Stillman's Maze

    Paul Auster's Postmodernist Fiction: Deconstructing Aristotle's "Poetics"




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This thesis was sent to me by Dragana Nikolic, a London resident. This was her Master's dissertation on Paul Auster at the Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. If you would like to get in touch with her to talk about her thesis or anything else related to Auster, you can email her at:


Paul Auster is a storyteller. In an interview with Stephen Rodefer he stated: 'When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it.'1 He echoes Aristotle2 by recognising the logical priority of the story, although his postmodernist fiction denies any possibility of a teleological conception of art. Such art is ordered by a strict structure comprising of beginning, middle and end. The arrangement of the particular elements in its structure is governed by the universal principle to which everything must correspond. In Artistotle's "Poetics" fear and pity are the goal of tragedy, just as the ludicrous is the goal of comedy. I will also use this concept of teleological art in my essay in the context of classical art , defined by an idea that exists outside the text and which structures the logical ordering of its events. In particular, I will like to concentrate on the occasions when Auster's fiction seems to play with the predictability of such texts. It is precisely with this promise of an 'easy' popular fiction that Auster lures the reader into reading his novels, spinning endless stories like a modern Scherhezade. Auster, however, uses conventions of popular fiction in order to foil them. With no principle of central organisation or authorial voice to give meaning to events, the narrative's logical sequence is disrupted. In the disjointed world of Paul Auster each fragment exists as a separate unit. With no causal order to link them together, the fragments are ruled by laws of random events and unpredictable chance.

Postmodernist fiction seems to reflect the fact that the writer has become tired of trying to explain a disjointed and godless universe. The classic narrative, according to Peter Brookes3, became a necessary means of organising and interpreting the world as a consequence of the ideological failure of the ‘sacred masterplot.'

The task that Paul Auster tries to face is neither concerned with ordering nor explanation, it is rather a question of incorporating the chaos of the world 'beyond understanding'4 into his fiction. As Beckett indicated in an interview5:

'What I am saying here does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else[...] To find a new form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.'

Umberto Eco in "Opera Aperta" calls open modern work 'an epistemological metaphor'; not only does it reflect aspects of modern philosophy and modern science but through its lack of conventional sense and order it represents the feeling of disorder and discontinuity that the modern world generates in all of us. Nothing could be better said of Paul Auster's fiction. The aim of this essay is to show how this 'ambiguity' of modern art is reflected upon.


The Story

Auster indicates in "The Art of Hunger" that the greatest influence on his work has been the fairy tales and oral tradition of storytelling. What he admires in these stories and tales is their economy of bare-boned narrative and lack of detail which leaves enough space in the text for the reader to inhabit it. The text acts as a 'springboard of imagination'6 and it is up to the reader to complete it. Similarly in "The New York Trilogy" Quinn says: 'in the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.'7 Under the central ordering of omnipotent narrator and promise of the 'salvation of a reader' due to the text's closure which will reveal it all, even the most insignificant detail cannot be overlooked. As another version of teleological classic art, detective text is obsessed with closure; the end comes not only as a salvation of the reader but at the same time gives reassurance that the reader is not be wandering in a wilderness of ambiguous signs. Everything that happens in a detective story must be placed under the perspective of a final truth. The detective and the reader are deciphering the text under the watchful eye of the author who holds keys to the enigma. The detective pursues the truth using the power of reason and logic. Madeleine Sorapure8 states that the success of the detective is measured by the accuracy with which he emanates the 'transcendental reason of the author'. Through establishing causality and eliminating ambiguity, the detective presents his own authorial ability to unite disparate elements into formal coherence. However, in "The City of Glass" the detective's pursuit of knowledge is frustrated. In an endless game of mirroring, Quinn demonstrates his inability to solve the mystery just as the narrator fails to decipher words from Quinn's red notebook, and inform us further of the hero's destiny:

'At this point the story grows obscure. The information has run out, and the events that follow this last sentence will never be known. It would be foolish even to hazard a guess.'9

As the detective proves unable to read the clues and the narrator fails to tell the story coherently, the interpretive desire of the reader becomes frustrated.

Russian formalism distinguishes between fabula and sjuzet, between the story to which the narrative refers and the plot which the author presents to us. In the case of "City of Glass", fabula would refer to the genre of popular detective fiction. Such fiction is reader oriented: its major characteristic being able to keep the reader or the listener in suspense for a long time and then surprise them by something he was far from expecting. Desire to find the body, evidence or the key to the enigma as desire to solve the crime becomes the telos of popular detective fiction. The sjuzet of the "City of Glass" deconstructs the intentions of the fabula and prevents this text from ever becoming popular detective fiction. The form of the novel literally falls apart in progression as the reader is lead not towards the solution of the case but towards more confusion. William G. Little10 said that Auster's stories are not plotless but the plots are constantly foiled. In a story in which nothing happens, waiting for some sign or a message is equally futile; like waiting for Godot. In the meantime, the events have become increasingly obscure, characters drop off the pages without explanation, and meaning proliferates. It is not long before one realises that there will be no story at all.

