Textuality, Self, and World: The Postmodern Narrative in Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things
By Merlob, Maya
ABSTRACT: The author explores the spatialization of textuality that characterizes the postmodern narrative. Focusing on Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, the article discusses the debunkment of time as an ordering principle of narrativity and the transformation of space into the dominant textual feature. Auster’s work introduces various spaces-geographical, subjective, authorial, historical, and literary-that have an uneasy relationship and create the text as an incongruous spatial network. The spaces continually split, deconstruct, and reconstitute themselves, producing a textual site that is incoherent, unstable, and discontinuous. Keywords: Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things, language, narrative, postmodernism, reality, self, space, textuality, time
It’s through stories that we struggle to make sense of the world. This is what keeps me going-the justification for spending my life locked up in a little room, putting words on paper.-Paul Auster (qtd. in Barone 22)
Narrativity, as Paul Auster contends, is one form of making sense of the world, of providing meaning to our everyday existence. Although this function of the narrative has remained constant since history’s early days, predominantly seen in the form of myths and legends that served to frame human activities and norms in a memorable structure that can be reiterated and repeatedly conveyed, the narrative itself has undergone a major transformation in the past decades; the type of narrative conveyed has altered in accordance with the changing cultural environment, a change that has brought about what is known as postmodernism. Although it is difficult to formulate a coherent definition of the postmodern era, many agree that it can be characterized as a “radical break” with the past (Jameson 107). Presenting a discourse antagonistic to enlightenment, in which rationality was privileged and served as the foundation for introducing universal truths that will be unbound by specific place and time, that is by spatiotemporal localities, postmodern thought celebrates difference and change. As rationality is no longer considered an innocent category, an unambiguous basis for accepting truths (Dear 79), postmodernism has shifted its focus to counter precisely the anticipated ideal for the modern era-the notion that there can exist a totalizing cultural structure that can lead to the unification of people on the basis of their commonalities. As a counteraction, postmodernism valorizes heterogeneity and mutability, that which is unstable and susceptible to change. The postmodern rejection of universal truths, homogeneity, and fixity has likewise altered the traditional perception of narrativity.
Jean-Francois Lyotard views postmodernism as the emergence of an “incredulity toward meta-narratives” (72). These master or metanarratives were shared by many and functioned to provide meaning to human existence through the formation of a coherent story that orders history from beginning to end. The religious perception of the apocalypse is one prominent instance of a master narrative, one that views God as the origin of all humanity and as the agent bringing about the apocalypse and the consequent millennium. As a master narrative, this apocalyptic view endowed time, or history, with a linearity, a one-directional and teleological line-directed toward the millennium-which helped individuals understand their place in human history. Presupposing a Godly plan, one had to ascertain one’s elect-ness-that is, determine whether he or she is one of the survivors left to enjoy Christ’s reign on earth.1 Thus, the master narrative acted as a vehicle for providing significance to one’s existence not only through the production of a communal, consensual reality-that is, the amalgamation of people who share the belief in the reality represented in the narrative- but also by establishing a coherent, ordered version of reality that has a beginning and ending, a linear progression, an agent, and an assignment for every individual to an earthly role. Lyotard’s observation,2 however, urges an exploration of narrativity in the postmodern era, one that will analyze the implications of the cultural and ideological changes and will investigate the new type of discourse emanating from the death of the master narrative. In examining Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, a metafictional novel that discusses narrativity and the process of writing, this essay will explore the postmodern narrative and specifically its significatory contribution to one’s identity and perception of reality, that is, respectively, to the categories of self and world. Looking into two narratival features-time and space, we will discover the postmodern narrative’s radical break stemming from both the transformation of time to a nonprogressive, durational construct as well as the multiplication of spatialities, notably geographical, subjective, authorial, historical, and literary spaces that the narrative unfolds. Textuality, self, and world become spatial constructs brought together by the narrative, conflated within it, and thus continually deconstructed and reconstituted.
In the Country of Last Things presents a subversion of the apocalyptic master narrative, one that consequently undermines its conception of time. It tells the story of Anna Blume, a recent arrival in a city who is searching for her brother, William. Blume finds the city, whose name and location are obscure, in a state of extreme decay, as the urban landscape constantly collapses and everything vanishes (1). The reality in the city is a postapocalyptic one, in which the intermediate stage of the tribulations, which was supposed to be a brief one connecting the old order to the new, millennial one, is the current reality. The tribulations are extended, stretched to the extent that they become the normal state, as it were, of everyday life in the city. This textual reality subverts the apocalyptic chain of events, undermining its temporal sequence by elongating the phase of the tribulations. As a result, the linearity of time, its progression toward the millennium, is amputated, displacing the sequential dimension of the narrative. Time is no longer teleological; it is not directed toward a certain goal and in fact denies progression altogether. Such “nondirectional” temporality is at odds with the linear flow of time (Smethurst 110). Lawrence L. Langer opposes chronological time, “with its before, during, and after,” with durational time in which these sequential categories are eradicated (22). Duration disrupts chronology, as past, present, and future are fused into one event that becomes a permanent present; while chronological time frames an event in a sequence that “welcome[s] amnesia”-that is, allowing it to be part of one’s past and thereby permitting its slippage into forgetfulness-durational time persists by extracting the event from temporal progression (23).
The narrative time in Auster’s book literalizes durational time by erasing almost all remnants of Blume’s past and negating the possibility of an ending. First, it is through its duration that the ongoing apocalypse eclipses that which had occurred prior to its initiation, for it encourages us to believe there is and was no past. The apocalypse has no beginning, as it has always existed. Indeed, because durational time leads one to forget the origin of the catastrophe, Blume cannot point toward a certain agent, whether human, natural, or supernatural, that elicited it and led to the city’s horrific condition, and thus her story begins in medias res with Blume already in the city. Second, the durational nature of the apocalypse denies an ending, dismissing a linearity of time and attempting, as it were, to replace it with a cyclic order. Blume’s allusions to time entail a seasonal reference through which she struggles to identify the movement of time, a reference that exhibits her attempt to introduce a circular conception of time, questioning any sense of beginning and ending. Also, the open-ended mode with which the narrative closes points to the impossibility of a conclusion; everything is on the verge of an ending, but is never completely exhausted (Shiloh 152). The narrative’s use of durational time underscores the traditional, chronological perception of time, but only to dismantle it. The subversion of the apocalyptic master narrative, in other words, creates a void that overthrows temporality from being an ordering principle of one’s narrative. What one remains with is the time of the event, a time that is inapplicable to the sequence of time and that breaks down the conventional, apocalyptic chain of events.
