Sea storm anticipates the hurricane that will shipwreck Crusoe's boat in the Caribbean; his captivity in North Africa will be duplicated by the sense that his island home is a prison; his negotiations with Xury are a preemptive mirror of his relationship with Friday; and his life as planter foreshadows his attempts to establish agriculture as a castaway. By the time that we get to the founding moment, when Crusoe finds himself alone on his island, everything is already repetition.

A similar doubling can be found in the narrative provided of and on the island itself. For while the book opens as more or less standard first-person (pseudo-)autobiographical narrative, at the beginning of his sojourn Crusoe also starts to keep a journal, which he includes more or less verbatim in his account of those early days and months. So the same events are often told twice: once by Crusoe as novelistic narrator, and a second time in quotation as it were, by Crusoe as character. (Compare 37-56 with 57-61.) And so although the journal is intended initially as a kind of therapy--so "as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring on them, and afflicting my mind" (53)--this doubleness threatens a kind of narrative madness, the possibility of an endless proliferation of accounts. What, after all, if in the journal he had written up the process of writing the journal itself? An aporia threatens to open up, of narratives redoubled like reflections in multiple mirrors.

After a while, Crusoe appears to realize the senselessness of this procedure by which everything has to be described twice--a senselessness brought on ironically by an activity designed to give sense to his experience. As such he notes, for instance, of one construction he had made that "This wall being described before, I purposely omit what was said in the Journal" (61). Not long after, the conceit of quoting the journal is abandoned altogether or rather, as its conclusion or the end of the citation is never signaled with anything like the clarity that its introduction had apparently merited, the journal and the broader narration seem simply to blur one into another. What is quoted becomes part of the frame, and so the written account becomes part of the "real" world of the narrative. This, of course, in turn mirrors the strategy of the novel as a whole, which purports to be the true story of a castaway mariner, in other words to propose that the character's narrative is one with that of the world itself, that "his story" is simply history.

Another surprise, for me at least, was that the famous footprint in the sand turns out not to be Friday's; my assumption that it was collapses a whole sequence of events. The "print of a man's naked foot on the shore" (122) comes almost exactly halfway through the narrative; but Friday doesn't arrive on the scene for another forty pages (163). Again, then, there is a strange delay. Here, however, it's a case of the sign preceding the thing; the two, which in my understanding of the story had been closely associated, are in fact much more loosely related.

More generally, in the novel as a whole signs are quite tenuously related to things. For the most part, in fact, Crusoe seems quite uninterested in naming or charting what he finds in this unfamiliar territory. He tells us early on that he calls his land "the island of despair" (57), but that name is never used again; perhaps like "primitives" are supposed to do, he sees little need to give a name to an environment in which he is fully immersed. But rather more strikingly, he makes no attempt either to follow the standard colonizing practice of naming the various geographical and topographical features that constitute the island: none of the bays or hills or woods have any signifiers attached to them; at best, he calls his initial settlement his "sea-coast house" (82; subsequently his "castle" [122]) and his inland outpost his "country-house" (82). Nor, though he notes his unfamiliarity with much of the island's flora and fauna, does he bother to come up with words for them, either. Indeed, overall Crusoe is remarkably uninquisitive about his surroundings: he doesn't even care to do much in the way of exploring--which is why the regular visits of so-called cannibals from the mainland escape his notice for so many years.

In short, Crusoe's attitude is far from that of the typical colonizer, however much he does at various points consider himself the "prince and lord of the whole island" (118). He shows little or no interest in surveying, mapping, and so symbolically or even actually securing the territory that he considers his.

The one exception to Crusoe's peculiar inhibition regarding naming is, of course, his manservant to whom he famously gives the name "Friday" because that was "the day I sav'd his life; I called him so for the memory of the time" (163). And yet this, too, is a remarkably uncertain signifier: Crusoe has repeatedly told us that he relatively soon lost track of the days, despite his best efforts. In an early fever he feels he surely "lost a day in [his] accompt, and never knew which way" (76), so Friday should by rights be either "Thursday" or "Saturday" or even (if Crusoe has tried to compensate for his error, either one way or the other) perhaps "Wednesday" or "Sunday." In any case, the notion that the name will help fix memory and time is surely an illusion, as Crusoe should be fully aware.

In short, then, Robinson Crusoe turns out to be a rather odd and even singular book. It most certainly fails to ground in any secure way the various narratives of origin that claim it as some founding example loaded with significance, whether these be the fantasy of heroic self-fashioning (the economists' "homo oeconomicus") or the black legend of anti-heroic imperialism (the postcolonialists' ur-colonizer). If anything, it actively destabilizes such accounts, by demonstrating the unknowability and precariousness of origins, narrative, and signification in general. Which is a striking conclusion to take from a book that supposedly has none.

