Libra: questions on point of view and storytelling

“In what might be interpreted as one of several ways of debunking the Camelot myth, DeLillo chose Lee Harvey Oswald as the thematic centre of the novel, rather than President John F. Kennedy. Oswald undergoes an identity crisis and needs to project it on the nameless, faceless people he sees everyday in the subway. He has to check his troubles against a group of people because by transferring his fear and discontent with society, he is reassured to belong, to be a cog in the wheel. He needs to experience anger within a framework which he creates and of which he then becomes part.” (Cîmpean 159).

What does Cîmpean’s analysis tell us about Lee Harvey Oswald as a character in DeLillo’s novel? Why might the use of Oswald’s point of view be surprising to American readers? Given what you have read about Oswald so far, are you sympathetic to his character, or skeptical of his story?

Suspicion and Authority in The Trial

The Trial presents a case that keeps both the protagonist and the readers guessing. It inserts a strange situation into an otherwise ordinary life, and the main character is forced to cope with it while he carries out his daily routines. As K. says, he does not view his trial as a joke, but as something that ultimately does not matter to him. This belief is quickly reinforced during the initial inquiry, when he loses faith in the credibility of the bureaucracy. While he first intends to “observe more than speak,” he begins an impromptu speech about the problems of the trial, ignoring the magistrate’s supposed authority (Kafka 43). This shows K.’s confidence in his conclusion: that the trial is nothing but a case of corruption and the targeting of an innocent man. “Given the senselessness of the whole affair, how could the bureaucracy avoid becoming entirely corrupt? It’s impossible, even the highest judge couldn’t manage it, even with himself,” he says on this (Kafka 50).

I can see the connection between Slochower and Kafka’s text. It certainly seems like nobody is giving a clear answer to K., and people actively avoid sharing the truth, whatever that truth may consist of. The general suspicion that K. feels is visible to readers in small ways, such as when he walks to the initial inquiry: “Contrary to his normal habit, he was taking close note of all these surface details, and he paused a while at the entrance to the courtyard” (Kafka 39). This, combined with his later discovery of the badges that each man wears in the courtroom, shows his increasing fear of being observed by higher authorities. Such a fear juxtaposes his assertion that there is no threat behind this unorthodox trial. This might connect to the dueling states of mind that each of us would exhibit in a similar situation: even though we know that the whole situation is ridiculous, we are still threatened by the possibility of being watched.

The Menagerie of Kristiania

The narrator of Hunger seems to be trapped in his fear of being observed, and in his dread of being perceived as “crazy” by other people. I noticed many similarities between his narrative techniques and those used by Schreber. He is aware of his behavior and its effects on others; he struggles to make his thoughts known; and he is widely misunderstood by the community. His habit of regressing to old ways in a cyclical manner also bears close resemblance to the narrator of Kafka’s The Burrow.

I found his description of the menagerie very interesting. He says: “The animals know that you are watching them; they feel those hundreds of curious eyes and are affected by them. No, let us have animals that don’t know you are watching them, those shy creatures puttering about in their winter lairs, lying there with somnolent eyes, licking their paws and thinking” (118). From the beginning of this course we’ve talked about situations of observing and being observed. Hamsun returns us to this theme by using the menagerie as a metaphor: humans are much like the animals trapped in cages at the zoo. We know we are under observation, and we cannot escape the judgment of other people’s eyes wherever we may flee to. So instead of behaving as we should, such as an animal should “in the wild,” we keep up appearances of all kinds and perform specific roles. In this sense we are not that much different from the narrator—only unlike us, he is always aware of this fact.

I was also surprised with the ending of Hunger, when the narrator decides to leave. This seems to differentiate him from the creature in The Burrow, who cannot escape his own self-destructive cycle.

Derrida and the Scriptor of Poe’s Literature

Jacques Derrida’s “The Purveyor of Truth” offered a brief but interesting idea that reminded me of lessons from other classes. This is the theory of the scriptor. In his analysis of the narrator, Derrida first argues that the narrator is essentially neutralized by Lacan’s reading. Going off of this, he states that the voice of Poe’s story becomes separate from both the author himself and the speaking narrator. This is a sort of “inscriber,” an “original function” that is “not to be confused with either the author and his actions, or with the narrator and his narration, and even less with a particular object, the narrated content, the so-called real drama which the psychoanalyst hastens to recognize as “Poe’s message deciphered”” (179). This suggests there is a new voice beyond the author and the speaking narrator. Shortly after this is presented, Derrida looks at formalism and the meaning of the scriptor in analysis of the story: “Formalism is practiced because one is not interested in the subject-author, something which might, in certain theoretical situations, constitute progress, or even a legitimate demand” (180). This relates to his proposition that the author becomes neutralized through psychoanalytic reading.

If this is referring to a similar idea as the theory of the scriptor, then I can definitely see the connection to “The Purloined Letter.” The scriptor, as a voice, exists alongside the given text; this is distinct from an author, who always precedes his or her writing. Whether it was his intention or not, Poe became a teller of a story that others interpret and retell through their own readings. Therefore, the fact that this story was written by Edgar Allan Poe is no longer central to the text itself. As Derrida points out, the text is still classified as “literature,” and Poe is still the connected author. But there is an underlying voice involved that goes beyond the author’s voice, and this cannot be ignored. In a strange way, this whole idea reminds me of the symbolism of the letter: it doesn’t matter so much where the text came from, where it is going, or even what it contains; what is more important is what it means to each individual person, and how one reading of the situation will lead to another. Ultimately the origins of the text become practically irrelevant.