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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

I. L’Histoire et l’éthique/Westian Ethics

Abjection as Apocalypse/ Engagement as Salvation in the Work of Paul West

Joseph F. Pestino

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1Many of Paul West’s novels explore the world of the abject, those individuals who struggle with and shoulder particularly la condition humaine. I use the term “abject” as developed by Julia Kristeva in her of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (Pouvoirs de l’horreur). She wrote:

[…] what is abject […] is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses […] [The ego] lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the [superego’s] rules of the game. And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master. Without a sign (for him), it beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out […] it is a brutish suffering […] A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. (Kristeva, 1-2)

2Many of West’s characters are these cast-asides, crushed under the weight of suffering in the face of the meaningless. His characters’ abjection is an apocalypse, similar to what Kristeva explains when she writes: “And yet, if apocalypse means, etymologically, a vision, it must be understood as the contrary of revelation of philosophical truth, as the contrary of aletheia” (Kristeva, 154). When explored in terms of several of West’s characters and their survival, this state must give way to a view of existential engagement if one is to find/make meaning and to reconstitute identity in a paradoxically indifferent, yet often brutal universe. This paper focuses on West’s novel, Rat Man in Paris, where an abject character finds salvation, and on another, Lord Byron’s Doctor, where a character’s abjection remains his apocalypse.

3Poussif, the main character of Rat Man of Paris, is a physical survivor of unspeakable genocide during the Nazi occupation of France. As such, as West explained to Amanda Smith in an interview, Poussif experiences not only the ontological shock of birth that we all experience, but also the most infamous historical trauma of the last century (Smith, 109). That unrelenting horror became Poussif’s apocalypse, insuring for him a state of abject Otherness devoid of truth. How does one find salvation from apocalypse born out of abjection? We search an answer in Poussif’s psychic struggle, his journey to understanding, and his release from abjection. Having witnessed his parents and entire village murdered by the Nazis, he is continually haunted by the memories of the items of personal identity (the debris of his abjection) left behind in the burned-out rubble:

One letter they found, though stained with blood, read:
I am quite well at the present and enjoying the sunshine.
Plus lipstick holders.
Corset stiffeners.
Belt buckles.
Powder compacts.
And those two mirror images: The page from an exercise book, bearing a solitary sentence, and then the blackboard it was copied from: je prends la résolution de ne jamais faire de mal aux autres. I resolve never to do others harm (33)

4Fortunately, the memories come in fragments; they “do not come together in one clinched image he might call My Memory of It. My Recollection. If they ever do, enabling him to relive it all in one second, his heart will burst, his head will turn into a flare” (31-2).

5But the damage and the suffering of the fullness of that historical horror is profound and lasting to his psyche, to his behavior, to his view of his own species and of the universe he occupies. Any teleology to the world of the abject is non-existent, or incomprehensible, or worst of all, frighteningly malignant. From such a life-altering event, he can only ponder the motives and workings of this universe: “Outside a certain circumference, the houses went untouched. Who, then, drew the circle? Who stabbed the village center with the almighty needle while the marker scribed the radius of death?” (33-4)

6As a mutilé of the horrors of existence, Poussif senses himself apart from the world, and from any meaning to life, and he feels this abjection on a micro and macro level. He regularly gets himself into trouble sitting in the Metro seats reserved for the official war Veterans. After the “umpteenth scene with the gendarmerie,” Sharli secures for Poussif official permission to sit in the Metro as one of the “psychologically wounded” (38). Since the letter serves as recognition of his damaged self, he becomes “weirdly convinced that he was now among the sane and whole” (38). In effect, the letter frees his realm of physical movement while it also underlines his greater abject state: “It gave him the freedom of the city. It promoted him to an even higher plane of non-belonging. There was more of life into which he did not fit” (38).

