Stillman's Maze

    Paul Auster's Urban Nothingness




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This article first appeared as "Paul Auster. L'inessenza urbana" in the Italian review of social studies Alfa Zeta, issue 54, april 1996, pp. 18-23. I am grateful to Andrea Borsari for his help and support.

In The Invention of Solitude (Paul Auster's first book), the autobiographical character A. offers a prayer to the "modern nothingness." The expression alludes to Auster's view of reality, a reality that melts more and more as our look gets close to it. The core idea of modern nothingness is that the more difficult our rational effort to understand an event gets, the more our reference categories crumble in our hands. Auster uses this idea in many of his novels, and in The Red Notebook described it as a situation in which "two truths ... lived both in equal measure ... cancelled each other out," until you get "strained in the middle" (RN, 27). A metaphor seems to harbour in the modern nothingness: the non-contradiction principle (by which carrying out a possibility excludes its opposite) simply doesn't work anymore.

A similar concept was explored by sociologist Marshall Berman in the essay "The Experience of Modernity: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air." Berman acquires the oxymoronic metaphor in his title from The Manifest of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels, who describe modernity as the situation in which "everything includes the germ of its contrary." Auster and Berman (both living in New York) take note of city's modern nothingness: a city grown so exceedingly large that it has finally lost its reference parameters. In the two American writers, the city becomes the embodiment of the paradigm of modernity, having become, in Berman's words, "a multimedia representation whose auditorium is the whole world" (1).

These words refer to New York, the town where many Auster's novels take place. "New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps and no matter far he walked ..., it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well" (NYT, 4). But even when not the main focus, New York's nothingness flows undisputed through Auster's narratives. In City of Glass, the New York Trilogy's first novel, the metropolis' glassy transparency recalled in the title becomes absolute: the place above all, the sparkling destination in the travel agency books, has become an extract of pure absence. Point of view vanishes, felled for the metropolis' marvels; everything blends together in a whirl of constant movement.

He felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think.... The world was outside of him, around him, before him, and the speed with which it kept changing made it impossible for him to dwell on any one thing for very long. Motion was of the essence. (id.)

Walter Benjamin, in the essay about Paris ("Capital of Nineteenth Century") wrote of a "phantasmagoria" as one of the main features of nineteenth century metropolitan modernism. In Benjamin's view, the development of the metropolis during the last century has established a series of images in the collective unconscious, "images in which the new penetrates into the old, forming utopia." The modern utopia develops not only from ideology but—a fortiori—from an urban source where middle class finds out its apotheosis and failure at the same time. So the metropolis becomes the paradigm of dreams and ideals destroyed, "even before the falling of their symbolic buildings," and of a form of nomadic individualism that has its models in Baudelaire's intérieur and Poe's "Man of the Crowd": "the crowd," to quote Benjamin again, "is the veil through which the well known city appears to the flaneur as phantasmagoria" (2). But the man of the crowd is also Auster's man, whose steps "brought him elsewhere than into himself" (The Invention of Solitude). City's phantasmagoria has turned into its contrary, a hallucinated vision where the overwhelming presence of everthing has finally transformed into pure nothingness: in City of Glass, New York is described as the "nowhere" Quinn has built around himself. The essence of the city—the continuing streets flowing around an entirely empty individual—is the modern nothingness.

New York's paradigm is even more useful if we think about the English verb to melt, whose meanings vary from Berman's "dissolve" to "vanish," "disperse," and "blend." And when we think of a place where things blend or melt, we obviously think of multicultural New York. This melting pot is the cultural, ethnic and race mixing which represents the basis of American foundation: an utopian plan that, just like Benjamin's bourgeois dream, has melted into air with the echoes of rival gangs' shootings. In the 1970's Marshall Berman claimed a sort of hope in realising his modernist utopia, in a "celebration of urban life's liveliness, variety and height." But the melting pot utopia has slowly revealed its inner ambiguity: if the plan was to blend the different cultures in a general "national identity," we surely cannot say that today's United States, with its society increasingly splintered across ethnic, economic and regional lines, adheres to this ideal.

