“Don Delillo’s Libra: History as Text, History as Trauma,” by Leonard Wilcox – Questions

This reading presents an examination of the relationship between history (specifically, historical trauma) and the representation of such a history through language.  Wilcox addresses the limitations of language as a signifier, claiming that “Delillo’s novels convey a sense of the impossibility of language ever being able to grasp the non-linguistic, the historical referent in its pristine reality” (340).  He draws on Lacan’s conception of “the real” to understand this limited scope of language in forming a narrative of history, explaining that the traumatic experience produces an “unapproachable void” which “resists symbolization” (345).

How does Delillo’s Libra ask us to think about language in relation to history and the formation of narratives?  In what we have read so far, do you see evidence of the historical traumatic resisting symbolization?  What can we make of the fictional nature of this text which attempts to deal with a very real historical event?

Subconscious Submission

Elise Cavanaugh:

I am interested in the seemingly contradictory balance between K.’s renunciation of his arresters’ authority over him, and his submission to their authority in spite of his resolute denial of their claims.  When K. is informed by the two guards of his arrest, he is unsurprisingly confused and frustrated at their lack of ability to explain themselves or the situation.  To his knowledge, he had not done anything against the law, and he was left with many questions – “What sort of men were they? What were they talking about? What office did they represent? After all, K. lived in a state governed by law, there was universal peace, all statutes were in force, who dared assault him in his own lodgings?” (Kafka 6).  This excerpt gives way from confusion to defensiveness, and he is consciously unwilling to grant the guards the authority or power they claim to have.  However, on multiple occasions he seems to submit to these figures of authority without meaning to: when he is ordered to dress in a more presentable manner, he complains even as he is “already lifting a coat from the chair and holding it up for a moment in both hands, as if submitting it to the judgment of the guards” (11).  When the inspector comes into his own house, he requests permission to sit down and it denied (13).  These instances of submission contradict the challenges to his arresters’ authority which he frequently verbalizes in his confusion.

This leads to a bigger question: from where is authority derived? Does it exist only when others submit to it? On only the second page of the novel, K. speculates that by speaking aloud (and explaining his actions to the stranger intruding in his room), he unintentionally “acknowledged the stranger’s right to oversee his actions” (4).  Could the subsequent events have been any different if K. had not acknowledged the authority of the stranger, or is authority/power something the guards would have possessed regardless of K.’s acknowledgment?

Desire and the Transience of Fulfillment

Elise Cavanaugh:

Desire is certainly a driving force between the entirety of the narration of Hamsun’s Hunger, but the narrator’s desires are not always named or even clearly recognizable.  He seems to fluctuate between wanting something in one moment and then renouncing his want of that same thing a page later.  Throughout the novel, the narrator suffers from starvation, yet each time he happens upon a small sum of money it is as if all of his woes have dissipated.  However, fulfillment is transient, and consistent with Lacan’s contention, desire can never be brought to satisfaction.

There are moments in the text when the narrator’s desire seems to all but disappear, but these moments are brief and soon overshadowed by the truth of his hunger.  For instance, in Part 3, he walks by a streetwalker, but is disinterested, commenting, “Alas, I had no real bounce in me these days; women had become almost like men to me. Want had dried me up” (106).  He is commenting on his lack of sexual desire, but the last sentence is interesting to me – it seems as if he is saying that the act of wanting had drained him of the ability to want anymore, which seems contradictory.

Even more than desire, though, the narrator seems consumed by hunger.  While “desire” suggests want, “hunger” suggests a need to be satiated.  So many of the narrator’s desires encompass basic needs of human survival and physical and mental health: food, respectful human interaction, dignity.  To have these needs go unfulfilled makes living impossible, and only serves to amplify the hunger/desire the narrator experiences.

Nerves as a Means of Influence and Identity

Elise Cavanaugh:

While reading Part 1 of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, I was struck by how closely elements of this fictional narrative resemble Daniel Paul Schreber’s “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.”  Given the subject of this capstone, of course it is not shocking that we can locate common themes throughout these works, but the specificity of many of the connections seems remarkable to me.  For instance, the narrator in Hunger seems to echo Schreber’s account of “nerve-language.”  Schreber informs the reader that “divine rays above all have the power of influencing the nerves of a human being in this manner; by this means God has always been able to infuse dreams into a sleeping human being” (55).  In an eerily similar passage, the narrator in Hunger asserts that “God has stuck his finger down into the network of my nerves and gently, quite casually, brought a little confusion among the threads” (18).  It is worth noting that Hamsun’s Hunger was published in 1890, which Schreber’s memoirs were not published until thirteen years later, in 1903.  Therefore, it is impossible for Hamsun’s fictional work to have derived inspiration from Schreber’s account.  The paranoic thought processes of both of these narrators specifically latch on to nerves as the means through which God communicates with and influences them.   I am curious about the significance of this, as well as what was understood about nerves in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