7As an isolated, physical survivor of man’s inhumanity to man, he is, as Sharli says, “[an] original, [but] so original he doesn’t belong anywhere. He doesn’t have anything in common with anybody, and this makes him a sort of mental orphan, except he is too big, a sort of outcast, except he’s sometimes a quite convincing human being, a sort of Phantom of the Opera, except he’s very physical at times and the opera would have no lyrics” (48-9). The fragmentation common to the abject, puts him, as West has said, “in a very uncertain relationship with civilization” (Smith, 109): Therefore, “His pulsing name [Pulsifer] belies him. He coasts through history. He browses the grasslands of time. Nothing detains him much. He floats, he roams, he tunes himself in and out, one of the most—she gropes for the word—dispersed humans since […] whoever” (53). But even an oppressing universe “is full of marvels, […] [and Poussif] wants to keep up with it. A sort of at-arm’s-length relationship with catastrophe” (52). He can still glimpse these marvels, their dangers and possibilities, because, as Kristeva points out, even with abjection, there is the seed of rebellion against that very state:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, […] thinkable. (Powers, 1)

8But can this revolt achieve an escape from the darkness of the suffering, evil, and alienating forces and manifest itself in the form of affirmation?

9Those West characters who do escape their apocalypse do so by mining the wondrous potentials of creative experience that West suggests still exists even in an absurd universe. So, Poussif creatively reinserts himself— though only partially, still meaningfully—into the world from which he was othered. Costumed and stocked with his rats and rat-proxies, Poussif imposes his presence on the universe by wandering the streets of Paris accosting pedestrians and café frequenters with his side show. David Madden cogently points out that Poussif’s ritual is meant to shock people out of quotidian apathy. Thus, by acting, he becomes the conscience of society, a reminder of its abject state, and of its need to create and make things different. Not to act, no matter how damaged we are, is an act of mauvaise foi. Through his ritual, he is rebelling against the malignant forces of the universe that have tried to efface him in a way the Nazis failed to do—that is, by rendering him superfluous through cosmic indifference—and he is also making an impact, a Kristevan “crying out” on behalf of humanity against those forces. His efforts are meant to redefine himself existentially, and for a while his efforts produce results: his popularity grows, the citizens of Paris anticipate his appearances, applaud his dedication, ponder the meaning of his behavior.

10But the forces that press us to abjection are unrelenting, and seem to conspire against Poussif. The newspaper picture of the extradited war criminal sends him reeling, because he is sure it is Boche, the commandant who led the Nazis who torched his village and wrecked his life. His routine grows beyond the general, human act of rebellion against the forces of abjection, to become an attempt at achieving revenge and justice for the dead of his village who can’t speak and for a society who won’t speak out and act to his liking. His show gets more extravagant with its ratfilled pram, ostentatious decorations, and Boche posters. But the trauma of recovered memories plunges him back and deeper into abjection. Even Sharli, his lifeline, has trouble communicating with him and keeping him among the living and not the living-dead: “They hug. She has to leave. She is involved in the world in its conscienceless onrush. She gets paid. Rat Man is involved in distant vibrations, entering a phase of hearty paralysis, with a new rage feeding him” (76). His ritualistic performance art, with its climactic immolation of the Boche poster, is a psychological projection of the confl agration he witnessed all too literally and personally. His art aims to exercise his demons and simultaneously exact revenge in order to restore normalcy and meaning to his life. However, exacting vengeful death, even symbolically, does not resurrect life, does not set his world back in order again, does not unfragment the fragmented.

11Poussif’s rage only derails him from the marvels of the universe he mused about, pre-extradition of Boche. Instead, the voices of the dead, of his past, overwhelm him. Ultimately, this re-visitation of suffering can only produce regression not progression, and soon those reborn forces of abjection make his life backslide: “All of his life is on top of him all the time. I’ve grown backward, he whispers, tapping right palm against left knuckles. I have grown forward, onward, in time, but my heart is backward. My heart is on backward, as we say of shoes” (95-6). Soon, he dresses like Boche in the picture, and his pram, replete with lit candles, becomes “an altar before him in memory of the dead, the maimed, the deported” (108), and as he wheels his “vengeance through the empty street, among rats no longer his and refuse uncollected, [h]e needs a sign, a call, a death” (110). However, the “sign” he gets—that Boche is not his war-criminal, but just another in a string of too many—comes to him as a shock he must at first deny and when he can deny no longer, must rationalize: “I’ll take any Nazi I can, Rat Man tells the world. You needn’t be too particular. They have more in common with one another than they don’t. What I do is in part symbolic, see” (112). The novel’s narrator’s psychoanalysis of Poussif sums his state of being with, “It makes no difference. He thinks in categories; a childhood trauma has made him think this way” (112-3).

