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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

III. Esthétiques de la lecture/The Aesthetics of Reading

West of Beckett

Judith Roof

Texte intégral

1Archeologies are stories we tell about unsorted detritus abandoned midlunch. The perpetually-sorting organizational impetus, the compulsively arranging intelligence, hovers shamanistically over a scattering of cultural objets petits a, significant in their survival and recall, significant in their witness to the quotidian, significant in their connotative capacities—at least in so far as these shiny objects catalogue themselves in our consciousness. The only self-conscious archaeologist of our time, Michel Foucault, was a counter-archaeologist, who, obsessively returning to the scene of sorting, was interested in the bins themselves rather than the shards they so tidily pigeonholed. We love Archeologies, now proliferated through the cable spectrum, twenty-four hours day rehearsing the cause/effect braid of a million origins, twenty-four hours a day performing the functions of a mail clerk, each letter purloined to a destination, no lace left acheingly unturned, no stone left complacently dangling.

2We might dub this Linnean straight jacketing “culture.” We might name it “history.” It is narrative, whether we call it that or not. And narrative in its paradogmatic persistence keeps pining for the primal scene, keeps dogging the birth room, hoping for a glimpse at the parting of the ways, the partition whose vulvar blink offers the archeology-ending origin, the first sordid moment of sorting, the n-point of story-telling which refers perennially back. Lévi-Strauss noticed this about the Oedipus myth in his own archaeology, wishing for autochthony so the story could stop, hunting down the astral birth canal on Orion’s belt, the pupic point of histrionic no return. But still, as Beckett’s character Hamm declares, “The end is in the beginning and yet we go on.”

3This going-on is history running down, narrative that has ceased its sorting and resigned itself to the debris left in the sand, to the accidental, not-so-accidental L’Amour fou flow of the impossible story pinned by Lacan’s quilting points, (points de capiton), which are all that still show. These neo-Archeologies present themselves in fiction we dub postmodern, which is quite possibly, in addition to everything else it has been called, the archeology of failed Archeologies, the metanarrative of expired metanarrative. Bottle caps in the sand, the jumble of abandoned metonyms, narratives of junk language are the archeology of a process that flops at its start, which, paradoxically, builds an archaeology of sorts anyway, while it suggests that no such thing is possible—a zero point of history wheeling around the miracle of survival and the refuse of memory.

4I will admit from the beginning that although archeology of any sort may no longer be possible or desirable, I embark now anyway on a set of multiple and perverse Archeologies. I set out, in other words, to go on, and what I’ll go on about are the accidents around which Archeologies demand a digging, the iceberg tips of urgent bric-a-brac whose vector points scale their own shifting narratives, their own accounts of something like André Breton’s fortuitous shoe spoon, or even more archeologically, the exposed threads of Freud’s dream work: the syringe, the botanical centerfold, the reel of thread. And this archaeological site is founded on threes, a thrice-stumbling triumvirate of thirds who found themselves more or less in the last third of the twentieth century. Perhaps this will be the archaeology of the loving/striving family model, the Bloomian oedipal through which we understand the vengeful flex of our male writers, through which we track the epic journey of Art. In this triptych, artificially contrived though chance takes a part, we trace the cord of affinity, the trinity of progressive similarity, not to say, “son, you owe that father,” nor to identify the provenance of spectral milk carton faces, but rather to exhume the tracks of a progressive party that has not yet exhausted itself, that still wags a wordy bottle in the air.

5The first bit, stumbled over on my way West, is uttered by a nameless (or trice-named) being in an urn, incanting a non-native French:

And it’s not over. For here comes another to see what has happened to his pal, and get him out, and back to his right mind, and back to his kin, with a flow of threats and promises, and tales like this of wombs and cribs, diapers bepissed and the first long trousers, love’s young dream and life’s old lech, blood and tears and skin and bones and tossing in the grave, and so coax him out, as he me, that’s right, pidgin bullskrit, and in the end, having lived his life, no before, but you’ve got my meaning, and there we are the three of us, it’s cosier, perpetual dream, you have merely to sleep, not even that, it’s like the old jingle, A dog crawled into the kitchen and stole a crust of bread, then cook up with whatever I’ve forgotten what and walloped him till he was dead, second verse, Then all the dogs came crawling and dug the dog a tomb and wrote upon the tombstone for dogs and bitches to come, third verse, as the first, fourth, as the second, fifth, as the third, give us time, give us time and we’ll be a multitude […]. (378-79)