To put it another way, Crusoe's tale is best understood as more of a posthegemonic anti-narrative in which the many affects that mark the castaway's long isolation soon undo any claims to construct hegemonic narrative. And yet, of course, in the popular (un)conscious those stories continue regardless.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage presents itself as the account of a failed attempt to write a book about D. H. Lawrence. Or rather, it is a failed attempt to write a "sober, academic study of D. H. Lawrence" (1) because, ultimately, Dyer's book does still claim to be about Lawrence, if obliquely--or perhaps not obliquely enough.

The book is only obliquely about Lawrence in that so much of the narrative concerns the ways in which Dyer manages to procrastinate over his self-assigned task, often quite hilariously so. For instance, instead of reading about Lawrence he finds himself reading about Rilke, who himself wasted time agonizing about Rodin's words about the necessity of work:
I should have been working on my study of D. H. Lawrence and instead I was idling over Rodin's words. Il faut travailler, rien que travailler. I should be writing my book about D. H. Lawrence, I said to myself, everything else should be subordinate to that--but who can tell where that task begins and ends? Some huge benefit may yet accrue from reading Rilke's letters. The more I read, in fact, the more convinced I became that a better understanding of Rilke was crucial to an understanding of Lawrence. (20)
And yet Dyer's book is rather more directly about Lawrence than the standard academic monograph, in that Dyer is concerned less with reading secondary literature on Lawrence ("the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics," Dyer tells us, "are a crime against literature" [102]) than with going where Lawrence went and, as far as possible, experiencing what Lawrence himself experienced.

In short, Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of gonzo literary criticism; he himself terms it "method" criticism (128). Rather than read Lawrence (because although Dyer does seem to have read plenty of Lawrence, he tells us precious little of that reading), the aim is to track Lawrence's own apparently aimless wanderings from Derbyshire, across the Mediterranean, and on to Mexico and the Southwest USA, and so to feel something of what Lawrence himself may have felt in those same places. Rather than interpretation, Dyer gives us affect.

This affective approach to Lawrence may seem to be peculiarly appropriate, given that this is a writer whose work is after all often concerned with intensity, spirit, and feeling, except that the prevailing affect in Dyer's traipse in Lawrence's tracks turns out to be lassitude, frustration, and boredom. If academic criticism is from the start ridiculed (perhaps particularly for a subject such as Lawrence) as spectacularly missing the point, the attempt at affective encounter would likewise appear, at least as Dyer presents it, to be inevitably doomed. For instance, when he finally reaches the site of Lawrence's house in Taormina, Dyer first finds roadworks and "a Moscow smell of petrol" and then, seeing a plaque verifying that this is indeed the place, comments:
We had found it. We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings that don't exist. You try saying a mantra to yourself, "D. H. Lawrence lived here." You say, "I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw...", but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it and the sea glinting in the distance. (60)
New Mexico is similarly disappointing: Santa Fe "didn't quite live up to the immense romance of the name" (213-4) while Taos's one distinguishing feature ends up being the fact that it has "an unrivalled concentration of terrible artists" (216).

If this book is born "out of sheer rage" (the quotation comes from Lawrence himself, writing a book on Thomas Hardy that "will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid"), perhaps that is because it effects a transmutation of Lawrentian rage ("Lawrence was angry even in his sleep," we are told [160]) to what we might call a characteristically Dyersian minor irritation and petty annoyance. Dyer shows his talent for petty annoyance particularly in his relations with his girlfriend, who accompanies him on much of his journey and with whom he frequently squabbles. He himself, near the end, concludes that his own book is ultimately about despair, but really it's a peculiarly affectless despair, a depression that he defines as "the complete absence of any interest in anything" (227).

But in a final twist of a book that is full of the kinds of twists and turns that constitute uncertainty, general unease, and restlessness rather than high drama, the pursuit of Lawrence, however dissatisfying and even trivial ("Could such a simple quest really have required such a disproportionate investment of effort?" Dyer askes [226]) turns out to be therapeutic. The voyage itself at least staves off the utter meaningless and depression that otherwise, it's suggested, awaits us. We all need some vague sense or irritation, we're told, that keeps us in a kind of Brownian motion that attempts to salve minor dissatisfactions:
Our lives are actually made up of lots of tiny searches for things like a CD we are not sick of, an out-of-print edition of Phoenix, a picture of Lawrence that I saw when I was seventeen, another identical pair of suede shoes to the ones I am wearing now [. . .]. Add them together and these little things make up an epic quest, more than enough for one lifetime. (230-1)
Hence it is that "One way or another we all have to write our studies of D. H. Lawrence" (231) and "the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D. H. Lawrence" (232).

And yet, perhaps appropriately, I find this conclusion disappointing. Dyer would say "But of course!" The apparent profundity, however, is plucked out of nowhere. And the fact that a book that is rather interesting on what we might call an affect of disinterest and fragmentation, of never being able to resolve the elements of what we imagine must once have been a coherent whole, ends up as a form of consolatory self-help in renaming these petty parts an "epic quest"--indeed, ends up taking a sort of smug satisfaction in dissatisfaction--well, I find it mildly annoying.