12From their place of banishment and status as cosmic orphans, West’s abject characters, and certainly Poussif, sense they are “very nearly not of this world, […] [looking] like just everyone else, but [having] very few connections with how they live their lives” (113). As Poussif says, “I might be a reflection. An echo. A carbon copy. One of those xerox copies I use. I pass for human but I’m stunted. Not dangerous, or even clever, but sort of terminally buggered about” (113), and they also sense Kristeva’s explanation of abjection as “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (Powers, 4). Like all abject characters, Poussif “beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out” (Powers, 2).

13In Poussif’s world—our world—it is suffering, alienation, cruelty, hate, destruction, apocalypse versus healing, existential engagement, kindness, love, creation, and it is the latter grouping that makes meaning in the universe and that ultimately saves Poussif from the total annihilation of the Self caused by abjection.

14Kristeva explains that “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Powers, 4), and this is the modus operandi of Poussif’s perversely ironic universe. This certainly sounds like Poussif the “parallel man” in the “uncertain relationship to society” and that ostracizing universe. Increasingly resembling Boche in dress, Poussif loses his identity further because his engagement becomes inseparable from the source of his abjection. The ego/superego/id become dysfunctionally fused, a sure recipe for apocalypse of the Self. To be saved from permanent destruction, Poussif must redefine himself existentially, apart from that moment of childhood apocalypse. David Madden connects identity construction to time when he writes: “The theme of time is closely linked with that of identity, and for Rat Man an acknowledgement of time will lead to a discovery of selfhood” (124). Consequently, Poussif can only recover a present identity (or, more precisely, an identity of the present) by actually recovering his childhood identity without the abject trauma of that moment in time.

15Kristeva presents another valuable insight that has particular relevance to Ratman’s experience, though she made it without having read Rat Man of Paris, which was written four years after Pouvoirs de l’horreur. She wrote: “The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things” (Powers, 4). Certainly, the innocence of childhood, that period meant for undisrupted and undamaged development of our identity and the integration of the Self, is what gives us a reserve of psychic strength for our inevitable confrontation with the forces of abjection. So, if one does not escape childhood psychological trauma, one must later confront it, contextualize it, find ways of coping with it, and find forms of action that move one beyond it. Only then can one reintegrate identity and reestablish the Self. Poussif must, as David Madden suggests, stop trying “to kill time entirely [and stop trying] to live in an atemporal zone apart from [it] contingencies, [because] […] [he] can never escape the brutalizing demands of time” (123-4). Instead, Poussif must acknowledge time, find his place in it, and above all create in it. His and Sharli’s love becomes an act of creation, of human and humane art that transcends abjection. Theirs is the assertion of life and personal art over the earlier failure of his mimetic reenactment of the horrors of his abjection.

16For this limited study, I do not want to over-simplify the variety of ways that West’s extensive array of characters respond to and are affected by the forces of abjection, so for balance-sake, however, it is worth some observations about Dr. Polidori as an illustration of a character who does not survive abjection. Moreover, though many of West’s other abject characters are main characters, not all of them are. To give an example, certainly in one of my favorite of West’s novels, The Ladies of Whitechapel: Jack the Ripper, one might fruitfully explore the Ripper’s abjection. But the abjection that troubles me the most in that novel, indeed in some ways haunts my heart, is powerfully portrayed in the Ladies themselves, for whom West shows such poignant compassion and affection. And, for a variety of reasons—political, social, class, personal—these ladies are examples of those humans who will not survive abjection—and not just because the Ripper dispatches them—but perhaps because there are just too many obstacles to an engagement that will find or create meaning in their lives. Perhaps there are times when the mythic metaphor of Sisyphe and Camus’s famous position—“La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.” (166)—applied to the general human condition just does not always work in the particular, especially in the Zola-like world of the Ladies.