6Samuel Beckett’s third-act trilogy, of which L’Innommable is really his fourth novel, written after a Murphy-esque hiatus from its more nimble precursors Molloy and Malone Dies, appears in 1958, its flow less undamnable than the ancient Finnegan’s Wake, but the matter of consciousness reduced (or elevated) to a consciousness of matter lexically adduced. Its trice-named narrator—Basil, Mahood, Worm—trumped by the fourth titular antiphrasis, performs an inventory of stasis, an architectural archeology of his sur-roundings, his urnings in which memory and experience emerge as wreckage of a space/time warp. For Worm/Mahood architecture is archeology, consciousness is the language of stranded signifiers, the barred meanings of which string to the mire of prehistory—to the family eradicated by botulism, the loss of limb, the insight of not-I, the perpetual and paradoxical split subjective self-non-assertion, “it’s not I,” where the je speaks the moi or vice versa, the oxymoronic oscillations of “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

7Mid-third then, in this archeology, comes Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, the third novel of Paul West’s trilogy of the Jaggers family of Shalethorpe, its provenance hypothetically Beckett, its environs Watergate, its altering egos AJ and With, L’Innommable now on the loose. With the committed AJ impersonating his psychiatrist Dr. Withington impersonating an air force officer and tupping or trying to tup cows and ending up with With’s red-headed wife instead, Dr. Withington, AJ’s transferential Autre, takes AJ’s institutional place. Interrogated by another set of doctors, with ventriloquizes AJ or becomes him, in a kind of horizontal countertransference that enables him simultaneously to operate an AJ-ian consciousness and know that such consciousness is “Not I,” a split whose complex archeology liberates a junk echolalia of global artifacts:

When it’s midnight in the century—if you follow me— then it must be a different time somewhere else. Unless we construe the metaphor differently, in which case the time in our own century is more like four in the morning—the suicide hour when things come back to haunt you, when you become your conscience’s unwilling accountant. Any view not strange to you is false. You’ve heard of Lotte in Weimar? Well, I’m going to write something called Plonk in Bismuth, in which Plonk is not a verb at all, but who is in Bismuth, which happens not to be any alloy with tin, lead, and cadmium, or a stomach mixture that should properly be called bismuth subnitrate, but A Place, a region of the mind like Conrad’s Congo. See the trouble is, when I was a boy, I asked my dad if I could go ice skating and he said, Wait till it’s warmer, son. Arthur, Martha, General MacArthur, I don’t know who any of you are. Not any more; all I have to hold on to is the idea that I’m picnicking on Etna with Gilgamesh, who cannot die, whether the bloody volcano erupts or not, the Rumanian typographer Etaoin Shrdlu, who designed the linotype machine and so ensured that o would often appear for i (and vice versa) because he put them next to each other, and a Hungarian horror-comedian called Arisztid Olt, better known to you—if at all—as Bela Lugosi. (73)

8If we move from Beckett to West, even though they overlap, Beckett not quitting until well after West was begun, we enact the same metonymy as West’s text. While L’Innommable circles, scrolling repeatedly around its helical quilting points to inch ever closer to the next inch of consciousness, West’s double helix encodes the trash heap of cold war cultural matter, smarting thematics occasionally—the Luftwaffe, Bela Lugosi, physical anthropology, Francis Gary—but sliding metonymically away from Beckett’s cyclical birth/death rehearsals. West’s helices are the i’s to Beckett’s o’s, and as such their archeology becomes relational. If Basil/ Mahood/Worm worries through his relation to an archeology of self, West’s reduplicated transferential scenario enacts the metonym across the field of contagious collecting where history is less important than artifact, account less urgent than the verbal fragments evinced as symptoms of a consciousness leveled to the unconscious, personae branded by infectious thematic debris. So AJ communicates his disease to With who begins its communication to Dr. McIntosh, replicating the landfill hypergenetically across a field of players.