The fragmentation of time derives from its individuation. According to the chronological perception of time, the framing of a traumatic incident in a moment of time, situating it as part of the past, turns it into “a communal experience, sanctified by analogy with a precedented grief” (Langer 21). Located within a temporal order, the experience becomes a source of analogy and is thereby viewed in relation to past and future events. Durational time, however, maintains the event’s uniqueness, hindering its comparison to other events. It remains subjective, individuated, which, in turn, generates a subjective access to time. Durational time stems from the refusal to view time as an absolute category and its progressive movement as an objective standard by which personal time is measured. One’s access to temporality tampers with time to the extent that the latter cannot advance beyond one’s experience and is, in a sense, denied; it is time’s subjection to individual manipulation, so to speak, and to subjective interpretation that renders it nonprogressive. The catastrophe refuses to subside. Time consequently becomes enduring and thus parallels the condition of the characters’ endurance, specifically Blume’s. The individual perception of time is no longer linked with an external temporal standard that locates a certain event in relation to it. Rather, personal history refers to its own sequence of time and thus allows the subversion of an accepted, general sequence; it can therefore abolish the sequence itself. Durational time can exist solely as a rejection of traditional, shared chronology. Consequently, time is fragmented, dispersed into numerous personal durations. Time is multiplied and bent according to the one perceiving it. All the characters do not necessarily share Blume’s durational time; it stands for her personal experience and her own access to temporality. The immediate result of the proliferation of personal times is the inability to comprehend reality. Durational time dismantles reality because of the heterogeneous representations of time; because there is no ability to anchor a certain event in a moment of time-to know its origin, if and when it ended, how long it lasted, and, most crucially, how it stands in relation to other events-it cannot be situated. Thus, Auster’s novel highlights our notion of reality as predicated on time sequence. As a frame of reference that can be constructed in relation to the self experiencing it, time becomes an empty signifier that fails to make sense of the experience and is unable to convey it to others. To distinguish between the real and unreal, one has to turn to consensus reality-that is, the communal conventions that define reality. If time slips out of the consensus and is no longer mutual, reality itself becomes indeterminable. Blume’s reference to seasons as indicators of time is an attempt to make her story comprehensible both to herself and the recipient of her diary through the replacement of linearity by cyclic time. But it is also a futile attempt, for the weather’s drastic and sporadic changes make seasonal terms redundant; as temporal indicators can no longer be applied to the events, any reference to time-such as “[t]hat was more than a year ago” (161)-is questionable. The loss of linear time leads Blume to apply cyclic time to her experience, choosing the most fundamental archetype of circularity-seasons. Her failure to do so, however, shows that both types of temporality- sequential and cyclic-are inapplicable; neither linearity nor circularity can be assigned to Blume’s experience. Thus, her perception of reality becomes unstable, as she finds it difficult, even impossible, to organize it according to time and thereby know “what happened [. . .] and [what] did not” (20).
It is for this reason that narratives are crucial to the understanding of reality. The temporal dimension that narrativity inserts into an event urges one to organize one’s experience according to it. Coherency stems from narrative construction, and temporality is one feature of ordering a narrative. Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope, “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships,” may serve to explain the significance of time in constructing a narrative (Reader 184). Bakhtin, for whom “the primary category in the chronotope is time,” views narrative time as “a process of becoming” (“Forms” 15; Reader 180). Time becomes visible, he asserts, “takes on flesh” (Reader 184). But Bakhtin refers to the modern novel; in Auster’s postmodern one, it is the fragmentation of time that becomes visible. Time is not a process of becoming but represents a state of being, struggling to endure. If narrative can be defined as “the representation of movement within the coordinates of space and time” (Friedman 217), it is then the lack of temporal movement that typifies the postmodern narrative, a lack that results in the challenging of time as a category one can lean on in forming one’s narrative.
It is important to note that postmodern temporality does not conform to Mircea Eliade’s concept of in illo tempore, often associated with the early modern narrative. According to Eliade, modern man attempts to transcend historical time, “freighted as it is with human experience,” and attain a “cosmic, cyclical, and infinite” time; through a repetition of archetypes, man can re- create the present historical moment as part of an eternal structure in which time is abolished (153). Whereas for Eliade, what establishes the nontemporal is the substitution of the human, personal experience by a shared archetypal model; in the postmodern period, the abolition of time is a consequence of the individuation of time. The latter is no longer a transcendent category, but an immanent one that is limited to, and circumscribed in, the individual narrative. It is precisely because historical time prevails and becomes more and more freighted with personal experience that time is rendered obsolete.
But this is not to say that the archetypal model is extinct; rather, it exists as a blank frame of reference, one that is empty because it can no longer serve as a “source of order,” which is its traditional function in the early modern period (Kermode 115). The archetype continues to be evoked in the postmodern period, as there exists an impossibility to escape it; the shared past cannot be annihilated, as it was hoped for in the late modern period (122). Nevertheless, the archetype fails to provide coherence and meaning, for it is dissociated from a master narrative that organizes it in a comprehensive and comprehensible way. The archetype, in other words, is reduced to a fragment of the now-absent master narrative, a residue that fails to link a certain event with the latter, unable, that is, to point to an inclusive context that will serve as the event’s framework. Thus, imbued with archetypes-which, although dysfunctional and useless, nonetheless subsist-the event is severed from both a linear sequence of time and a cyclical temporality. Time does not progress, because the event is not new, but rather is submerged in archetypes. At the same time, the lack of referentiality of the archetypes constructs the event as detached from any other temporal point, and its time cannot be viewed as circular. Because time does not move-forward or backward-the event exists spatially; its progression occurs on a spatial level.
