Shannon Herbert, “Playing the Historical Record: DeLillo’s ‘Libra’ and the Kennedy Archive.”
“The closet is stuffed with material he has yet to read. He has to wedge new books into the shelves, force them in, insert them sideways, squeeze everything, keep everything. There is nothing in the room he can discard as irrelevant or out-of-date. It all matters on one level or another. This is the room of lonely facts. The stuff keeps coming” (DeLillo 378).
“…Documents have indeed become our landscape, our experience, our idiom, but they do not necessarily help us know” (Herbert 312).
What instances of record-compiling, or archive building, can be identified in Libra in addition to Nicholas Branch and his assignment? How are these ‘paper trails’ meant to function; and further, do they ever serve the purpose they are meant to? What are the ramifications of this self-induced avalanche of information to the modern State and psyche?
The idea of diversion in The Trial seems a particularly interesting one to me, especially considering the first real instance that Connor mentions—when K. remembers that he hasn’t seen the guards, Willem and Franz, leave his home. I specifically remember reading this passage and marking it as a moment of marked malignancy. What’s most unsettling about these lapses in attention or inhibited vision is the uncertainty about whether they’re harmless occurrences given paranoid attention by K., or whether there really is a malicious intent in the actions of members of the Court. Whatever the case, the novel does not seem interested in landing firmly on one side of the line; of course, this only increases the unmoored feeling one encounters in K. and themselves. In one startling instance in the Courtroom, K. is almost reminiscent of the narrator in Hamsun’s Hunger as he, maddeningly, becomes his own inhibitor during his oration. Kafka writes, “As K. interrupted himself at this point and glanced at the silent magistrate, he thought he noticed him looking at someone in the crowd and giving him a signal” (48). A pertinent reading here would focus on the paranoic structure of this sentence—the two gazes, K.’s which sees the magistrate but is blocked information, and the magistrate who might not know he is seen but still retains a privilege of secret information—and recognize that the anxiety and complexity of the thought comes from discontinuity, distraction, and distance from truth. Whether the Court and its magistrate are malevolent, or not, K. has internalized their function as he “interrupt[s] himself” and breaks the continuity of his diatribe against the impersonal Law and its executors. This self-imposed distraction becomes centered around yet another instance of privileged knowledge that K. does not have access to: usually it’s ‘The Law,’ abstract, but in this case it’s a furtive glance full of secret meaning that distances K. from the truth he seeks. I agree with Conor that The Trial seems to be another opportunity to employ Lacan’s work on absence and gazes; though now, distraction and self-impediment can be discussed in relation to Hunger as crutch of paranoic (and “normal”) cognition.
Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger repeatedly uses naming to assert power; curiously though, these attempts deviate from normative speech and language. Names given to other characters in the narrative are either loosely categorical—‘Scissors’ and ‘Uncle’—or gibberish, like ‘Ylajali.’ These names create a slippage in meaning that prevents Hamsun’s reader from knowing more about them and what they signify (the same, of course, goes for the narrator who remains unnamed throughout the entirety of the novel). The (non)function of naming in Hunger becomes particularly important when considering Lacan, for whom the formulation of identity is contingent upon recognition of the subject in the Mirror Phase. Thus, fluid and non-specific names, like those in Hamsun’s narrative, drive the reader away from stable consciousness toward a grasping, paranoic, frame of mind through a convolution of language.
Lacan’s contention, in the clinical setting, that ‘what is important is to teach the subject to name, to articulate, to bring desire into existence’ might help to elucidate the behaviors and paranoic cognitions of Hamsun’s narrator. Language, articulation, is the subject’s attempt to re-align itself with The Real, and though such action is of the order of Sisyphus, it is vital to the creation and coherency of a subject’s identity. If language begets consciousness, and the actions of language are desirous strivings of that consciousness toward unity in The Real, then it is easy to understand Lacan’s contention that ‘desire is the essence of man.’ In light of this, it should be no wonder that Hamsun’s narrator falls repeatedly into ‘nervousness:’ he struggles in the act of writing (which for him is not merely ideologically allied with his identity, for he makes his living as a writer), and deviates in his recognition, or naming, of self and others. There is certainly more to say about how language and naming contribute to the narrator’s delusions and unravelling; but, however the subtleties of Hunger play out this relationship, the presence—and simultaneous absence— of desire plays a clear role.