9In 1972, however, to continue our archeology, West has not yet transformed his nearly-viral prophasia into the register of the commodity, the most recent and yet totteringly obsolescent field of connotative fragments, the sparkling pyrite metonyms each waiting to launch its capsule message like a trick snake into our consciousness. Beckett’s objective entropy and West’s lexico-genetic reduplications slide into Mark Leyner’s trans-global product warp, the heir to West’s AJ’s part-time fixation on the stratosphere. While West’s devious inmates refashion thematic identities from the dilemma of figures who should never be known by the real names, Leyner’s celebrity ubermensch persona deploys the floating garbage of contemporary culture as a mode of transport, as the literal carpet of magical transformations made the less miraculous by the virtual atmospherics of transmission. Leyner’s post-Archeologies seal any notion of buried history, contriving in their own inter-relation a neo-narrative that slides past metaphorical cause/effect into the utter simplicity of association as reason enough.

I hadn’t eaten for days. I was famished. Suddenly as I reached the crest of a hill, emerging from the fog, there was a bright neon sign flashing on and off that read: foie gras and haricots verts next exit. I checked the guide-book and it said: Excellent food, malevolent ambience. I’d been habitually abusing an illegal growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of human corpses and I felt as if I were drowning in excremental filthiness but the prospect of having seomthing good to eat cheered me up. I asked the waitress about the soup du jour and she said that it was primordial soup—which is ammonia and methane mixed with ocean water in the presence of lightening. Oh I’ll take a tureen of that embryonic broth, I say, constraint giving way to exuberance—but as soon as she vanishes my spirit immediately sags because the ambience is so malevolant. The bouncers are hassling some youngsters who want drinks—instead of simply carding the kinds, they give them radiocarbon tests, using traces of carbon 14 to determine how old they are—and also there’s a young wise guy from Texas A & M at a table near mine who asks for freshly ground Rolaids on his fettucine and two waiters viciously work him over with heavy bludgeon-sized pepper mills […]. (3)

10As Leyner’s narrator strings events together in a logic that looks like cause/ effect but is really associational without the association, metonymy with a missing contiguity—more enthymematic finally—one aspect of these three passages, an aspect no doubt elicited as much by my archeology as by theirs, is the presence in all three of references to what is in fact a very literal archeology, more evident perhaps in this passage from My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, but insistently present in With’s persistent listings of prehistory homospecies and l’Innommable’s visits to a pre-urn prehistory. The figure of archeology is thus working in some way as an antidote to archeology, so let us dig through that.

11Archeologies, even verbal ones, all enact the fact that there is no history except the present and that present collections of signifiers imagined as belonging to a “before” are 1) always from the before of the text itself insofar as all literary texts inscribe previousness, that is, their own status as a compendium of signifiers organized at some point in the past. This means that reading is inevitably an archeological gleaning: an attempt to discern the orders subtending the artifacts that have survived to the page. Further, the fact that these signifier artifacts have survived renders them symptomatic in the sense that by the mere fact of appearance they gain the status of the overdetermined, crystalline, multivalence of objects from the unconscious, rendered superficial by the text, but bearing with them the marks of another kind of past: the repressed, the unconscious, the subjectively significant. This in turn produces the sense that texts’ cultural archeologies are in fact subjective ones as well and that by reading the scattering of cultural signifiers emplaced in texts, we are also being offered the reticular contents of the subject’s secret garden, a subject who in the course of these 32 years becomes increasingly superficial, seemingly impenetrable—the archeologist rather than the site, the guide rather than the text.

12Second (2), these collections paradoxically rework and project those signifiers of previousness into the potential of the work itself; that is, the meanings that reading the texts produce become the possibilities of the texts in so far as archeology’s quilting points launch an understanding to come. In this way artifacts are never from the before of a text, but have always existed as the throw of the dice, a pronouncement of the chance of a present that seeks its meaning through the accidents of felicitous association. It is in this sense that the latter two of these three texts are surreal—in the same spirit as André Breton’s analyses of the non-accidental quality of the accidental discoveries of his flea market ventures. In L’Amour fou what Breton observes is that what seem like “finds” in the archeological sense are already predetermined or overdetermined. These objects or images suture some unknown past to a future insight through the present pleasure of an analysis, which, it turns out, is interminable. The point here is that these accidentally significant objects, though they seem to arise from the dead, launch the quest for meaning into the future whose answer, if ever arrived at, is not about the connection between a past ignorance and some immanent understanding, but precisely about how the meaning always to come is always already known but not in the form analysis or history produces.