Although Joseph Frank’s groundbreaking theory identifies spatiality as a characteristic of modern narrativity, his conception of spatial form “is still a subordination of space to the indicators of time,” as its aim is to question linearity and progress (Smethurst 64). Clearly, for Frank, space simplistically emerges as a result of narratival simultaneity-the “cutting back and forth between different actions occurring at the same time” or the “juxtaposition of past and present” and is thus dominated by (the subversion of) temporality rather than by spatial constituents (17, 59). In presenting space as nontemporality, Frank can identify it as a unified structure, which he characterizes as a “unity,” a “whole,” and a “totality” (13, 16, 18). Dependent solely on the elimination of time, space is viewed narrowly as substituting for a missing temporal dimension. Postmodern space, however, is not a fixed structure; rather, it is a discontinuous one that consists of multiple spaces. Daniel Punday rightly defines postmodern space as “ontologically incoherent,” as it encompasses various spaces (81).3 In effect, the postmodern narratival structure is characteristically unstable, continually splitting and exposing not only its multiplicity but also its incongruity.
Indeed, because time is discarded as the ordering principle of Blume’s narrative- past, present, and future cannot be appropriated- Blume’s narrative progression becomes dependent on her spatial practice, her movement from the street to Isabel’s apartment, to the library, and finally to Woburn House. This is an instance of the postmodern chronotope in which “spatial properties determine a moment in time by producing an event” (Smethurst 69). Blume’s spatial movement substitutes for a temporal one and constitutes, as we shall see, a narrative that is predicated on the relations between spaces. The “spatial turn” of the postmodern narrative (Smethurst 35) renders it a textual site in which various spaces are intertwined, a spatial network established through the constant tension that exists between these spaces. The spatialization of the narrative brings forth alternative modes in which textuality refers to the self and reality, the world surrounding the self.
In Auster’s novel, the geographical space of the city is closely linked with the self inhabiting it. At first, we encounter Blume on the street, the center of the city. “The streets are everywhere,” she remarks, portraying the city as a matrix of streets that hinders what Frederic Jameson termed “cognitive mapping”-the ability to situate oneself in space (Country 2; Jameson 44). The fact that “no two streets are the same” (2) prevents the formation of a mappable external pattern through and in which the individual may realize his or her location; dependent on the deciphering of the physical experience, cognition cannot operate in a city that rejects patterns and thereby denies its decoding. The city is antirepresentational, cannot be represented in one’s mind, and is thus placeless; not only does it lack specific name and location but also renders its interpretation futile. A sense of placelessness thus emerges among its residents who are unable to incorporate it into their consciousness. This incorporation, which is at the heart of spatial self-recognition, is annihilated also due to the instability that characterizes the city. The constant alteration of the landscape introduces instability, entwines it with one’s cognitive mapping, and thereby renders the latter unavailing and redundant; the urban mutability leads to a destabilized mapping, one that is futile in providing any fixed meaning to the individual. When Blume claims that “the city robs you of certainty” (6), it is the lack of fixity, the absence of continuity, of the physical space that she specifies as a source of instability within the subjective space of the individual. The condition of the city exposes the geographical properties underlying the self, accentuating the self’s inextricable connection with the physical space. The postmodern self is revealed to be spatially constructed, and as space continually varies, “you must be able to change” (6); one’s identity, that is, must be disposable at all times. The subjective space’s dependence on the geographical space of the city is exposed through the particular sites in which Blume resides, sites that appear at odds with the city. The enclosed spaces in which Blume temporarily dwells shield her from the streets where one is “exposed to every hazard and inconvenience” (22). The enclosement introduces the theme of alterity to the narrative, as these places are imbued with otherness. In the apartment, Blume is mentally changed as she discovers she would kill Ferdinand “for the pure pleasure of it” (65). The realization of her mental deterioration, as it were, leads her to feel she is dead when attempting to disguise him as a Leaper (75). This place discloses the mental other in Blume; in the library, we are exposed to her cultural and religious alienation as she proclaims herself a Jew; and in Woburn House, Blume’s sexual “deviance” is revealed. Continuing her masturbatory acts in the apartment, Blume engages here in a lesbian relationship. All these spaces of otherness, however, are merely momentary: Blume is forced to evacuate the apartment and return to the street; the Jews are taken out of the library that eventually burns down; Woburn House, too, is unable to remain detached, as it is “swallowed up” by the rest of the city (171). The distinction between these sites and the city further blurs when Blume discovers the city itself is enclosed and that no one can escape it. It is at this moment that enclosement also becomes entombment, providing not a sense of security but one of imprisonment. The attitude toward otherness, as a manifestation of spatial demarcation, changes in accordance with the physical alteration. The spaces of otherness tend to become minimal, marginal to the extent that they are devoured by the whole, the general that, in turn, attempts to spatially mimic the other, differentiating itself from its exteriority; otherness is blurred, incorporated, and contained, but does not disappear altogether because it is replaced by larger types of otherness, types grounded on a spatial separation between the city and the external world rather than within it. Otherness is revealed to be a spatial category that is subjected to the manipulation of those who control the physical space. Indeed, Blume’s otherness is temporarily upheld but eventually demolished; the self’s alterity is abolished for the sake of a communal otherness that is based on physical location. Thus, the blurring of Blume’s femininity by Isabel, the effacement of her gender otherness (60), is repeated in the geographical space of the city that tampers with one’s subjective space and attempts to eradicate it, dismantle its alterity, in favor of a shared space. Otherness becomes part of the communal space, a form of power established through the abdication of the subjective, individual space.
The experience of the city is presented as extremely powerful for the individual who is not only forced to abdicate the other within himself or herself but also to utterly lose selfhood to survive in it. Isabel warns Blume against talking in the street, as she must “[n]ever think about anything [. . . and] just melt into the street [. . .] no anything but the street, all empty inside [. . .]” (57). Adaptation to the city involves the loss of the self, an act that signifies the extreme dominance of the city and the demands it poses on the struggling individual. The tension between the geographical, urban space and the subjective space of the individual culminates in the former space’s demand for the effacement of the latter one. In the postmodern city, the two spaces are incompatible; one must forsake one’s self to absorb, and be absorbed into, the city.
