Thursday, August 18, 2011


I read Paul Auster's New York Trilogy over the summer (how strange that I only refer to summer in the past tense now when the equinox has yet to happen--it's still over a month away), and I'd meant to write about the books sooner, before they'd faded from my mind. I suppose it's better this way, though, or at least in keeping with the feel of the books. I often found myself left wanting more when I finished each individual book in the trilogy; something about them seemed empty and hollow. In the moment of reading, though, I felt satisfied. They are strange books, and they move sort of like nightmares. Everything feels just slightly off, and when you try and move your thoughts around the plot and characters, you can't quite move toward anything definite. Just like in a nightmare, no matter how hard you try to run, you just stand still. And then it's over; you're out and awake and the story has finished without anything wrapping up in any clear way.

There are times that passages catch my eye while I'm reading and they will sort of haunt me. I won't be able to decide if what the passage says is true or not, and the words sort of hammer away in my subconscious, waiting to jump out at me. The final book in the trilogy, The Locked Room, had a couple of such passages. The first reminds me of my favourite lines from Ulysses, which hang above my desk: "Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves" (doing a quick Google search on this passage, it turns out that it is quite popular in general. I didn't know that. It certainly isn't a passage that our attention was drawn to in the Joyce class I took). In Auster's novel:
Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge--none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another--for the simple reason that no can gain access to himself.
 On the surface, this seems sort of diametrically opposed to Stephen Daedalus' words (though Stephen does go on to disclaim any belief in the truth of his own words). For the narrator of The Locked Room, we cannot meet ourselves in others because we cannot meet our self. We are unknowable, and even the stories we can tell about ourselves, the tangible evidence of our existence, gives us no insight into who or what we are. I'm not sure how I feel about that line of thought. It would be easy for me to say I disagree, but I'm not sure where I would attack any of the narrator's claims. Similarly, it would be easy for me to say I agree, but I'm not sure where I'd go about finding any support for the claims. It's sort of an anti-Delphic moment: you can never know thyself. I wonder how this might all fit into a Lacanian/Zizekian sense of the Other and the Other's unknowability. Can you render the self as the Other?

What really interests me about that Auster passage, though (beyond the weird echo of Joyce), is that I remember a similar kind of comment kicking off my interest in representations of professors in literature. I'm not usually very good at reconstructing thoughts and how I came to an idea after the fact (once an idea is there, it becomes difficult to remember it as not always having been there), but I can remember the genesis of this one fairly clearly. A group of graduate students were sitting in a conference room listening to a fairly prominent academic talk about his work. After some prodding, he began to relate the narrative of his career (i.e. where he went to school, where he got his first job, how long he stayed there, when he moved to his next job, etc., etc.). When he'd finished--and after someone asked him if he could give us, the graduate students desperate for advice, some sort of hint or clue about what to do with our professional lives based on his own narrative--he said that he couldn't really gives us any advice because that narrative he'd told us had nothing really to do with his life and work. His only piece of advice was to follow our work and ideas.

I remember thinking after he'd said that "I wonder how many professors would say that, even though their lives/careers/work might fit into very tidy and conventional narratives, those narratives bear no relation to their actual lives/careers/work." I'm guessing, and I guessed then, that the number is probably quite a bit higher than just the man who sat in that conference room with us that day. I'm also guessing that regardless of that opinion, any number of outside observes will continue to think of those academics' lives/careers/work in terms of those conventional narratives. So, my next thought--the one I'd like to explore further--was: what are those narratives? There are a whole host of sub-questions beyond that now, but that was my first thought that day. I scribbled some of this down on a sheet of paper and if I looked hard enough through various boxes of notes, I'd bet I could find that paper now.

Well, this post was originally going to be about something much different. I guess, after hours of in-service today and meeting new people and explaining my interests to them and all that I'm in something of a reflective mood. I guess I'll return to Auster (whose name I can't help but say in my head as Auster-D because of a presentation on City of Glass before I'd ever read the book).

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