Someone else opposes the myth of the "Great American Drawing," explained as a fusion of heterogeneous cultures into one identity (or, at the opposite side, lived as an extreme separatism phenomena among the ethnic groups). Mario Maffi, an italian scholar who has lived for many years in the Lower East Side (an immigrants' goal until the end of last century), applies to the quarter the idea of a "socio-cultural hybridisation" and explains the Lower East Side as a positive model for the development of the entire country, "a sort of wide metaphor of America itself—a metaphor of the way it has grown up and changed, and goes on growing and changing, and of the way immigrant cultures from all over the world contributed to this dialectic process" (3). This is no longer a one-way melting pot. It is a sort of osmotic relation expressing itself in a multiform strain among some forms of life that, in addition to molding themselves into a new communitarian dimension, mold America at the same time.

Auster's situation doesn't look much different. Auster lives and works in Park Slope, a sort of interethnic oasis, a hanging limbo in the middle of New York racial conflicts. In an interview about Smoke and Blue in the Face, Auster described Park Slope as "one of the most democratic and tolerant places on earth." Auster has painted his world in the two recent movies co-authored with Wayne Wang. In Smoke we see a series of human ups and downs, all related to Auggey Wren's tobacco shop in Brooklyn. This is a place where the lost urban mankind often depicted in dark colors in Auster's novels meet (but in Auster's words Smoke is "the most optimistic thing I've ever written"). In the same way, Blue in the Face is an "hymn to the Great Popular Brooklyn Republic" where, as a movie's walk-on remembers, "there are 90 different ethnic groups, 32000 commercial shops and 1500 churches, synagogues and mosques." In one sense, Smoke is an attempt to escape urban nothingness. Auggey Wren's daily snapshots on the same subject (the tobacco shop corner near Prospect Park West ) give a chance to meditate and reflect upon—to quote Georges Perec—"those common facts, kept under silence, undervalued because of their smallness: but they describe us, though we think we can get out of describing them" (4).

This is the rival project of City of Glass' unstoppable movement and inexhaustible space, where—as it happens in every Auster's novel—the main character changes with the surroundings. Each one of Auster's main characters gets gradually to lose his or her identity, until he or she literally vanishes. In Auster's novels the individual identity fades out, and the main character splits; the city often acts as a catalyst in this process. So, in the three books of The New York Trilogy, two originally distinct characters get to melted into one another; everything includes the germ of its contrary. In City of Glass , the city itself is talking: if the events that occur within it no longer mean anything, the lost meaning will be supplied by casual disposition, always repeatable, of the streets (see the Tower of Babel section).

Towards the end of the book, Quinn finds himself completely changed. He has walked the main city avenues and then, as if pushed by the invisible hand of modern nothingness, he spontaneously turns into the man he is trailing: an outcast and a tramp. He has turned into his own contrary. This is what happens in Ghosts too, a novel that sets the focus on urban absence. This story is set in the Forties, in the Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood, a place full of symbolic lots (to quote Berman, "many of the city's most majestic structures were specifically planned to be the symbolic expressions of modernity"). But what is striking about the New York Trilogy's second book is a kind of place-absence: here the city is a borderline between two opposite rooms, two observation points where the looks are mutual and fatally fit together in the end. In The Locked Room ,urban absence is complete: New York's nothingness has moved from the streets to the flats, now inhabited by ghosts (see the false names inquiry episode).