As the self is subject to spatial demands, space itself can no longer be perceived as neutral, cut off from the individual inhabiting it. Rather, it is a manifestation of the human activities that consequently construct it. Its existence is contingent on the way it is viewed by the individual whose perception enables its spatial construction.4 Thus, the geographical space does not merely constitute or abolish the self; it is also determined by the latter. Although the Smilers, an organization operating in the city, take this view to extreme, their assumption that “thoughts can be translated directly into events in the physical world” is not far- fetched or, as Blume claims, “there is a certain force to their argument” (26, 27). The physical space is far from detached; rather, it is a site constructed by the operations of the self as well as by the manipulation of individuals. From this, it follows that the geographical space and the subjective one are inextricably entwined and engage in an ambiguous relationship, both constructing and at the same time canceling out each other. The reciprocal dynamics of their relationship are central to Auster’s novel, highlighting the way self and world are interlaced. Presenting them as contradictory and mutually dependent categories at the same time, the novel simultaneously blurs and fortifies the traditional distinction between the physical space and the immaterial, subjective one, the external and the internal.
This complexity is literalized in the postmodern narrative that seeks to open itself up to the various-physical and subjective- spaces and explore the relations between them. The narrative, however, does not engage solely with the dual relationship between the geographical space and the subjective space but also works to unravel other spaces that are more closely linked with the writing of the narrative. The postmodern narrative deals extensively with its own writing, underscoring its construction by an author. As Auster’s protagonist is also the one who writes the narrative, the latter accordingly shifts its focus to the subjective space that a writer occupies. If writing was once conceived as the writer’s attempt to express an event while constantly endeavoring to withhold his or her presence,5 the postmodern narrative works to reveal the author in the act of writing; the author, in other words, is situated within a visible site in relation to the narrative. The unfolding of the position of the writer locates the latter in a space of his or her own. Whereas in the modern novel the reader is confronted with the experiential space depicting the protagonist’s experience, in the postmodern one the reader also penetrates the authorial space of the writer.6 The reader of In the Country of Last Things is engaged not only with Blume’s experience in the city but also, and predominantly, with her writing about it. Thus, the reader cannot suspend disbelief, as he or she is continually aware of the fictiveness of the narrative, of its construction by the writer. Blume’s apparent involvement in the formation of her narrative exhibits her role as an intermediate between the reader and the experience depicted. It is through her that the reader enters the experiential space, but it is also she who separates them.
It is this mediation that tampers with the reader’s conception of reality. The distance between the reader and the narrated events is continuously exposed as the reader, through the intervening presence of the authorial space, is reminded of Auster and Blume, the two writers, as well as of the recipient of Blume’s diary, who are located between the space of the reader and the experiential space, simultaneously linking and separating them. The reader cannot directly access Blume’s experience, her reality. Reality, as it is projected by the narrated experiential space, is thus constituted as detached from the space of the reader who cannot fully access it without the mediating yet disruptive spaces in between. The reader can only encounter the textual reality as a distanced construct. But this serves not merely to imply that reality is narrowed, as it can be experienced fragmentarily, in a limited way. The textual reality can also be seen as ever expanding and incessantly broadened by the additional spaces that have become integral to it. The once- silenced authorial space fills a significant role in our perception of reality, as we confront the way reality is constructed by the various intermediates. Facing Blume’s efforts to construct her reality, the reader is encouraged to explore the epistemological dimensions of his or her perception, not only, that is, what is known but also how it is known to him or her. The author’s location within the dynamics of textual production reshapes the reader’s conception of reality.
Instead of merely reflecting one’s experience, reality can now be redefined as the relations between the physical space of the experience and the authorial space maintained through and for its narration. This authorial space is best explained in Blume’s narrative when she sees the body of a dead child and ponders the possibility to narrate it: “‘I am looking at a dead child.’ Your mind seems to balk at forming the words, you somehow cannot bring yourself to do it. For the thing before your eyes is not something you can very easily separate from yourself” (19). Blume finds narration difficult as a result of the inability to separate the narrating subject from the object needed to be depicted. It is only when the subject removes himself or herself from this object, creating a spatial distinction between the two, that narration can exist. The subject must be detached, forming an authorial space separated from the experiential one. Blume’s location in the space of writing must thus be differentiated from the one entailing her actual experience. Writing necessitates the point of view of the other, an observer removed from the experience whose very position enables narration.7 Being in the experience, so to speak, fully embodied by it, is an impediment to writing, as Daniel Quinn, Auster’s protagonist in City of Glass realizes-”walking and writing [. . . are] not easily compatible activities” (Trilogy 62). Similarly, Isabel’s advice to Blume to “melt into the street” indeed helps her to cope with the physical space but displaces her from the authorial one required for writing. It is therefore not coincidental that Isabel’s death is preceded by an illness that sabotages her ability to speak and thus causes a discursive “collapse [. . . or] disintegration” (77). It is Blume’s authorial space-the separate and enclosed space in which readers encounter her process of writing and the dilemmas that accompany it-which is infiltrated into the textual space, the reality she constructs for her readers. As the space of the writer becomes an additional textual issue to be explored, the reader must analyze its relation to the experiential space. It is worth noticing that the authorial space opened up by the attempt to narrate the experiential one presents a resistance to the latter space. While the city tends to operate by constructing itself as a communal space within which differences are obliterated, the authorial space moves toward the fortification of alterity. Maintaining an individual, detached, privatized, and counter- collective position, the authorial space situates itself as the site of otherness. It is the “experience of otherness [that] defines the [author's] identity” (Finkelstein 48); it is Blume’s authorial space that poses a challenge to her experience in the physical space. That the two spaces, as stated earlier, come at the expense of one another, as one cannot simultaneously locate oneself in both, exhibits their contradictory nature. Yet, each space cannot exist without the other. The authorial space draws on the experience in the physical one, which, in turn, is constructed by it, by one’s perception of it. In Blume’s narrative, the two spaces even appear as mirror-images of each other; the fragmented city reflects, and is reflected in, Blume’s fragmented narration, which, because of her lapses of memory, fails to provide a coherent narrative. The conflation of the two spaces establishes an ongoing process of oscillation between the once dichotomized categories-the concrete and the conceptual, the collective and the subjective, the conventional and its other-a movement that not only undermines traditional dichotomous thought but also provides the groundwork for a spatial representation founded on the multiplication of spaces and their conflation.
