Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Frank Kermode and the Man in the Macintosh.




Frank Kermode, Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticisms 1952-2002 (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003), $15.00 (Strand Books, which must be what heaven looks like, has several copies priced under $10.00).



I admire Miguel Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, but I cherish even more his novel Niebla (usually translated as “Mist” or “Fog”), a story in which the protagonist objects to the plot in which he finds himself and visits the author to complain about it. Among other things, the story is a dramatization of theological issues that seem especially urgent in our century.

It is tempting to imagine scheduling an appointment with God, in order to ask a question or two about evil in our times and whether there is a need for so much suffering. Those intrigued by this theme may wish to rent the film, "The Truman Show."

I know how Unamuno's fictional character must have “felt.” Significantly, it is at that point of confrontation in the story that the protagonist rewrites his adventures, much to the surprise of his creator and of the reader.

In the John Fowles’ story “Enigma,” collected in The Ebony Tower, a detective is in search of a missing member of Parliament. He discovers a fascinating and somewhat literary young woman, who may have the solution to the riddle: "... 'Let’s pretend everything to do with the Fieldings, even you and me sitting here now, is in a novel. A detective story. Yes? Somewhere there’s someone writing us, we’re not real. He or she decides who we are, what we do, all about us.' She played with her teaspoon; the amused dark eyes glanced up at him. 'Are you with me?' ... "

We readers begin to feel that we are in on the joke; but then, tantalizingly, Fowles leaves us with the mystery that justifies his title:

“Theologians talk about the Deus Absconditus -- the God who went missing? Without explaining why. That’s why we’ve never forgotten him.”

I believe that I understand the point of the Fowles riddle. If there is a God who has created beings capable of free will, then it is surely possible that these beings might arrive at His doorstep one day -- perhaps after achieving "Enlightenment" -- and call His attention to some ambiguities in the plot that He has fashioned, insist on revisions, perhaps even (to invoke the shade of Preston Sturges in the classic 1940 MGM film, "Sullivan's Travels") “put a little sex in it.” In any event, they will certainly insist on their freedom and need to love as they see fit.

The same may be said of literary characters who display an annoying tendency to escape the confines of the books in which they were created, so as to take on a life and set of adventures very different from what their creators might have imagined: Hamlet and Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, even Tarzan -- have all outlived not only their creators but also their original texts, in order to inhabit, independently of any text, the collective imagination of readers everywhere.

Perhaps the same may be said of Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave" and of such literary devices as Descartes’s “Evil Demon,” or Hegel’s parable of “Master and Slave.” All of these metaphors from great philosophical texts have taken on a life of their own. In fact, the metaphors have become philosophical arguments conveying truths. Joanthan Ree writes:

"So Western philosophy is by tradition an intricate art of irony, directed against itself. But this does not mean that it is a creature of sheer aesthetic whim. It articulates the experiences in which you stand aside from your ordinary personality, and treat the ideas with which you feel most involved as if they belonged to someone else, and you were indifferent to them; or you imagine yourself in the future, remembering that your present certitudes have vanished. The difficulties of such self-separation are the reason why philosophy’s progress has largely depended upon techniques for the presentation of voices and characters in narrative; and why the last thing you should do in philosophy is reach the end."

The greatest contemporary English literary critic and (I suppose) “theorist” is Frank Kermode. For me, his writings are a recent discovery and revelation, especially the essays “Between Time and Eternity,” and “The Man in the Macintosh,” in Pieces of My Mind. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read the second of these essays and realized that, like most people these days, I am "The Man in the Macintosh," but my reasons for saying this will not become clear until my final paragraphs. (Unfortunately, hackers have altered these sentences on numerous occasions and we must expect more such vandalism in the future.)

In his essays and in his recent book on Shakespeare, Kermode's brilliance is immediately apparent as is his elusiveness. Without making a point of it, in the subtlest possible way, the reader finds himself running to keep up with the racing intellect of a writer who hardly breaks a sweat by comparison. It is a humbling experience, but it is all worth it.

I have learned a great deal from Kermode's essays and from his slim book on Shakespeare. I have learned how to play the cat-and-mouse game of literature -- of reader and writer -- with this man, as my guide, at a much more sophisticated level than I ever did before. It is a bit like the experience of reading something by Shakespeare. One feels elated, both encouraged and discouraged by the challenge of trying to write anything well, even transformed somehow. This is the power of literature.

We live in a time when the myths and narratives in which persons traditionally “found” themselves, their meanings and purposes, have broken down. Religions, political faiths, belief-systems of all sorts seem outworn and thin. We have reached a kind of ending. To an unprecedented extent, persons must construct their own stories and typically this involves the use of new visual media, movies.