The Aristotelian concept of plot is based upon definite structure and order: size and length are elements of beauty. The tragedy is an imitation of the action which is complete and whole. 'Component elements ought to be so firmly compacted that if any one of them is shifted to another place and removed, the whole is loosened up and dislocated' (Poetics, 32p). Furthermore, Aristotle demands that the story does not start anywhere: well constructed stories would neither begin nor end at any chance point. The plot should be so structured that its elements are connected by logico-causal relation. If the whole telos of the tragedy is to produce feelings of fear and pity, then everything illogical, even if it did happen in reality, must be excluded from it, otherwise these feelings could not be induced. According to Aristotle the source of pleasure of the text comes from intellectual understanding. He opposes Plato by stating that the poet activates rational and not irrational thinking. The poet's job is not to report what has happened but 'what is likely to happen' (Poetics, 32p). The events should not be presented as they happen in life; rather they should follow the rules of necessity and probability. The best tragic imitation is of events which are fearful and pathetic, and these occurrences come best when they happen contrary to one's expectations yet logically, one following the other. It is in connection with these rules that Aristotle draws his aesthetic judgement of poetry as an endless creation that deals more with universal aspects of life which oppose history, the function of which is to reflect events as they occured. In life, however, things do not happen according to logic. Aristotle permits the irrational only in reality. While the poet concentrates on imitation of only one action, the historian's duty is to describe the events as they happened. Samuel Farr is trying in the "In the Country of Last Things" to write a book which comprises endless stories of interviews of people about life in the city. Driven by the ambition to present a panoramic historical view of life in the city he collects all the stories without concentrating on a particular one. The result is that he ends up with a story so enormous that it is impossible for anyone to tell it, let alone read it.

However, Aristotelian logic and reasoning cannot be applied to the disjointed postmodern fiction of Auster. His story branches out in all directions, without a beginning, middle or end like some structureless 'rhizome'11... It reflects typically postmodern 'central emptiness under the absent god'12. Absence of the ultimate divine truth, as absence of an organising center or a frame, gives way to pagan proliferation of the meaning of the text. As a writer of fragments which exist alone 'with no before or after'13 he disrupts the linear progression of the story and relies on chance to move the plot forward. Thus, complexity opposes earlier linear ordering of cause and effect. Chance is an unpredictable and whimsical goddess, misused in 'bad' literature as a device that allows the writer freedom for endless possibilities and combinations. However, in Auster's fiction chance is a way of shattering the power of reason and logic as it occurs in his narrative. The unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in our lives', he declares in "The Art of Hunger". As the improbable exists in reality, the task of the realist writer, as Paul Auster declares in " The Art of Hunger", is to use it as a source of imagination and present it in his fiction. Aristotle, on the other hand, advises the poet to choose events that are impossible but plausible 'in preference to ones that are possible but implausible'(Poetics,66p) because plots should not be made of irrational events. It seems to me that Auster's fiction is composed of these irrational events; this inexplicable and bewildering human existence challenges certainties and preconceptions of the world. In "The Invention of Solitude" Auster remarks that his life is so fragmented that each time he sees a connection between two fragments, he is tempted to look for a meaning, to look beyond the facts of his existence (p143). Quinn comments in "City of Glass": 'nothing is real except the chance'. Auster's text centres around implications of chance. In an unpredictable universe, as Marco Fogg remarks in "Moon Palace", causality is no longer hidden demiurge that ruled the world, where down was up, first was last, the end was the beginning, the change is the only constant. Steven Weisenburger suggests that through this philosophy of change, Marco Fogg glimpses the possibility of his own release from determinist metaphysics.

Baudrillard, in "Chance, Culture and the Literary Text" claimed that certain phenomena happen beyond our control and hence chance allowed certain space to escape responsibility for such phenomena. I do not argue that Auster had in mind the question of responsibility as much as his wish to express his bewilderment at the sense of contingency, which we are not aware of, present in our lives.

The challenge that Auster lays in front of the reader is to try to establish whether there is some pattern ruling the endless interplay of disparate events: a task similar to the endeavour of Quinn who stalks senior Stillman only to find out that the steps of the old man inscribe the letters 'Tower of Babel', suggesting fragmentation, chaos and confusion. Quinn later wondered which words would spell his own steps in life. That is precisely what Auster does not wish us to know. He challenges our quest to determine by rationalising. There is no possibility of a solution or knowledge in Auster's fiction. Nashe in "The Music of Chance" is driven by the fact that certainly at some stage he will find out the truth; however he and the reader are denied the possibility of its discovery. By stressing the impossibility of knowledge, Auster thus challenges what Lyotard14 calls one of the great legitimising myths of narrative archetypes: the speculative unity of knowledge. The breaking up of this snug unity of all knowing subjects is achieved through the presentation of something beyond our control, something that destroys the neat ordering of cause and effect: chance.

In an aftermath to their lost poker game, Nashe and Pozzi examine the reasons behind their failure. Pozzi as a poker player believes in chance and he is convinced that somewhere, sometimes he will be the chosen recipient of its good fortune. On a metaphysical level he expresses the belief in a world based upon a delicate harmony which must be maintained by care in order to keep its balance. He accuses Nashe of disturbing that balance and committing a sin by 'tempering with the universe' ( The Music of Chance,p138). He broke the rhythm of their winning game by leaving the room at an inappropriate moment. The consequences for the destiny of the two heroes of "The Music of Chance" are catastrophic. Not only did they lose the game, but they were sentenced to hard labour. In order to pay for their gambling debt they had to build the wall. The narrative moves away from freedom and movement, from the world played by music of chance into complete isolation and fixity of place. Nashe's attitude to his fate is fatalistic: he accepts the fact that his freedom is taken away from him as the building of the wall becomes some kind of atonement. He mocks Pozzi's belief in hidden purpose that explains how things work in the world be it luck, God or harmony. Once released from the world of chance with its indefinite possibilities of America's freeways he stoically tolerates his new position. It seems to me that "The Music of Chance" contrasts these two disparate worlds: improbable world of chance and determinate world of law. In the world of chance Nashe's existence comes as 'the fixed point in a whirl of changes'(The Music of Chance, p11). In the world of restriction and order, the body is under strict surveillance and must adhere to the law. The challenge that Pozzi and Nashe must overcome is the building of the wall. This wall, which becomes a postmodern pastiche of its origins as an Irish castle to produce something new, is a way of separation of these two worlds. The closer they get to finishing, the further away they are from their freedom until eventually it becomes a wall of terror they are building around their lives. As if the determinate world of law and order needs the wall in order to protect itself from the improbabilities of freedom and chance. The wall is menacing; it bears the restriction with it, just as the Sea Wall project from "In the Country of Last Things", it is designed also to keep the disenchanted subjects from escaping.