This spatial representation works as an interplay between the experiential and authorial spaces. Blume begins her writing in Woburn House (182), and most of her narrative is written in retrospect. As her writing progresses, however, the experiential space becomes closer to the authorial one, as she begins writing about her current condition. The experiential space, in other words, advances until it corresponds to the space and time of its narration. Nevertheless, although the two spaces can be traced both to Woburn House, they are not wholly identical. The time and place of the experience can never be indistinguishable from those pertaining to the act of writing. The two spaces uphold an ever- existing chronotopic gap, one, that is, of space and time, without which narration would be impossible. The two are thus separated by an ontological gap whose presence is embedded within Blume’s narrative and becomes consequential to its production. In Auster’s novel, the experience and its narration occupy different worlds that embody entirely different chronotopes and can never be unified. The split between the subject and the object, which, in Blume’s case, is magnified because of her filling both positions, serves to highlight the gap that exists between the two spaces. The postmodern narrative’s spatialization of the writing experience constitutes it as ontologically different from the space of the experience rather than a continuation of it.8
Ontological gaps continue to surface in Blume’s narrative, as the reader is confronted with not only the authorial space that refers to the experiential one but also with another authorial space that exists in relation to her writing. Blume’s authorial space is split; while one reflects on the experience she had undergone, the other ponders the ability to express it; the first authorial space is the one usually occupied by a narrator, albeit a modern one, who grapples with what he or she is about to tell. The second one is created by Blume’s detachment from her own authorial space, from her ability to gain a distinct perspective on her own writing as well as on her use of language. It is the latter space that typifies the postmodern writer who also fills a metafictional position and inserts it into the narrative. The authorial space occupied by the postmodern writer deals with language itself as an additional site that is textually incorporated and explored. I will return to this issue later.
The ontological split that results in the proliferation of spaces is also evident in Blume’s experiential space, which, similar to her authorial space, is incongruous. At first, Blume presents us with two worlds with which she is linked. The first is “home” (32), associated with her childhood and is the world inhabited by the recipient of her diary, a world in which the catastrophe has presumably not occurred and is most likely the world shared also by the reader. The second is, of course, the postapocalyptic world in which she currently dwells. But at a certain moment, there occurs yet another ontological split that further disrupts the order of the experiential space. This takes place when Blume learns that airplanes are not only not a part of this world but also that there is no physical nor linguistic evidence that they had ever existed (87). At this point, the experiential space is divided into more than the two worlds initiating the story. This split is predicated not merely on a change of her place and the progression of time; rather, the world that this space opens up is ontologically differentiated from Blume’s. The worlds Blume’s narrative brings forth are, in effect, more than a continuation of one another; they exist simultaneously in the text yet cannot meet at any spatiotemporal point. Within the same space, there exist numerous incongruous worlds that form one discontinuous space. Blume’s experience is permeated with a variety of spatial representations that do not easily add up to one coherent and stable space. Apparently, both the experiential and authorial spaces tend to split, constructing a textual structure that is dynamic, as it continually unfolds numerous spaces. If the postmodern narrative relinquishes its temporal progression, it is clear, then, that it embraces a spatial one. The ontological split summons more and more spatial constructions that are to be represented in the text and consequently produce narrativity.
Moreover, the space represented in Blume’s narrative comes to signify not only the multiplication of spaces but also their internalization by the text. The authorial space is no longer extratextual; it is swallowed, as it were, by the text, as it becomes part of its representation. No longer beyond the textual space, the authorial site of the writer is internalized and gains representation. This textualization of that which was usually considered part of reality, and thus not fictional, further complicates the distinction between reality and fiction. The boundary between the space of the real occupied by a “real” author and the space of representation is blurred, for the textual space absorbs both into itself. In the Country of Last Things introduces two authors-Auster and Blume; whereas the former is located in the “real” world, the latter inhabits the fictional one. They share the same textual space as cowriters, but nonetheless occupy ontologically different worlds. Clearly, this creates constant tension between the real and the fictional or representational. At the same time, this tension is transcended by the suspension, or the silencing, of the place of the real author who seems to take no part in his own writing, displacing it onto Blume. The space of the real disappears within the representational one, which is gradually enlarged by the absorption of the real.9 Sven Birkerts’s depiction of Auster’s novel as an attempt to explore “the real by way of the invented” (67) is only partly correct, for the representational devouring of the real urges the exploration of the invented by way of the real; imbued with the real, representation destabilizes the traditional boundary between the two categories, becoming synonymous with the real and even taking its place. Yet, representation can never be absolute. It remains partial, for its own spatial expansion testifies for the inability to wholly represent the real; the text’s endless production of spaces implies there are ones yet to be discovered; spaces-such as the one occupied by Auster-that representation has not yet grasped, or in Blume’s words-”[t]he end is only imaginary” (Country 183). The postmodern narrative presents an intrinsic lack, the absence of a complete representation, and it thus stands also for the spaces that are not fully contained by it, signifying its own partiality. Indeed, the problematic of partial representation underlies the historical space that the postmodern narrative enfolds. Corresponding to Linda Hutcheon’s designation of the latter as “historiographic metafiction” (245), Blume’s narrative is embedded with historical figures and events, among them are Ferdinand and Isabel, the Spanish monarchs who had sent Christopher Columbus on his journey; Anna Blume and Otto Frick whose names are reminiscent of Anne Frank and her father, Otto; the expulsion of the Jews from the library-a reference to the Holocaust; and so on. Nevertheless, as Katharine Washburn has noted, “There’s a tendency to seed this book [. . .] with Significant Names, without any commitment to integrate them” (65). The historical references indeed surface at several points in the text but do not receive any textual attention that may link them with the content of the narrative.10 Their meaning, however, lies not in themselves, but in the spaces they serve to open up. Each reference is a representative of a different world whose infiltration into the text establishes it as a collage of spatial representations. Each allusion functions as a reminder of a certain space and as the marker of the text’s spatialization. But this spatialization bears no consequential relation to history because the historical references are detached from their historicity. The figures, for example, do not fill the same position for which they were known in history; the historical context surrounding them has been erased, leaving the historical space devoid of any meaningful history. In Blume’s narrative, these references connote specific times and places but lead nowhere, as they are stripped of their historical function and significance. The postmodern narrative is thus, in the words of Jameson, a “random cannibalization” of past styles (18) and, I would add, of the spaces they invoke.