17Unlike Poussif, Polidori’s abjection does not arise out of a psychologically traumatic childhood experience of man’s inhumanity to man. Instead, Polidori’s alienation and sense of otherness come from an ill-formed, unbalanced ego-integration that manifests itself in a sense of defilement in relation to the world he inhabits. We see his abjection manifested most strongly in his relationship to Byron. Polidori suffers from an ego trapped in a state of primary narcissism, and as Kristeva points out, such states are filled with fear and a sense of impurity (Pouvoirs, 74-5; Powers, 60). We see in Polidori’s relationship to Byron a pattern of narcissism that Kristeva might describe as “a narcissism laden with hostility and which does not know its limits […] where pain is born out of an excess of fondness and a hate that, refusing to admit the satisfaction it also provides, is projected toward the other” (Powers, 60). This type of narcissism helps account for Polidori’s love-hate relationship with Byron, and for Polidori’s self-loathing, a self-loathing that overcompensates by projecting an external air of superiority while internally actually struggling with feelings of inferiority, failure, and masochism.

18Along with the projection onto the world of his sense of alienation and inadequacy, Polidori already views the universe as a priori malignant. In one of their many debates, Byron waxes on about the creative exuberance of God’s creation, embracing its energetic capacity as the behavior to be modeled: “If God gave us the capacity, then God must have wanted all that the capacity could do” (38). Granted, embedded in this remark is Byron rationalizing his own excesses, but he does believe what he says, and in fact, lives and dies implementing this philosophy. But Polidori’s response to Byron is telling: “Except, I would say, for the things made available only to test our will in denying ourselves all of them” (38). To Polidori, God, or whatever universal force, when it is not being indifferent and detached, lays traps for us and sets us up for disappointment and failure. Thus, Polidori cannot grasp Byron’s counter; “‘No, Polly,’ he would say, ‘God is positive. Universes make themselves not by hanging back. Their essence is to bulge forth and carry all else with them’” (38). Beneath the situational and verbal irony of the actual context that precipitates their discussion— Byron’s literal, bulging erection—we really do hear an echo of a more positive context separated from Byron’s self-destructive behavior and treatment of others. It is “the not hanging back” that allows some of the abject to avoid the mise en abyme, by exerting themselves creatively and morally in that universe (thus, Von Stauffenberg’s acts, albeit tardy; Poussif, unwilling to succumb, becomes our conscience and moral reminder, and a creator, with Sharli, of new possibilities; in Gala, Milk exerts wonderment despite being short-changed from birth by a capricious universe; and there are others in West’s works, including that swimmer Out of [his] Depths. Yes, the toll for acting can be exacting: those I’ve mentioned all pay a price. After all, West writes in A Rocking Horse on Mars, “When you come into this world, you enter the big league, willy nilly, and it is going to cost you your life, so you might as well finger the texture of being as much as you can” (22). Polidori simply does not have the strength of will to assert a vital Self and significance in a universe that trivializes both. He will not survive his abjection because his struggle with his sexual identity complicates his self-perception, his interpersonal relationships, and his professional activities. His “plane of abjection” fits what Kristeva defines as the “subject/object relationship” rooted in “an anal eroticism,” describing it by saying “Bataille is also the first to have specified that the plane of abjection is that of the subject/object relationship (and not subject/other subject) and that this archaism is rooted in anal eroticism rather than sadism.” (Powers, 64)

19This subject/object relationship defines the Byron/Polidori relationship. There is always a strong sexual tension between Byron and Polidori, not to mention sexual overtures, and though Polidori speaks with repulsion of Byron’s advances and “kit” (genitals), his remarks and interpretation of events also reveal considerable curiosity and attraction to both. Dr. Polidori protests a bit too much, and the experience at the piano bench with Byron has a far more alluring memory to him than his expressions of discomfort suggest. Indeed, throughout the novel, Byron is the dominant figure in the relationship, with Polidori being passive and in denial about it. This troubled sexual identity creates the sense of defilement he feels in his relationship to Byron, and since defilement places him at the boundary and margin of society, Polidori feels further removed from the object of his latent desire.