'Reality is a Chinese box, an infinite series of containers within containers', says Paul Auster in an interview in "Art of Hunger"(p80). It seems that every time he manages to find certain links between disparate elements he feels the urge to celebrate: Auster's fiction is full of little anecdotes that show the unpredictability of life. In these inexplicable events which point out that life is not as straightforward as one hoped it would be, Auster finds the roots of his imagination: reality is stranger than fiction. In "The Invention of Solitude" Auster presents the story called "The first commentary on the nature of chance":

'This is where it begins. During the war M.'s father had hidden out from Nazis for several months in a Paris chambre de bonne . Eventually, he managed to escape, made his way to America, and began a new life. Years passed more than twenty years M. had been born, had grown up, and was now going off to study in Paris. Once there, he spent several difficult weeks looking for a place to live. Just when he was about to give up in despair, he found a small chambre de bonne. Immediately, upon moving in he wrote a letter to his father to tell him the good news. A week or so later he received a reply: your address, wrote M.'s father, that is the same building I hid out during the war.'

This is the root of Paul Auster's writing. The game of writing that starts 'when nothing can be explained anymore', because the bewildering experience reduces one to silence. This silence precedes the writing. The imagination that springs out from the presence of extraordinary reality is what haunts him and propels him to reach deep into the depths of his memory in order to find a whole world within the walls of inner self. Memory is, for Auster, an inner myth comprising of endless life stories which come to mind involuntarily, because we cannot order what to remember. Presented as childhood stories and anecdotes of his life. In Auster's fiction, memory also becomes a restructuring of the historical past: as an immersion in the life of others. The memory of being a Jew, memory of the Holocaust as memory of the unspeakable, haunts Auster. Furthermore, memory is described as a space in which the event happens for the second time. Memory is also referred to as a body, as a skull, as a room, as a place, as a building. Auster shares Saint Augustine's thoughts on memory 'as a vast immeasurable sanctuary, buried deep inside one's soul, which retains primacy in the understanding of one's mind.'15 Memory comes, according to Auster, as a voice to one's inner mind which is not necessarily one's own; 'this voice that speaks to him in a way a voice might tell stories to a child, yet at times this voice makes fun of him' (The Invention of Solitude, p124). It is the voice also of the ‘possessed’ that associates Auster with the prophets: Jeremiah, who couldn't speak in the presence of the Lord so God put forth his hand and put his words into his mouth. Memory of the ‘I’ who has vanished from itself and cannot be heard except as another. What myth is for Aristotle's plot, memory is for Auster's story. This myth moulded in solitude is based not on tradition, as Aristotle would have liked, but upon ruthless examination of self. What brings Auster to Thoreau and Hawthorne is a belief that literature is forged in isolation and working on oneself. Memory is, therefore, mythology of the inner soul, which comprises all the stories our consciousness weaves inside of us. However, memory as we have seen from "In the Country of Last Things" also forms the basis of language. Memory happens in spite of oneself, we cannot choose what to remember and what to forget: thus in the city where objects are constantly disappearing their names are being forgotten too. The trouble is that not everyone forgets the same thing: when Anna asks the guard about the aeroplane he doesn’t know what it is. He even accuses her of making up stories. She can get in trouble for making up stories because the government does not like it. With no common ground to go on people of the city could become locked inside their own solipsistic language.

Paul Auster is not the storyteller that Walter Benjamin had in mind when describing the art of storytelling.16 The inspiration of the story comes from a pool of oral tradition and experience passed by the word of mouth. There the storyteller has counsel for the listener, his counsel is wisdom. Memory plays a vital part in the transmission of a storyteller's message: it must be remembered in order to be retold. This is reminiscent of the narration of Cashinahua Indians that Lyotard mentions in "Just Gaming", which is just another example of how the collective whole can have a role in the transmission of the message. The case of Paul Auster, it appears to me, is of another sort: the source of storytelling comes from isolation, from the solitude of an artist who sits alone in a room and writes with no particular purpose in mind except a compelling urge to write, the writer who sought refuge in order to create. The story of Auster's inner experience collected as memory does provoke listening. Although his experiences shape the story, Auster autobiographic details are given only as a detail of the character's life, amongst other voices that speak in the text. Auster often expresses a desire to implicate his authorial self in his text.17 Even when he speaks about himself as we can see from Auster's text, the author does not speak with a direct language of his own, rather he introduces himself amongst a multitude of other perspectives in a polyphony of discourse. 'The self whose name appears on the covers of books is finally not the same self that writes the book', says Auster in "The Art of Hunger"(p 277). Fictional details of Auster's life cannot be so easily equated with his real life. The writing itself imposes such distance, so I would agree with Blanchot, that this distance neutralises beforehand all meaning or lack of it. This is the distance of the artist who in order to create, has disintegrated his own self, until his story becomes incomprehensible, until 'it speaks in neuter'.18