The historical space renders the narrative a compilation of contexts with no contextuality. Its function is dual-both to provide historical meaning as well as to extract this meaning of historicity. Yet, this function cannot be easily referred to, as Jameson does, as depthlessness (9) on the part of the narrative. The textual accumulation of historical spaces and particularly the disregard toward their contextuality serve to reflect the text’s inability to fully represent history. The postmodern text seeks to reflect the impossibility of correlating the present with the past, signifying our fragmentary access to the latter; we will never be able, the text seems to imply, to utterly comprehend history, as there is an irreducible ontological split between our space and the one inhabited by the past. Thus, the narrative comments on its own obstructions, testifying to its own partial representation. Furthermore, the text proclaims its entrance into history to be through a representation of it, an access limited to few figures and events that seemingly signify a space in its entirety, and thereby refers to itself as a representation. The textual space becomes self- referential, highlighting not only its fictiveness but also its inability to entirely represent other spaces. It is through the historical spatiality underlying the narrative that the latter comments on its function as a textual product, a constructed space that bears relation to other spaces, draws its existence from their assimilation, and at the same time intervenes by reducing and reconstructing them for the sake of self-referentiality.
The self-referring textuality of the postmodern narrative exposes its production also in opening up a literary space that correlates the narrative with its literary predecessors. Conjoining various chronotopes-diverse textual times and spaces-the narrative establishes a dialogic relationship with the literary works that prompted its production. The textual dialogue, which Julia Kristeva terms intertextuality, presupposes that “any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (66). Auster’s text begins with a quotation from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” a short story written in 1843 that draws on John Bunyan’s seventeenth- century work The Pilgrim’s Progress. The intertextuality, which the postmodern narrative embraces, situates it in an endless line of literary texts, an ongoing progression of literary spaces that are brought together by it. Kristeva’s notion of the text as a productivity, or a text-in-process, comes into play, as the narrative’s intertextual space constitutes it as dynamic, “an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning)” (65; emphasis in original). In so doing, the text-in- process hinders the reader’s ability to apply a certain, single context to it as well as to trace its literary past. Paradoxically, it is through the amassing of literary spaces that the post-modern narrative attempts to reject textual antecedents, negating its literary origins; pointing toward past works, the narrative presents itself as removed from that which preceded it. The textual elements do not stand by themselves but continually refer to other texts; but in so doing, they become self-referential, signifying their detachment by overturning the traditional meaning embedded in them. The City of Destruction, for example, a place in which Bunyan’s protagonist Christian, Hawthorne’s narrator, and Auster’s Blume meet, is a site whose meaning is subverted in the latter work, because it is presented as a real place rather than confined within a dream. Bunyan’s and Hawthorne’s dream is substantialized, becoming a reality for Blume, a literalization that serves to demolish the former writers’ boundary between the real and that which is not and thereby differentiating Auster from the texts on which he relies. The City of Destruction becomes a symbol of the literary space the postmodern narrative rejects but nonetheless on which it is dependent.
This ambiguity is best seen in Auster’s use of the allegorical dimension that he inherits from both Bunyan and Hawthorne. Bunyan’s narrative presents a religious allegory in which each textual element corresponds to another element in the extratextual level; names, figures, and events find their meaning outside Bunyan’s text, pointing toward its externality and particularly toward the biblical events they invoke.11 In Hawthorne, symbolization is continued, as his allegorical story derives its significance from both the biblical and the Bunyan narratives. To comprehend his story, that is, the reader must move beyond the text itself and also engage with these two. As a modern writer, however, Hawthorne includes in his text a secular point of view; he introduces the possibility of a secular journey, a journey that is meaningless in terms of its objectives-it fails to fulfill its potential, as its religious meaning vanishes. Whereas the two pilgrims stand for “truth” (Hawthorne 331), religiosity imbues their journey with significance, the secular journey is dismissed by Hawthorne as inconsequential. Conversely, Auster’s presentation of the journey declines symbolization. As religiosity assumably takes no part in the apocalyptic urban condition and as there is no reference to other agents that may have caused it, there seems to be no didactic message behind it. Unlike Bunyan and Hawthorne who use the journey as an allegorical form intended to convey a religious message, the only significance that is traceable to Blume’s journey is that there is no significance, no meaning, to her experience. Her journey does not entail any didactic purpose; it is unable to point toward a certain truth, particularly a religious one, precisely because it points to the absence of truths. The journey presented by Auster cannot be easily referred to as an allegory because it refuses to stand for a certain meaning outside the textual space. It does not, in other words, point to a referent, a “higher” value or meaning. At the same time, it is clear that the Bunyanian and Hawthornian texts, which are undermined by Auster’s narrative, are crucial to its formation. Dependent on their religious imagery, the postmodern narrative cannot utterly detach itself from that which it attempts to discard. Thus, the intertextual or literary space that the narrative underscores is a site of tension, one that presents the uneasy relations between texts and emphasizes the postmodern narrative’s simultaneous reliance on, and hostility toward, its literary antecedents. Apparently, the postmodern narrative brings forth symbols that evoke many associations only to discredit them and redirect them toward itself; symbolization is internalized by the narrative and used to refer to its own textuality.