We can no longer rely on shared political or historical mythology to define us. This is a daunting and frightening, yet also a liberating experience. No one is quite sure of how to create a new myth, collectively and/or individually -- a myth in which to find meaning. Yet we also cannot wait to try. This has been described as the “postmodern” predicament. I am told, fittingly enough, that the Chinese character for "danger" or predicament is the same as the one for "opportunity."

Those of us who live -- and love -- English literature have noticed that, as John Fowles suggests in Daniel Martin, the essential English myth is about hiding. The classic example is Robin Hood. Accordingly, it is “language” (whatever that may be) that is the forest in which we English-speakers, we band of merry “persons” (let us not forget to be "politically correct"!), must play. The views of Jacques Lacan on the ways in which the subconscious is structured like a language come to mind at this point.

Those who will succeed in this project of self-invention through narratives, or at the mysterious art of "interpretation," will be adept at hiding and playing in this forest -- call it the "Forest of Arden," where we now find ourselves. This is to suggest that reality, for "postmoderns," may be both a kind of mirror and door.

In Colin McGinn's recent book about cinema, for example, he speaks of the movie screen as a mirror and a window, while Brian Greene has discussed the physics of "mirror symmetry," which suggests that there can be two spacetimes and yet still one physics, unifying our understanding of the smallest particles and large material bodies and forces, bringing together the insights of Newton and Einstein. This metaphor or cluster of symbols -- mirror and door -- seems to surface in a variety of contemporary texts, of different quality, in many disciplines. I will deal at greater length with this point in my review of The Da Vinci Code. What do you think the Grail "means"?

Think of Carl Jung's collective subconscious, for instance, as a kind of "underworld." It is inhabited by archetypes and images, supplemented always by new manifestations of the fundamental archetypes in bizarre costumes and new stories, perhaps, but always communicating important messages to the clear and conscious part of the mind. This shared or collective and inherited "species memory," is a psychic protective armor and/or a sword. It is also a treasure map to the gold of individuation and meaning for persons. Great movies always tap into this reservoir of images.

An example discussed by Joseph Campbell is the dragon in Western myths, usually guarding a treasure and a princess, but who seems to have little use for either of those items. The dragon is, of course, that which obstructs individuation, the princess is love, and the treasure is "selfhood," or the achievement of one's identity or full humanity.

Yet this is only a masculine presentation of the challenge of self-creation, which is even more interesting in its feminine forms, which are plural. For women, the task is not as easy as Siegfried's challenge to kill the dragon. This is not surprising. Women tend not to solve problems by beating up someone. In women's mythological adventures of selfhood, individuation is only possible with another, usually an "other self" (masculine). Take another look at Da Vinci's "Virgin of the Rocks." Hence, mirrors and doors. Women must enlist or beguile a co-conspirator (lover?) to become themselves. There are beautiful and happy versions of this story, also frightening or scary versions of the same myth. The distinction is based on whether the lover chooses to accept the quest, the shared adventure for the lady's hand.

It is sometimes necessary to kill that dragon, but this is something that can only be hindered from outside the self. All behaviorism or conditioning is a form of "dragon-assistance," since the hero, or heroine's (women can kick ass too!), journey must be an internal and private one. That journey is an assertion of autonomy which makes possible all ultimate connections to others. Real therapists serve as guides or oracles, never programers. (See "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

The Internet, for its users, is merely another setting in which a self is created through language. It may be thought of as a gigantic and collectively-written novel. It is a gargantuan and self-perpetuating version of a Borges story, an "infinite library."

I am, like many of us these days, a man of multiplicities. I find that my home, the geography of my real native landscape, the place where you can find me, is now more often linguistic than physical. I live in the English-language text, whether electronic or print is not too important (as long as my computer keeps working); or in Cuban-Spanish myth; or in Italian Opera; French films, American pulp fiction, world cinema, but always in the original language. My loyalties are moral and human, personal and cultural. My friends, those I love, what I believe and will defend, come first; while ideologies (as opposed to principles) have become excess baggage in a world of massive deceptions, disappointments and loss, most especially loss. Zygmunt Bauman comments:

"Postmodernity -- so we read and hear -- has abolished old, comforting certainties and thrown the principles and assumptions that we have lived by into crisis. Everything in the world, including our own lives, seems to have been plunged into uncertainty. How does it feel to live in contingency? By what standards, if any, can we judge the quality of such a life, and can we dare to hope to make it better?"