I briefly looked  into this question of the perception/understanding of nerves in Europe in the early twentieth century, and I discovered that in 2017, the Free University of Berlin hosted a conference on “Nerves and War: Psychological Experiences of Mobilization and Suffering in Germany, 1900-1933.”  While this is on the later end of the time frame which we are looking at, I thought it would be worth at least considering the perspective it offered on nerves at this time.  A description of the conference details how “´Nerves´ enjoyed a central place in German debates about war at the beginning of the 20th Century. Politicians, scientists, the public, and the military discussed the extent to which a future war would strain the nerves of German society…At this conference nerves are understood as a code and a construct that are central in negotiating identity. Both, contemporary discourses on nerves as well as individual and collective experiences of psychological mobilization and suffering will be presented and analyzed.”  I find it interesting that it seems that nerves were perceived as a principally psychological aspect of the human being (and collective human society), rather than a primarily physical aspect.  If nerves were understood as a “construct central in negotiating identity,” then perhaps this sheds some light on why Schreber and the narrator of Hamsun’s novel would perceive communication from God through their nerves.

Ultimately, I do not intend to assign meaning and context where there may be none (haha), but I think that an examination of the historical and scientific context in which these works were being published may supplement our interpretation of some of the seemingly bizarre scientific claims that we read.

The Truth of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Truth

Elise Cavanaugh

Given the title (“The Purveyor of Truth”) of Derrida’s response to Lacan’s reading of “The Purloined Letter,” I am intrigued by how Derrida talks about truth (and how he talks about the ways in which truth is spoken about more generally).  He observes, “Exhibiting, denuding, undressing, unveiling: the familiar acrobatics of the metaphor of the truth” (175).  He calls to attention the fact that, whenever truth is spoken of, we use vocabulary which helps us to convert its abstract nature to an object or action more tangible: exhibiting the truth as if it is something to be displayed, denuding the truth as if it is something to be stripped bare, undressing the truth as if its clothes could be taken away to reveal its core, unveiling the truth as if it is something hidden from sight.  Following the line cited above, Derrida goes on to say that “one just as well could say the metaphor of truth, the truth of truth, the truth of metaphor” (175).  This suggests that an interchangeability exists between these two concepts: truth and metaphor.  If the vocabulary in the metaphors above can interchangeably describe truth and metaphor, then it would seem that we can approach a description of truth, but our language may not allow for the articulation of a clear distinction between truth and that which this concept can be compared to via more concrete objects and actions.  These metaphors are helpful vehicles for us to conceive of and talk about “truth,” but are they the only way to do so?  And if so, are they by nature limiting, if they can only compare the truth without ever really articulating it?  Does language allow for/promote the articulation of abstract concepts, such as truth, or does it impede the articulation of the true essence of such a concept?

The Absent Letter

Elise Cavanaugh –

One thing that I found particularly interesting in Jacques Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” (a literary criticism which I admittedly frequently struggled to follow) was his take on the symbolism and function of the letter itself.  While reading “The Purloined Letter,” I had the same question that Lacan asks prior to addressing the letter’s symbolism: if the Parisian Police were as meticulous in their search as the Prefect boasts, and they combed every square inch of the property suspected of containing the letter, then how did they not find it?  Of course, a major flaw of theirs is ultimately revealed when Dupin criticizes them for being too mathematical, too calculated and predictable in their approach, but still, if the letter was present in the area which they searched, then they should have reasonably come across it.  In his interpretation, Lacan explicates that the signifier (the letter) is “by nature symbol only for absence… which is why we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be in a particular place but unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes” (39).   If we consider the intangibility of absence, it is impossible to grasp, whether it is present in a place or not.  By nature of being, an absence is inherently not in a place in which it is – in other words, it is absent from that place.  If the letter were a symbol of absence, then wherever the physical letter is, it is also symbolically not there.  As such, the content of the letter is, to Lacan, essentially irrelevant, and instead, its place and subsequent displacement is what truly matters.  In an overview of Lacan’s reading, Muller and Richardson summarize that the letter is a “movable pivot around which revolves a shifting set of human relations” (58).  Therefore, the letter as a structure in the story functions independently of both its content and its current possessor.