The theme of the absent father is recurrent in Auster's story. His first prose fiction "The Invention of Solitude", written after his father's death, was an attempt to fill in the void left by his absence. Auster is painfully aware of the absurdity of his task, of the impossibility of entering another's solitude: the man would let you get as far as he wants you to come. Auster's father is the epitome of the postmodern character: 'an impenetrable space in the block of time'. (The Invention of Solitude, p7) The figure of the father looms in the background of Auster's fiction. In the "City of Glass" the father-son relationship is translated into an oppressive tale of innocent sons and their vicious fathers. Stillman senior performs a language experiment on his offspring: he wants to implement God's language by denying his son the human language. He keeps him in the dark room for many years, he crushes him into submission. It is the word of the father that the child must obey. Just like in Kafka's story "The Judgement" where Herr Bendemann pronounces death by drowning, a sentence his son readily obeys. However, the father's language experiment in "City of Glass" does not work; it creates a puppet without identity. Submission to authority causes the self to lose its voice: 'Perhaps I am Peter Stillman. Perhaps I am not. My real name is Peter Nobody.' (City of Glass, p18). In this light, the theme of disaffiliation as Chris Tysh19 describes it, becomes a way of escaping from closure of divine truth or authority of oppressive fathers. "City of Glass" deconstructs the father's divine language and records the Babel like confusion and decay. However, "Moon Palace" offers another version of tale of origin. Narrated in concentrated circles, it evolves around the three generations of complete strangers who belong to the same family. Chance encounters bring unforeseen changes to their lives: at the centre of this disfunctional family universe is the comical overweight figure of Julian Barber who, as the story turns out, is Marco's father. For Aristotle these moments of 'recognition'20 between members of close family bear not only intense drama but bring about 'peripety'21 of the dramatic action. For Auster it is just another story which boils down to a series of missed chances. The pieces of jigsaw puzzle are there from the beginning but nobody bothers to fit them together. All the movements in the novel are cyclical; no sooner does Marco Fogg finish one cycle of his life than he begins another, until he ends up literally at the end of the world beyond which there is nothing except emptiness. As the Moon finds its way in the darkness of the sky, Marco ponders about the new beginning. The Moon has a feminine, repetitive nature. It is the object of desire, the urge to capture it is seen as a symbol of progress. It also, as Byrne said in the novel, helps define man’s position on Earth. As Marco wanders around New York like forsaken Adam whose life becomes total chaos and decay, he overhears the words of the American president who greets the first steps on the Moon as the greatest in the history of humanity.

The theme of hunger is another important feature of Auster's story. Image of a hungry artist links him to Knut Hamsun and Kafka. It expresses the hunger of the artist for whom the writing has become a compulsion and matter of survival. It expresses Auster's idea of writing as compulsion and the obsession of the artist who must write in order to stay alive. The art becomes need, necessity and desire. Auster's essays on literature are published under the title "The Art of Hunger". The artist who produces the art of hunger starves to create. In order that Sam Farr may continue writing his story about the city, he must do without: all the money that he has is spent on paying people to come and talk to him. He is aware that if he stops writing he would be lost, because the book is the only thing that keeps him going. To live in the city he must write, to carry on writing, he must starve. Another important connection between speaking and writing is mentioned in Auster’s essay about Louis Wolfson. Adam was granted the privilege of naming the creatures of Paradise and was later expelled for having eaten from the tree of knowledge. Mystics fast in order to receive the word of God. The body of Christ, the word made flesh, says Auster, is eaten in holy communion. Similarly, food is the favourite subject of conversation in "In the Country of Last Things". The stories about food are told according to a strict protocol. One must never laugh and never allow the hunger to take over. Anna Blumme calls these stories the "ghost stories".

Marco Fogg's anorexia on the other hand comes as a form of resistance. This protest against society is refined to the form of aesthetic nihilism, through radical refusal to do anything to help his position. He is certain that once the money runs out he is going to starve and possibly die but still he resolves to do nothing as a form of protest to the world. He decides to become living proof that something is rotten in the land of plenty. Similarly in a short story by Kafka,22 the aesthetics of hunger receives most meticulous elaboration. The story is called "The Fasting Showman" and is centred upon the figure of a hunger artist who is sitting in a cage performing his art of fasting. His eagerness to show off his skill prompts him to stretch out his arms through the bars so people might feel how thin they are. He takes painstaking measures to make sure that his art of fasting is genuine, although he is watched day and night by the guards he even whistles in their presence to let them know that he is not helping himself to some nourishment in secret. He fasts in order to be admired, however the public gradually loses its taste for his art and he dies in the straw of his forgotten cage. The theme of hunger and starvation can also be applied to the body of the modern text. Mark Anderson in his text "Anorexia and Modernism, or How I learned to diet in all directions"23 maintains that the text is moving towards the starvation caused by 'hermeneutic blockage common to twentieth century minimalism'(p38). This aesthetic approach to the text comes as a modernist response to the fragmentation, ephemerality and contingency which characterise modern life. It also, I think, reflects the rejection of the conventional language of classic novels. Paul Auster in "The Art of Hunger" (p 265) criticises the writer who does too much 'overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. 'A character comes to the room. How much of that room do you want to talk about?’, asks Paul Auster (The Art of Hunger, p205). In order to make it new the postmodernist writers must spit out the old language of classic narratives as fattening. As 'the body of the language' shrinks causing the story to disintegrate and confuse us, it is now up to the reader to join the loose threads of the story together and give them meaning. The text thus moves away from the author to the reader. Aristotle counts upon the reader to accomplish tragic catharsis while Auster relies upon him to risk his sanity and work out what is happening in his text. However, the discipline of self-starvation governing the thin body of Auster's postmodernist fiction leads to interpretative collapse on the part of the reader. No matter how hard he tries, the emaciated story always escapes him, until the reader is left with the feeling that nothing is sure and nothing adds up.


The Character

Aristotle in "Poetics" gives the plot such prominence that he states that tragedy cannot exist without a plot, but it can without characters. Plot is an imitation of action (Poetics, p27) and is enacted by the people performing that action. Plot is not based upon the unity of a single person. Homer in the“Odyssey” did not incorporate everything that happened to his hero, because he would have to include an indefinite amount of events that can happen to a given individual. Demands of the poetic mimesis required that he compose his story around a single unified action. The structure of the plot, states Aristotle, is the goal of the tragedy and the goal is of the greatest imortance. Aristotle's concept of character in "Poetics" is ethical: character is defined by making a moral choice, the decision borne out of careful consideration. In "Poetics" the character is defined by 'that kind of utterance which clearly reveals the bent of man's moral choice', hence Aristotle concludes that there is no character in that class of utterance where there is nothing at all that the speaker is selecting or rejecting.