The disintegration of allegory and symbolization in postmodernism has also to do with the fragmentation of language, which rejects its traditional signifying role and refuses to refer to anything outside its demarcated space. As previously discussed, the focus of Blume’s narrative consists of not only the experience in the material or physical world but also concerns itself with the way to express this experience; Blume’s language thus becomes an additional experience that is explored and narrated. Language, in other words, performs a dual function. On the one hand, it is aimed at indicating an actual experience, signifying the material objects that exist outside language. On the other, its signification is directed toward itself, commenting on its own condition, pertaining to and exploring the authorial space where the process of writing takes place. The fragmentary nature of language, manifested in Blume’s depiction of words escaping her as well as her realization of its arbitrariness, that is its arbitrary connection to the objects it is meant to signify (89), lead to the destabilization of language and particularly of its connection to the physical space. The “language of ghosts,” as Blume calls it (10), is inadequate to portray the new apocalyptic urban condition; stemming from a pre-postmodern world, language has not yet been suited, altered in a way that will accord the changes of postmodernism.12 Consequently, it cannot provide a coherent portrayal of the world, a meaningful signifying system that will adhere to the world outside it. Language can thus focus solely on itself, suggestive of its own inadequacy. Taken as a means for conveying the physical space, language is indeed, as Markus Rheindorf argues, “non-referential” (7). Conveying Blume’s linguistic endeavors, however, language may be perceived more accurately as self-referential. It is the transformation of the use of language to a vital element in her narrative that turns language to an additional experiential site, one that even gains ascendancy over the physical one. In the postmodern narrative, language is spatialized. The parallels between Blume’s physical experience- primarily her excursions in the city-are an embodiment of her metaphysical effort to put words on paper; not only is the city fragmented and broken down and is thus analogous to language but also the act of walking through it constitutes a language (Rheindorf 2).13 Through its spatiotemporal dimensions-its oldness and inability to cope with the changes as well as its affinity to the physical space, its handling as a material site-language becomes spatialized. This linguistic spatialization is constituted predominantly through the self-referentiality of language, which refuses to point toward its externality, focusing instead on itself; language functions as an enclosed space that embodies its own meaning. The notion of a spatialized language is clearly demonstrated in Mr. Frick’s speech, which Blume identifies as a material space; his words metaphorized as “physical objects, literal stones [. . .],” Frick seems to be walking between words, attempting not to “stumble over them” (Country 133). Similarly, Blume’s linguistic practice occurs in a space of its own, one that derives its existence precisely through her detachment from it, observing it from within the second metafictional authorial space and contemplating her existence in it; writing about her linguistic experience, Blume tries to cognitively map herself, as it were, within the linguistic space.
It is Blume’s relation to words, inhabiting the space of language, that is thoroughly explored by her. This relationship is marked as problematic also because the linguistic space cannot be easily circumscribed. Blume’s detachment from it cannot ensure her utter escape from language, as she realizes the only way an individual can contemplate an experience, albeit a linguistic one, is precisely through language. All spaces are, after all, linguistic or necessitate language to be explored. It is particularly the authorial space that is able to relate to the experiential one solely through language. Thus, language is also a disruptive element for the author, not only inadequate-belonging to a different world- but also continually located between the writer and the experience he or she attempts to convey. The writer can enter the experiential space, both the physical and the linguistic, through the use of language, a necessary yet disruptive constituent that filters, omits, and adds to the actual experience. Blume’s ambivalent desire to “forget and then not to forget words” (38) thus stems from the duality embedded within the linguistic space, which is both necessary as a way to understand an experience yet functions as a barrier separating one from it; the subject and object are separated by words. The distinction facilitates narration but also maintains the object removed, hidden, which may sabotage narration by eschewing full representation.14 That an experience must be mediated by language situates the linguistic space at center stage, especially when the experience is in itself linguistic. The linguistic space is entrapping not only because one is forced to use an inadequate language but also because it is inescapable, penetrating all other spaces and forcing itself into the process of their interpretation. Paradoxically, it is Blume’s desire to abdicate the linguistic space and ground her writing on “silences” that manifests the centrality of language as well as the inability to be utterly detached from it (38). Despite the postmodern language’s attempt to eradicate that which precedes it, language is still contained within the linguistic framework of its ancestors; an utter abdication of language will indeed lead to unbearable silence.
Nevertheless, postmodern language does gain a certain distinctiveness that distinguishes it from the language of ghosts. Although postmodernism fails to constitute an entirely new language- its predication on dead languages cannot be severed-it is nonetheless successful in presenting a different language whose usage is more linked with the cultural changes. In Blume’s narrative, it is Boris Stepanovich who stands for the new linguistic possibilities entailed in the postmodern language. His remark that “[w]e all speak our own language of ghosts” does not infringe on his ability to use the latter in innovative ways (155). Boris’s linguistic talent to “make inert things come to life” through speech (150) enables the narrativization of the objects he sells as well as of his own identity, life, and world. He is able to construct narratives and assign them to the object depicted and thereby transform it to its discursive representation. More than a mere description of the object, Boris’s words determine it, shape it according to the narrative. For him, language is an instrument that allows continual transformation through an incessant linguistic shifting. Boris can therefore introduce himself in various ways, conveying himself in a variety of, oftentimes contradictory, narratives that hinder the possibility of identifying him. His ability to shift both himself and the material objects, the physical reality that is, enables his survival. His ability to perform a linguistic resurrection, to accustom himself to the endless postmodern narrative, bestows on him an adaptability that allows his perseverance. Accepting and even embracing the instability and constant shifting that the postmodern world demands, Boris is able to endure in a way that leaves him “unscathed” (147). Boris’s language is an example of the resurrection of dead languages, a distinct linguistic usage prompted by, and in turn prompts, the postmodern self and world.