What we fear now is not death -- few politicians have understood this -- so much as the absence of meaning and love. A world without meaning or love (and the two categories overlap) is not one in which I want to live. Fortunately, I know where meaning exists for me and how to love, I think, but also how to seek for both in and with the imagination in this Forest of Arden, even if I cannot do so elsewhere.

I am always reaching out for her, through my words, sent out into an electronic ocean. Every word I write and post here is a hope and a kind of secular prayer. I will never stop doing exactly that, no matter what the cost may be, no matter how long it takes or how far I must travel. I will find her. I will be with those I love. I will find my way home to them, even if it is only in words, since words and memories are among the few things that are still left to me. They are available for all of us. (Am I going to have to string a bow?)

Maybe our best stories (religions?) are about this dual search, for love and meaning, or for love as meaning. The absence of meaning can result from the waste of language, from draining the meaning of words in a great deal of commercial advertising and politics, which corrupts memory. As language decays, our selves decay.

In Joyce's Ulysses, Kermode remarks, a man appears mysteriously in a funeral scene "wearing a macintosh ... then disappears at the conclusion of the ceremony." It was Joyce's practice to ask people who claimed to have understood his book (which I do not!), "Who was the man in the macintosh?" Was it Joyce himself? or God? or the reader perhaps?

My theory is that this man, or "person" ("person" is not an easy concept to define these days) is the "language-user," the English reader and writer, who comes upon the literary text in our troubled times. These days, of course, he or she attends the funeral of the "author" who went missing, according to the French theorists, and suddenly died.

Foucault, echoing Beckett, asks: "What difference does it make who is speaking?" Well, Paul-Michel, it's makes a great difference to me. This "man in the macintosh" is smiling because he -- or is the "he" a "she"?, or perhaps both a "he" and "she," as Jung suggests? -- realizes that it will now be up to him, to the reader, to become the author of the text. Maybe he always was the author anyway, because Foucault may be right, so that this reader is merely attending his own funeral, from which he now, calmly, walks away.

Is the literary voice that you encounter in any text limited by gender? Is it limited to any gender? Who exactly is George Eliot? Or "Myra Breckinridge"? Notice that the point that I am making has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Jungian analyst June Singer writes in Boundaries of the Soul:

"There is an archetypal need ... for a conjunction of opposites in our lives as human beings. This is experienced as ... the natural biological opposition between men and women, which generates the spring of all creativeness. The opposition between the sexes is also experienced as an opposition within the individual. Every man has a feminine side to his being, and every woman a masculine side. The contrasexual sides are largely repressed as we develop our conscious adaptation in the process of growing as a man or as a woman. The feminine aspect within the man remains or becomes largely unconscious, and likewise the masculine aspect within the woman."

The goal for all of us is integration of the various aspects of personality, what Jung calls "individuation," the completion of the dialectic of selfhood. (See, "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.") For Jung, romantic love is the most profound expression of imagination and has to do with the recognition of the "anima" figure for a heterosexual man, or the "animus" for a woman in the love-object; that is, romance is about the self-recognizing-itself-as-other. Women who hate men, or men who hate women -- are really suffering from a form of self-hatred. (You getting this, Diana?)

Jung's work may be traced in the philosophical tradition to Kant's "categories," which are the ancestors of the archetypes, as a priori tools of thought and selfhood, but also to Hegel's quest to join or reconcile opposites in the "dialectic" of self and other, master and slave, which (in Jung's work) becomes the dance between male and female aspects of the psyche, as well as between men and women in the world. Each side of us -- male and female -- has a tendency to dominance and, equally, to be dominated.

Notice that, for Jung, each man and woman, requires a unity of masculine and feminine principles within the psyche, yet also externally, with a partner (who is a kind of opposite) in the world. This task or quest is not to be thought of as contained within the boundaries of any sexual orientation or gender, but as part of the project of being fully human. In mythology, a good place to start studying these themes is with the search for the Holy Grail. My suggestion to those who are interested in these matters is to read Gore Vidal's novels A Search for the King and Two Sisters. They may seem very different, but I promise you that there are important thematic associations between those works. This may surprise you (and it may shock him to read it), but Vidal is a deeply religious and patriotic writer.

I have touched on these issues in my essay on Paul Ricoeur's understanding of personal identity, but a computer virus, again, makes it impossible for me to post that essay here. Those who are interested, may wish to see my book-length discussion of Ricoeur's philosophy.

The possible interpretations of this insight about the dual aspects of our natures are endless, since mystery and complexity are the best things about both literature and philosophy -- not to mention, all of us.

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