New York's typical absence is a distinctive feature of Paris, too, a town Auster lived in before his literary debut. "The Paris sky has its own laws, and they function indipendently of the city below. If the buildings appear solid, anchored in the earth, indestructible, the sky is vast and amorphous, subject to constant turmoil" (NYT, 338). That experience is recalled in The Locked Room, where the frailty of the Paris sky soon wraps its observers up. While everything around fades out, including the solid urban buildings, the subject loses conscience. "I see things that happened, I encountered images of myself in various places, but only at a distance, as though I were watching someone else ... it's out there beyond what I can feel or touch, beyond anything that has to do with me" (id., 345). Moreover, self-estrangement is the fate of Auster's main characters, and The Locked Room ends with a voice emerging behind a locked door, in a decaying Boston hiding a fin de siècle refinement under the exterior decay.

Auster's places are scenes of absolute urban and individual absence, representations of his characters' mental emptiness. As in Moon Palace, a novel built on the balance between New York and the desert, two different places for a common existential state. On one hand, "there is a particular glaze that comes over the eyes of New Yorkers when they walk through the streets, a natural and perhaps necessary form of indifference to others," and Central Park is "a place that could have been anywhere" (MP, 56). On the other hand, in the desert—the novel's symbolic center—"the only place you exist is in your head" (156). In the end, the only way to escape the loss of space and identity is to travel. This is the only way to leave behind "familiar late-century American noises" (307).

In this sense, Auster's modern nothingness can be seen as one of the possible metaphors of our contemporary condition, a situation in which individuals lose their hopes of finding in the urban surroundings the fulfilment of their social aims. In the urban nothingness, the modern individual finds himself alone with his contrary. From urban utopia Auster brings us to the no-place dimension, a concept recently conceived by French anthropologist Marc Augé. The no-place is the contrary of the traditional anthropological place: it is a world "assigned to the individual loneliness, to passing, temporary and transitory." The no-place is the main distinctive feature of submodernity, a category that, unlike the traditional anthropological place, lacks relationships, identity, and history. The no-places are overpopulated places where millions of people meet in a mutual ignorance. They are places of casual meetings, such as airport terminals or train station platforms, defining themselves by their use or function. Augé's submodernity causes in the no-places a systematic emptying of conscience, and accomplishes a series of "brand new solitude tests" very similar to Auster's.

The no-place is a place of negative property, a kind of "place absent to itself." It mirrors the dissolved and split condition of Auster's modern nothingness. The subject losing himself in the crowd, and the individual conscience's enlargement are the main features of Augé's submodernity. These phenomena show themselves in borderlines such as no-places, where you can look at an oddity such as socialising in solitude. This is what happens in Auster's New York, too, a no-place that features not a single identity or relationship, but solitude and similitude.

In the submodernity no-place there is no room for utopia anymore, as Augé concludes. The last utopian adventurer is Benjamin Sachs (main character of Auster's Leviathan), who died in thd attempt to blow up replicas of the Statue of Liberty all over the United States. In Leviathan, urban walking has turned into an interstate pilgrimage in search of one of the greatest urban moloch—and one of the great symbols of the modern utopia. The episode's tragic end shows how Auster's characters are still fixed to a nothingness dimension that has stolen their identities, relationships and histories.



(1) The quotations are from the Italian translation of Berman's essay, originally published in the U.S. in 1982.

(2) See Walter Benjamin, Schriften, edited by Theodor and Gretel Adorno, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1955. I quote from the italian translation by Renato Solmi, in Angelus Novus, Torino, Einaudi, 1982, 147, 160, 155.

(3) See Mario Maffi, Nel mosaico della città. Differenze etniche e nuove culture in un quartiere di New York, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1992, p. 10, 50-51. This is the Italian translation of an English version of the book, of which I don't know the issue references.

(4) See Georges Perec, Penser/Classer, Paris, Hachette, 1985; quoted from the Italian translation.


References to Paul Auster works

The Invention of Solitude, New York, Sun Press, 1982.

The New York Trilogy, London, Penguin Books, 1990 (NYT).

Moon Palace, London, Penguin Books, 1989 (MP).

The Red Notebook, London, Faber and Faber, 1996 (RN).City of Glass


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