If we apply Aristotle's theory to the postmodern fiction of Paul Auster, the conclusion would be that there is no character in his novel. In Auster's fiction, where language is unstable and nothing is real except chance, his characters are not the central point around which the text revolves. Who Quinn is and where he comes from, and what he has done are of no great importance, says Auster. Aristotle on the other hand gives much thought in his text to the concept of character. Tragedy is the imitation of people 'who are to be taken seriously' (Poetics, p24). The audience needs to identify with their actions and feel sympathy towards them in order to feel tragic catharsis when their fate is transformed from good fortune into bad. Also, virtuous man should not experience a change in fortunes from good to bad nor should wicked man experience a change from bad fortune to good. The ideal hero should fall between these extremes: he is neither a paragon of virtue nor the epitome of evil. Change of his destiny from happiness to misfortune did not happen because of some wickedness, but because of some mistake. Aristotle correctly anticipates that the spectator’s perception of fear depends upon the judgement that the sufferer did not deserve his misfortune, therefore, it could happen to anyone. The characters should be good; their action should reveal a sound moral judgement. Furthermore, they should be appropriate and consistent, the characteristic that was later adopted as a poetic rule of decorum. The appropriate character shows traits that correspond to his class and sex: if the poet represents the woman 'she should not be made to be brave or clever'.(Poetics, p43) The characters also act with consistency They should be realistic in a way that they should show a 'likeness to human nature.' (Poetics, p43) The feeling of pity will be aroused when the spectator feels for someone who is similar to him, because he is actually afraid that the same thing could happen to himself. If the character is known from Greek tradition, his actions must resemble an already established prototype. The rules of probability and necessity govern the consistency of character: his actions at all times should follow logic.

If the idea of character implies the centre as a governing logic that follows either a realistic, psychological or other causal explanation, then it is clear that Auster's fiction is characterless. Hans Berten in "Exploring Postmodernism" maintains that postmodernist characterisation presents the character as unknowable. Auster challenges the concept of character as defined by an untouched identity buried deep inside oneself. He also rejects the notion of the consistent journey with evolving and developing personality that is mastered through hard work of self-discovery. In a world of fragments where language reflects the split between words and their objects, the character is de-centred in an endless play of signification. A dislocated subject cannot find stability in a world ruled by random forces and unstable language. On his way back from visiting Peter Stillman, Quinn sees a tree and wonders whether this tree has the same significance for Peter as for himself. If this tree is not the same for Peter, Quinn asks himself what it really was. The words and their representations are out of control and that affects the characters' ability to establish themselves. Auster's characters tend to move away from origin and authority, towards a dionysiac forgeting of the self24. Certain conclusions about their actions cannot be drawn: they have no centre nor stable identity. The only consolation left to Auster's subject is to reinvent himself: uncle Victor says in "Moon Palace" that every person is the author of his own life. Auster's characters very easily assume someone else's identity. Quinn becomes Paul Auster, the detective called upon to solve the mystery. To become someone else is a form of consolation for Quinn. It offers the lightness of becoming the other, of being on the surface with no inner thoughts, while the burden of your own consciousness gets forgotten. He also uses the pseudonym of William Wilson to write detective novels. Athough within he was born as Daniel Quinn, he gave birth to many other personalities; thus Wilson becomes the creature that lives an independent existence to that of the mainstream consciousness of his inner self. Quinn treats Wilson sometimes with admiration, sometimes with deference. He is aware that Wilson leads an independent life, the truth is that Quinn has stopped thinking of himself as real, if he had lived at all, he lived through the imaginary life of Max Work, the detective hero of his novels. The more Work continued to live in the outside world, the more removed from the world Quinn became. He seemed to have vanished within the space of his own hermetic existence. The process here becomes reversed: Work becomes real while Quinn becomes fiction. Sam Farr in "In The Country of Last Things" assumes the identity of a doctor at Woburn House. Here, as Dr Farr his situation mirrors his life inside the Library, he listens to people's stories once again. Through his new persona of benevolence he gains access to the intimate thoughts of others. As he is in the position of a person who wears the white coat and symphathetic look on his face, he finds the way to listen to people's stories without being crushed by them: 'it is better not having to be myself', he remarks. (In the Country of Last Things, p168)

The question of identity is what turns Paul Auster's character into a subject whose main ontological purpose becomes 'working out questions', (City of Glass, p3) in a bid to establish its own being in an unreliable world. 'The question of who is who and whether or not we are who we think we are' is what interests Auster (The Art of Hunger, p264). The subject is involved in a confirmation of his own rational processes25, however the author grants no possibility of knowledge. Quinn's eagerness to solve his case leads nowhere, in a process of looking for clues he loses all the leads. His investigation turns out to be the investigation of the reality itself, as his case becomes obscure and witnesses disappear without a trace. His continuing obsessive dedication to it takes him to the end of himself: he is finally broken in pieces like some fallen figure of Humpty-Dumpty. Thus Humpty-Dumpty becomes not only the symbol of the subject's fall; but also of the fragmentation that has taken place. This fragmentation is manifested in "Moon Palace" as a literal disintegration of the body:

'[...]Then I imagined my head cracking open, splattering like the eggs that had fallen to the floor of my room. I felt my brains dribbling out of me. I saw myself in peices.' (p 43)