Much like Lacan’s seminar I found Derrida’s Purveyor of Truth to be a challenging read; interestingly though, I thought these two pieces were difficult in different ways, which may speak to the content of their interpretations. Lacan’s structure was labyrinthine and its repetition spoke to the importance of Freud’s “repetition automatism” (43) in the Lacanian reading as a meaning-making device. Derrida’s Purveyor is an unstable text, it seems to me, in a similar gesture toward meaning. There’s a circularity, or inversion, as the reader is told, “That in which, finding itself, it is found, in finding itself it is found, let us call text” (174). Inversion—particularly of privileged terms in cultural/linguistic binaries—is central to the project of deconstruction. The text moves toward meaning not through traditional, hegemonic, pathways, but by turning ideas and the words that express them, on their heads. As classical methods of interpretation are challenged, so too are their rhetorical counterparts. Derrida won’t even proffer an example without deconstructing his own deconstruction: “For example, the truth. But is truth an example? What happens—and what is dispensed with—when a text, for example a so-called literary fiction—but is this still an example?—puts truth onstage?” (174).
While trying to decipher Derrida’s response to Lacan’s response to Poe (and then later Johnson’s response to these) I was reminded of Schreber’s paralyzing experience with self-reflexive though—the unending repetition of ‘what am I thinking.’ In class we discussed that this thinking about thought could be seen as akin to Freud’s project with the important distinction that Freud’s was a system that granted degrees and Schreber’s a bed in a sanatorium. Though the comparison is not perfect, for it may discount or diminish the pathological element of Schreber’s paranoia, it points us in the direction of thinking about how critical theory is a paranoic system. Freud reads a person’s literature as an extension of themselves, Lacan uses Freud to read psychoanalysis and Poe, Derrida uses Deconstruction to play with inherent assumptions in Lacan and Freud’s thinking to tease out more readings of the aforementioned, until it seems as though The Purloined Poe is a lemniscate of essays rather than a book of collected works. As class progresses, and we move into the novels on our syllabus, it might be interesting to remember this discourse and how it comments on the paranoic qualities not just of particular authors or narratives, but literary criticism in general.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is, predictably, focused on the retrieval of a private letter stolen from the Queen of France by one of her Ministers. Though the letter and its safe return are the motivation behind the entire narrative, it remains curiously absent throughout most of the piece. The Prefect of Police tells Dupin and the narrator about his meticulous search of the Minister’s apartments, all of which are to no avail. Detailed inspection, down to “a single grain of gimlet-dust” (Poe 11), cannot uncover the whereabouts of the letter; and yet, this absent item determines the actions of all those involved in Poe’s story. Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on the Purloined Letter pays particular attention to the “nullibiety [sic]” (38), or non-being, of the letter and attributes this to its status as a pure, and perhaps universal, signifier. Lacan mentions that language will often present the opportunity for quantification in “the usage of the article as partitive participle” (39): examples given are phrases like ‘no more love,’ and ‘expend devotion.’ In talking about the letter, though, “be it taken as typographical character, epistle, or what makes a man of letters” language tends to eschew this quantification—one does not say “that there is letter [de la lettre] anywhere,” says Lacan (39). This seems right, though I do wonder if it’s a trend made more plain in French, in which case I’m a bit out of my depth.
So the purloined letter’s absence and presence (hidden in plain sight) can be read as a narratological manifestation of the signifier in language; that is, the letter is only important in the way it represents any given subject. This seems ‘on-brand’ for Lacan as it could relate to Saussure’s insistence on the arbitrary relationship between constituent parts of the Linguistic Sign. Lacan argues that Poe’s “fable is so constructed as to show that it is the letter and its diversion which governs [the character’s] entries and roles” (44). The letter becomes an interpretive negative space that is filled with the actions of those who acquire it. Thus, though we never read the letter itself, it allows us to read its various possessors. The Minister’s plan of disguising the letter has no impact on the document’s content, but does create a body of actions and supposed cognitions–interpretable as signs–that can be used to ‘read’ his character and, by extension, his psyche. What, exactly, those readings reveal I’m not sure. I found Lacan’s points on the repetition of actions between characters, and the three types of “glances” (32) within the narrative to be really interesting. I’m curious as to how these categorical glances might relate to the characters’ interpretability through the letter.