Blume, too, comes to stand for postmodern discourse and for the emergent self and world that follow-a sharp contrast to the modern ones as exemplified by journalist Samuel Farr. When Blume first encounters Sam in the library, his life is dedicated to writing a book commemorating the catastrophe of the city. His book is supposed to be a collection of testimonies, and his work consists of the “organiz[ation] [of] all the disparate material he had collected into something coherent” (109). Sam’s object is to gather, organize, and make coherent the stories of others while remaining in the background. This withdrawal of the author is reminiscent of modern, objective writing, a mode that is highly similar to a journalistic coverage of an event from which the writer must be detached. Sam’s lack of involvement in narrativity is expressed in this project as well as in his consequent impersonation of a physician who converses with his patients in Woburn House, both of which provide Sam with a form of distraction; the narratives of others remove Sam away from “the story of the self [he] no longer [has] to be as long as [he is] listening to them” (168). Sam’s linguistic usage is, in a sense, similar to Boris’s, as both are enacted to achieve the disintegration of identity. The two men use language to gain the loss of their self. But while Boris’s usage also entails the reconstruction of a new self, the formation of a new narrative to replace the old one, Sam’s usage curtails it, maintaining the self as a fixed and finite entity. That is, Sam’s language prompts the death of the subject, necessitating the utter loss of identity without the ability to resurrect or change it. It is not surprising, then, that his book, alongside the library that contains it, burns; the burning of books symbolizes the extinction of old writing, of books that belong to a literary “world [. . . that is] finished” (116).
As opposed to Sam’s book, Blume’s writing is a manifestation of a new type of language, a type that constructs her self and world. Devoid of signification, unconstrained by a shared signifying system in which the correlation between a word and its signified is agreed on, Blume’s language is a “private” one (89). As such, her language is less directed toward communication and more focused on the preservation of a personal narrative without being necessarily comprehensible to any one else other than the writer. It thus completely undermines Sam’s effort to make narratives understandable; narratives can only make sense of the world to the individual writing them. The fragmentation of language makes it accessible only to the one using it. Language is limited, as its comprehensibility is constrained within a certain, subjective point of view. In terms of the ability to understand Blume’s narrative, the reading of it by her addressee becomes inconsequential, for it is the act of writing the narrative that is more important. Her voice, her narration, constitutes her existence.15 In other words, it is the literary space Blume occupies, in which she engages with language as well as with the process of writing, that connotes her existence. Blume’s self is constituted through her writing; the language she uses generates her self. Contrary to Sam’s dismissal of his self, Blume’s is a discursive performance, a linguistic construction that obtains its existence through narration. In the postmodern era, language points inwardly within the self, and works to construct it as an isolated, atomized entity, incomprehensible to that which exists outside it. Language constitutes her world, constructing it as a representation born out of the self. The disintegrated, individuated postmodern language can only establish a narrative of the self. Unlike the master narrative, which deals with a shared consensus, the postmodern one highlights its rejection of that which is beyond the individual. It is a narrative that concerns with the self, negating the traditional master narrative’s preoccupation with communal aspects. Community no longer has one narrative; rather, its discourse disperses into numerous narratives that do not relate to one another. Similar to the language it uses and the self it both presents and constructs, the postmodern narrative is an atomized one, predicated on other narratives yet, because of its individuation, does not utterly conform to them. The text is a site in which alterity is stressed and otherness can flourish. Discrediting generic conventions, the postmodern narrative denies any designated structure, any predetermined textual form. Order, according to Blume, is not important; “it makes no difference what comes when, whether the first is the second thing or the second thing the last” (39). Postmodern narrativity discards a prescriptive, static textual structure; form is not antecedent to the narrative. Rather, it evolves throughout the narrative, stemming from the author’s personal choice about what to present, when, and how. The textual form is committed less to literary codes and more to individual perspective. What mostly motivates Blume in her writing is the sense of urgency, the pressure to narrate her story before she forgets certain words and details (79). This urgent, nearly paranoid, mode of writing, relinquishes a static, prescriptive form and favors one that will be sufficiently flexible to absorb her writing. Indeed, her writing is associative, derives from the rejection of an ordered form, and stems from “irrational[ity]” (45); it moves back and forth in time and continuously shifts between the various spaces. Her sense of urgency eclipses conventional literary requirements and establishes a frenzied form that is distinctly hers. It is through its denial of any type of constancy-both between narratives and within the narrative itself-that the textual form constitutes a shifting text that can be applied solely to a certain individual within specific time and place, or world.
The form of the postmodern narrative is thus a derivative of the fragmentation and individuation of the traditional chronotope, the spatiotemporality associated with the master narrative. Both space and time disintegrate, dissolve into numerous, individuated chronotopes that subvert traditional modes of thinking about self and world. Narrative, self, and world are equivalent to one another, for there exists an analogy among them, an analogy that prompts a new perspective on narrativity and its function. Narrative, in other words, is no longer the story of the world in which the self is emplaced. Rather, it is the specific story of the self from which a world is born. The postmodern narrative is thus analogous to the self and world it brings forth, and, as such, its exploration constitutes also their exploration. Its selfreferentiality is a function of the attempt to investigate them. In the Country of Last Things draws a mutual line correlating text, self, and world, all of which are fragmented, individuated, continually shifting, and split into incongruous spatialities. It is this analogy that becomes the dominant feature of postmodernism, the cultural dominant, as depicted by Auster; the linkage among these three elements serves to reconstruct them, each element both constitutive and deconstructive of the other.
TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL
The author thanks the Department of English and American Studies, particularly Dr. Elana Gomel, for supporting this project.
1. Chapter 7 of Revelation mentions 144,000 survivors elected by God.
2. It is important to note that Lyotard refers not only to the religious story but also to other forms of master narratives, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. My focus on the apocalyptic master narrative derives from its centrality to Western perception of reality and its pivotal role in Auster’s In the Country of Last Things.
3. Although I agree with Punday that postmodern space presents multiplicity, I believe he misreads Frank, applying this view to the theory of the latter; Frank’s conception of space is modern, highlighting it as stable and coherent.
4. Following Henri Lefebvre’s conception of space as a social production (Dear 54), Auster’s represented space is viewed as constructed by one’s interiority or subjective space (Rheindorf 4).
5. This modern perception of writing is seen in Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “[t]o reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” (3).
6. The experiential space refers to the space in which the experience takes place. Here I refer to Blume’s experience in the geographical space whereas later I will also discuss her experience of using language and writing the narrative, an additional space that becomes part of the experiential space. The term authorial space signifies the author’s subjective space and is distinguished from the protagonist’s. The authorial space represents the thinking about an experience and the attempt to narrate it.
7. Auster’s view regarding the detached position of the writer is manifested in his famous quotation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s assertion that “in this most Christian of worlds / All poe