The theme of the dissintegration of Auster’s subject comes as a consequence to a loss of identity and is manifested in physical terms as a shattering of the body. Fogg in “Moon Palace” wears his uncle’s suit all year around at the college. He imagined that the suit was holding him together and if he did not wear it his body would fall apart. Isabel "In the Country of Last Things" dies of an genetic disease which causes disintegration of the body. The lack of centre causes Auster's subjects to lead restless existences. It causes them to lose touch with themselves and turn into perpetual outsiders of their own lives. Marco Fogg felt that he was flying in greater and greater circles around himself until he span out of orbit. This breaking up of the identity is manifested visually in the portrait of Auster's father taken in Atlantic city studio: given as the image of his father shot from different angles so that the viewer is under the impression that several men are sitting around the table staring vacantly into the space. Auster calls this image the portrait of an invisible man. It also reflects the impossibility of saying anything without reservation: 'he was good or he was bad, he was this or he was that. All of them are true. At times I have the feeling that I am writing about three or four different men, each one distinct, each one a contradiction of all the others.'(The Invention of Solitude, p31) The theme of disintegration is applied to the author of the text as well. In order to write, observes Auster in "The Art of Hunger", he has to treat himself as if he was someone else. The writing thus, as Barthes would say (S/Z), becomes the destruction of every point of origin. Disintegration on a metaphysical level brings about the shattering of the unitary consciousness of the author as originator and ruler of the truth. Auster's text speaks in multitude of voices without any one being singled out as the author's unique discourse.

In the uncertain disjointed world of Paul Auster's fiction, the subject can only experience its own existence through another. Watching, stalking the other, as Blue does in "Ghosts", brings one only closer to oneself. The outside world has become the window through which he stalks Black, describing his every move. He is aware of the complexity of his job: the surveillance has to be constant for the whole picture may change with a moment of inattention. However, seeing is not believing, Blue cannot find solace in the unity of truth which comprises of 'I perceive'. However hard he tries to find out about Black by watching him, he does not get any closer to the truth. Blue slowly finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before: by watching the other he starts to watch himself. Not that he had ever before given thought to what happens inside of him; the world within was a dark, unexplored territory. Blue feels like a man condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. He could little by little get so caught up in the story and begin to forget himself. But the book offers him nothing. The question that Blue is trying to work out, while his whole life is on hold, is how to get out of the situation brought on by his compulsion to carry on watching Black. The situation of Blue is similar to that of the writer; it requires the same solitude and the same desire. However, perception will not bring the object closer; it will not lead to the knowledge of how things work in the world. The more Blue watches Black, the more he learns about his habits, the more he is convinced that he really does not know the man. Blue has to write a report on Black. He is even contemplating to include in the report various stories he has made up himself but decides not to do so, this is not the story of his life. Instead, he resolves to stay in line with the truth: reducing himself to describe events as he saw them. Soon he becomes aware of the absurdity of his task: words do not necessarily correspond to reality, they rather obscure what they are meant to say. This is what Stillman senior tries to accomplish by creating langue pure: to restore a disjointed world into a former unity by mending the gap between the words and their representations. In order to accomplish his task he sifts through the rubbish of New York, cataloguing the broken objects, giving them their new names, like some parody of Adam in the garden of Eden. Blue watches Black until he can no longer trust what he sees, wondering if is possible that such a man, who merely sits in his room and writes, actually exists. Perception does not bring the other closer to knowledge or truth. Uncertainty is at the core of Auster subject causing the confusion about their own self.

As the outer thus usurps the sovereignty of the inner, Auster's subject feels most comfortable in closed spaces. For only in solitude we can know who we are because we can think of who we are. Auster displays a fundamentally solipsistic view of man. Man is an island, his true presence happens only in loneliness. Solitude, says Auster is a terryfying prospect of the 'I' who has vanished from itself and can speak only through the voice of another. The connection between self and other which was not possible to achieve by perception, can be achieved in solitude. Through learning about oneself the man is able to connect to other. That is the reason why Auster does not think that solitude is a gloomy idea. 'It is simply fact, one of the conditions of being human and even if we're surrounded by others we essentially live our lives alone: real life takes place inside of us.' (The Art of Hunger, p299) The solitude represents, on one hand, the solitude of the writer who sits alone in his room and writes for days and days. Auster remarks in "Red Notebook" our sense of self is formed by the pulse of consciousness within us; as an endless monologue, the story that our inner self weaves inside us. Solitude comes with the comfort of closed spaces; the room at 6 Varvick Streeet from "The Book of Memory", where a man has retired from the world in order to write. The time of the season is the winter, a 'hermetic season, a long moment of inwardness'. This room has become man's second skin. The room is filled in with his inner thoughts, its walls becoming the pillars of his own consciousness. It is only within this Aristotelian unity of time and space that the subject feels most comfortable. The comfort Quinn experiences when his world shrinks to the size of the room in Stillman's apartment. The only thing he knows for certain is that the interminable exchange of darkness and light will go on forever, as he observes it through the window. He thinks of his life before the story began. He says goodbye to William Wilson and Max Work. He is finally able to write his observations in the red notebook under his real name. He writes about the stars, the earth and hopes for mankind. He feels that his words are now part of the world at large 'as real and specific as a stone, or a lake or a flower' (City of Glass, p130). Solitude does not only come as a form of retreat but as a loneliness of the person who refuses having to face what lies within himself or having to be seen by anyone else. Such is the picture of Auster's father given as the portrait of an invisible man unknown to himself or others, the man lost without a centre who was a 'tourist of his own life' (The Invention of Solitude, p7).

Auster's subjects experience a desire to crawl back into the womb in order to give second birth to the subject 'within the mental uterus of a closed space'.26 Solitude is symbolised in a recurrent image of Jonah praying for deliverance while trapped in a belly of the whale. The solitude of Nashe, who 'crazy with loneliness' tries to work out questions for himself, believing that certainly the truth will reveal itself to him. The solitude of Marco Fogg who in despair decided to spit on the world and starve as a form of protest. The loneliness of Quinn who moves through morass of objects trying to find an idea that holds them together. The solitude of the postmodern man who is refused the 'solace of an identity'27 in an uncertain world. The only consolation for Auster's subject is to be within a closed space of a room, because only in a room he can be himself, can wonder within himself to find a whole world there. The space in Auster's fiction is inseparable from its subject. However, only in a closed space can Paul Auster's subject feel comfortable for there he can exerience his identity as a cartesian unity of the one who thinks and therefore is.