13The irrelevance of analysis, then, is what these archeologies offer as their bliss. Triangulating past and future, disorder and an imagined order, associational frenzy and pleasure in the increasingly uncanny process of objective repetition, the detritus worlds of Beckett, West, and Leyner offer the lurid potentials of ordering on the one hand, and the unlookedfor, the wash of objects and desires on the other. The fragmented quality of their styles, a fragmentation produced by their plethora of associational ellipses, offers perpetually wheeling slots of possibility for readerly insertion, fantasmatic reorderings, mollifying categorizations, delusions of control, the constant threat of escape, and the flush of extravagance. For these texts do increasingly offer an escape from one kind of narrative to another—from the restrictions of an Aristotelean narratological urn to the replicative possibilities of tag-team inmates to the proliferating mobilities of the virtually-embodied Leyner, who has come to know, in a Matrix-like fashion, that no fiction is bound by the rules of physical reality and that there is no such thing as either a reliable narrator or a reader who consumes anything but herself.

14Using collections of words that signify collections of artifacts that are imagined to signify histories layered upon histories finally enacts the morphing of one species of narrative to another. This evolution provides yet another archeology of sorts, this one tracking our structuralist beginning/ end cause/effect ideologist narrative extravaganza through its transformation to a conglomeration of narrative bites, tiny strings of code, like genes, that promise, through their long, long process of transferential chainings, to lead us to some manifestation somewhere, some too too solid flesh, some certain existence, some inalienable truth, some ab-original time that will itself contain those same codes unfolded, realized, embodied, so to speak.

15These archeologies of literary history and narrative transformation, in so far as I may have succeeded in providing the illusion of a pattern that responsibly reinstates a sense of narrative etiology, are often relegated to the realm of style. The verbal pools of floating detritus are not perceived as the symptom of a narrative sense exploded, collapsed, and anamorphically scattered. Rather, the fields of remains are reduced either to the enigma of visibility itself wherein style is merely a matter of camouflaging a meaningful pattern or to the inevitable performance of a commodity cultural or failed metaphysical condition in so far as detritus style seems to reiterate detritus culture, a culture of scattered semes and opaque icons unfettered by legitimating metanarratives of any kind. Conceptually, thus, style itself, becomes nothing more than a mask or an effect.

16I would suggest in the alternative that what these three texts offer instead of style occluding structure is that style itself has become narrative. This becomes more obvious when we get rid of any notion that these signifiers represent anything other than a syntagm, that the lure of diachrony they seem to offer is just that: a lure necessary to enable the syntagm to work as such. As long as we think there is something somewhere else that accounts for the co-presence of signifiers, the collection can operate as it is. Once we look at them as mere style, they become an attribute of something else, yet one more symptom of a failure of coherence. In relation to this detritus, the figurative verticalities of archeology and history offer an extended distortion of the illusion of coherent meaning that, like the tattoo on the erection, is legible only if the entire apparatus is inflated, engorged with a structure and purpose beyond its normal flaccid yet poetic self.

17Because it is only via some process of archeology that we can separate style and narrative as distinct cooperating aspects of structure and execution, the anti-archeologies performed by these three sites confound not only any form/content analysis, or even any hackneyed appeal to post-modern performativity (these texts enact the dilemma of the postmodern subject surrounded by fields of increasingly detached signifiers), but also what might ever have been conceived as any difference bewteen inscription and consumption. This occurs not in any defiance of meaning, but as an effect of a shift to the code itself, read (or misread) as style, but itself constituting another kind of sense-making of another kind of sense.



Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. New York: Grove, 1958.

Beckett, Samuel. L’Innommable. Paris : Minuit, 1953.

Beckett, Samuel. Malone meurt. Paris : Minuit, 1951.

Beckett, Samuel. Molloy. Paris : Minuit, 1951.

Breton, André. L’Amour fou. Paris : Gallimard, 1966.

Foucault, Michel. L’Archéologie du savoir. Paris : Gallimard, 1969.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: Modern Library, 1950.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. London: Faber & Faber, 1939.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon, 1958.

Leyner, Mark. My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

West, Paul. Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.


Michigan State University

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2009

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