'The world has shrunk to the size of this room for him, and for as long as it takes him to understand it, he must stay where he is. Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place it would be absurd for him to look for another.'

The closed room is the metaphor for writing. In this most intimate and hidden place the writer weaves his stories. (Like Fanshawe who gives his last manuscript behind the closed doors). When Marco Fogg in "Moon Palace" is forced to leave his room and abandon it, he adopts the cave in Central Park. Closed space is the only protection for a subject in pieces. It also acts as a shield that prevents the outside from coming to further usurp the sanctity of the inside. The space in the form of the outside becomes the city, where in order to stay alive subject must learn how to read the signs. City is an ideal space for the poet. Auster says in "The Art of Hunger":

'if the poet's primary obligation is to see, there is a similar though less obvious injuction upon the poet; the duty of not being seen. In order to see, the poet must make himself invisible. He must disappear, eface himself in anonymity.'(p35)

Auster further maintains that only in the modern city can the one who wants to remain unseen find his place. However, even as he becomes part of landscape, the poet is always the outsider. The city is also a space where Auster's subjects embark upon the journey of discovery in the vain hope of rationalising it and giving meaning to their own existence. The city is menacing in "In the Country of Last Things" and commits its citizens to absolute loyalty, it requires abolition of the self in order to survive. Anna Blumme's knowledge in a city remains always inadequate; it seems that nobody has an overall picture of the life in it. While the questions of her brother's disappearance that she came to solve remain unsolved, the terror of living in the city come from the fact that nothing is clear and no one knows for sure. Space "In the Country of Last Things" becomes a cite of where body is put under restriction: its subjects cannot leave or have any burial, their dead bodies are used for fuel, for keeping the city going. The concept of space as a construction of a certain social order28 becomes clear as the city's attempt to control the starved bodies of its inhabitants.


The Meaning

When it comes to meaning, Paul Auster has no poetic programme: 'the question is the story itself and what does it mean is not for the story to tell', he declares in "City of Glass"(p3). However, in "The Invention of Solitude" he also states that the function of the story is to make a man see something before his eyes by holding up another thing to view and in so doing delight him into a new feeling of life. The act of writing thus becomes the process of discovery, a battle, as Auster says, to rescue each moment from a confusion through the purity of perception.29 As I mentioned earlier, in order to achieve the goal of seeing, the poet must disappear and efface himself in anonymity. He must become the solitary wanderer, a faceless scribe as his poetry becomes 'an act of loneliness.' (The Art of Hunger , p42) In order to delight the reader into a new feeling of life, the poet watches the world as an outsider would. For Paul Auster to be an outsider is to be Jewish, thus he often mentions the words of Marina Tsvetaeva: 'In this most Christian of worlds/all poets are Jews.' (The Art of Hunger, p42) A similar idea is expressed by Edmond Jabe when interviewed by Paul Auster:

'[...] the condition of being a writer has little by little become almost the same as being a Jew. I feel that every writer in some way experiences the Jewish condition, because every writer, every creator lives in a kind of exile.'

The more the poet watches the outside, the more he becomes aware that the world does not correspond to a a definite pattern of knowlege. The meaning has become whatever one wishes to become, the result of endless play of signification. The relation between signifier and signified is not defined as a unity that is outside the text, it is rather manifested as the arbitrary relation between the word and its concept. Stillman wants to mend this division between signifier and signified and his mission is to restore the primordial unity of words and their representations as perceived as a desire to restore the human spirit.

Aristotle's concept of poetic text implies that the poet constructs the plot using the well known material from Greek mythology. The poet's innovation, therefore, is severely constricted: his originality is expressed by the way in which events in the plot are created, which elements of the story are presented, and which are left to the imagination of the audience. The poet cannot significantly change the traditional story. Aristotle also advises poets 'not to cling at all costs to the traditional plots around which [...] tragedies are constructed'.(Poetics, p33) The poet can, therefore, invent the plot as long as he follows the laws of probability and necessity. The structure of the story must be organised so it can produce the effect of fear and pity. In order to achieve these feelings the reader must empathise with the author's intention. The text becomes the place where the unity of the author's intentions and reader 's expectations is achieved; the reader must acquire the author's intended meaning. Without tragic catharsis, Aristotle believes there is no tragedy. Classic text, I think, implies a certain contract between the author who is a producer of the text and the reader who is a consumer of it. This contract binds the writer to follow the logic of predictability when ordering events. The freedom of the reader as a recipient of the text is limited to the interpretation of the text as the author intended. The meaning is defined as the message that the author sends to the reader. Aristotle's aesthetics are based upon the idea that text cannot produce just any kind of pleasure. His aesthetic judgment of the tragedy is based upon the effectiveness of the construction of the plot in order to achieve feelings of fear and pity.

On the other hand the aesthetic of the postmodern text is based upon the gap between presentation and reality. Auster is increasingly becoming aware that in writing there exists a gap between thinking and writing, that the story the writer is about to tell us somehow escapes language:

'Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing. For the past few days, in fact, I have begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language, that the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have come to saying something important and then when the moment arrives for me to say one truly important thing, I will not be able to say it.' (The Invention of Solitude, p32)

This aesthetic of the sublime, 'the unrepresentable' is based upon Kant's idea of the difference between our faculty to present something and conceive of it. In Auster's text the sublime is based upon the reality which strikes Auster as stranger than we think, and he wishes to incorporate these instances of inconceivable events into his text. Thus as I have attempted to argue he brakes the linear ordering of events by introducing chance, by denying his subject the knowledge of truth and by dispersing the notion of a unity of consciousness of the author lying behind the text. Like Auster, Aristotle maintains that events in reality may not be connected by logic. He thus permits the irrational only in reality but not in the poetic text. Poetry is, therefore, more universal than history. History imitates the particular events as they randomly happen, while poetry presents events connected by logic of probability and necessity. Aristotle passes aesthetic judgement on poetry, claiming that it shares its universality with philosophy and is therefore more valuable than history.

The postmodern fiction of Paul Auster is based upon the idea that there is no unique meaning of the text. While the logic of metanarrative orders the Aristotle's conception of text30 (as with organising of narrative events according to an idea which is outside of the text), Auster's postmodern text does not represent, I think, a space where the interraction between reader and author is taking place. In a constant shifting of meaning, the words do not point to something outside the language, rather meaning is achieved through their endless interraction and combination. Meaning has become the activity of reading,31 a matter of interpretation, as the text shifts away from the author: 'I finally believe it's the reader who writes the book and not the writer' says Auster in " The Art of Hunger" (p264). Similarly, Barthes in S/Z says that the meaning of the text is established in a process of reading. The meaning is established through 'deja lu' codes, of 'already read.' It's 'already read' (used here as predictable narrative of lisible text) that Auster's story often implies when it tries to goad the reader into accepting it as just another traditional text. Auster's text relies on 'already read' which is being deconstructed as the text moves away from a traditional, classical narrative. (As explained earlier in the text as a difference between fabula and sjuzet).

As a postmodern text, Auster's text avoids the end, closure. He rejects the notion that the text's narrative is dominated by knowledge of end: the end which can finally determine the meaning, closing sentence as signifying totality:

'The closer you come to the end, the more there is to say. The end is only imaginary, a destination you invent to keep yourself going, but a point comes when you realise you will never get there. You might have to stop, but that is only because you have ran out of time. You stop but that does not mean you have come to the end.' (In the Country of Last Things, p183)

In a disjointed fiction of Paul Auster the reader becomes similar to "the object hunter" from "In the Country of Last Things". As an object hunter you must make your living by collecting discarded objects, rescuing things before they reach the state of absolute decay. You can never count on finding anything intact, because that's the mistake on a part of a person who lost it. In the novel of 'disappearing story' (as postmodern fiction moves away from the idea of story as a linear ordering of events), such as Auster's, the reader becomes the object-hunter who tries to connect the intact islands which make sense and join them together into a new continent of meaning. He painstakingly attempts to make sense of the story. No matter how hard he tries the meaning always escapes him.

The plurality of meaning of the postmodern text is achieved by breaking up of the "sacred" entity between the writer and the reader. The text is taken from the author and thrown like a bottle into the sea. This image Lyotard paints in "Just Gaming" to express the idea that the writers write 'without knowing for whom they are speaking'.

The reading, one could agree with Barthes, of a classical text has become a stereotypical act: the predictability of the such a text means that the reader is assured that eventually the author's message will be revealed to him.

The message of the postmodern text thrown like the bottle in the sea, assocites me of the short story by Kafka called the "A Message From the Emperor":

'The Emperor -so the story goes-has sent a message to you, the lone individual, the meanest of all the subjects, the shadow that has fled before the imperial sun until it is microscopic in the remotest distance, just to you the Emperor has sent a message from his death-bed.'

However, the messenger never gets to the end of the chambers of the innermost palace, even if he eventually struggles to leave the innermost gate, he would still have the capital city to leave and then 'centre of the world, overflowing with dregs of humanity.'(A Message from the Emperor, p136). The message was never meant to be delivered.

The meaning of the postmodern text reflects the plurality of the Babel-like inspired fragmentation of language. The poet's word, as Paul Auster describes in "The Art of Hunger", reminds him of Cassandra's word. A beautiful daughter of Priam, endowed with prophetic powers by Apollo. Punished later for her infidelity with the curse that her prophetic words are never to be believed. For Auster it symbolises the words of the poet, spoken again and again in order to say nothing.



1 Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger, Sun & Moon, 1991

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2 Aristotle, : 'The plot is the basic princile, the heart and soul, as it were, of tragedy', Poetics, Univ of Michigan Ppress,p28

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3 Peter Brookes, Reading For the Plot, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984

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4 The Art of Hunger, p270

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5 The Art of Hunger, p18

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6 The Art of Hunger, p298

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7 The New York Trilogy, Faber & Faber, 1987, p8

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8 Beyond the Red Notebook, ed Dennis Barone, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1991

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9 City of Glass, p131

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10 Contemporary Literature, Spring 1997, Vol 38, No1

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11 Deleuze and Guattari's concept as mentioned in Contemporary French Philosophy, ed by A.Phillips Griffiths, 1987

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12 Zizek Slavoj, Looking Awry, Sixth Printing, 1995

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13 Beyond the Red Notebook

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14 Lyotard, Jean Francois, The Postmodernist Condition, Manchester Univ. Press, 1979

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15 as mentioned by Lloyd Genevieve, Being in Time, Routledge, 1993

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16 Benjamin Walter, Illuminations, Fontana Press, 1973

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17 The Art of Hunger

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18 Blanchot Maurice, The Gaze of Orpheus,

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19 Chris Tysh "From one mirror to another" in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1994, Spring 14:1

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20 as a shift from ignorance to awareness see p 36 in Poetics

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21 reversal, a shift of what is being undertaken to the opposite, see p36 in Poetics

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22 Kafka Franc "Fasting Showman" in Wedding preparations in the country and other stories, Penguin, 1978

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23 in Journal for theoretical studies in Media and Culture,II, 1, (1988-89)

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24 Nietzsche Fridrich, The Birth of Tragedy, Penguin, 1993

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25 Postmodernism: A Reader ed by Thomas Docherty, Harvester Wheatshif, 1993

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26 Beyond the Red Notebook

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27 Postmodernism: A Reader

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28 Foudault as mentioned is Beyond the Red Notebook

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29 see essay on Charles Reznikoff form "The Art of Hunger"

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30 as Lyotard describes it in Postmodern condition

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31 Postmodernism:A Reader

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