20Coupled with other character flaws—his true sense of intellectual inferiority and its accompanying over-compensation, his jealousy, his sense of being deliberately othered by the group, his persecution complex, his inclination to volatile over-reaction, among other problems—Polidori is sufficiently emotionally paralyzed to neither be able to rebel against nor find a way of living in a brutal universe. And though Polidori and Mary Shelley are the only two who really produce a completed work of art out of that famous dark-and-stormy-night competition, Polidori is aware that his is really a plagiarized, stillborn version of Byron’s original idea. He cannot escape his latent desire for Byron, nor the weight of Byron’s genius and powerful personality, nor the reality of the brilliance of Mary’s Frankenstein. Unlike Poussif, Polidori defines himself too closely with his cosmic “buggering about” to extricate himself from it.

21Quoting the ideas of anthropologist Mary Douglas, Kristeva elaborates on the potency of pollution, how it is proportional to the potency of the prohibition that founds it, and how it is a danger only when “lines of structure, cosmic and social, are clearly defined” (Douglas, 113). At first glance it might seem that in our freewheeling group of Romantics at Diodati, their cosmic and social views are concerned little with “lines of structure,” but these lines of structure do exist external to the group. After all, the Shelleys and Byrons are running away from consequences of their transgressions against cosmic and social lines of structure (adultery and incest respectively). Moreover, we witness events to a great extent from Polidori’s point of view, a point of view that asserts his ill-defined and ill-formed Self in terms of the cosmic and social restraints he knows, and which he then uses as weapons to define and judge the others. Consequently, Polidori sees Byron’s abusive and numerous sexual exploits as evidence of Byron’s pollution of all those with whom he comes into contact. Polidori explains his own expanding sexual escapades as ultimately self-destructive efforts to define himself by mirroring his studly idol. It becomes a circular activity that overcompensates for his inferiority complex by placing himself in competition with and above the others. Of course, it further alienates him. Moreover, Polidori’s appraisal of Byron-as-defiler as well as his own sense of self-defilement gets transferred into his view of Byron’s penis as both a micro symbol of the havoc reaped in general by the male organ on the world, and as a macro symbol of a cosmic force that reaps abjection on its own creation (122).

22Interestingly, though Byron complains about being “bitched” in his and Polidori’s contraction of the clap from their female conquests, and though Polidori views Gabby’s menstruation as a symbol of betrayal during his three-way with Gabby and another customer, the female “sluices” and juices are really not the literal polluters in their world nor the symbols of psychological defilement. In fact, in West’s works they never are. Actually, in this novel, defilement comes from the male—from sperm— as literal and symbolic defiler of the Self and of the world it showers. As such, in Polidori’s world and in particular in his view of his relationship to Byron, his own defilement and marginalization is precipitated contrary to a pattern Kristeva has explained when she writes: “Neither tears nor sperm, for instance, although they belong to borders of the body, have any polluting value” (Powers, 71). Polidori’s is a world quite upside down, however. As object of Polidori’s attraction and repulsion, as symbol of his attraction to and resentment of Byron’s imaginative and creative genius, Byron’s organ with its endless ejaculatory power feeds Polidori’s obsessive desire for Byron while driving him deeper into abjection.

23One final application of Kristeva’s thoughts on abjection: she explains that Oedipus’s abjection occurs when desire and death become equally and fully sovereign in his life, and this knowledge ultimately forces him to exclude himself spatially (“exclusion spatiale”), thereby thrusting defilement aside in order to undefile and save Thebes, and to escape his own abjection (Powers, 84). Surely, Oedipus’s is a different world from Polidori’s, but as an act of crying out, an assertion against a rigged and capricious behaving pantheon, Oedipus has some impact. Polidori, however, is forced into spatial exclusion (exile)—cast off by Byron and the group—and this only deepens his sense of abjection. Feeling no part of the group and no connection to any grander social or cosmic contract, Polidori’s solution is to drive himself into further defilement (agos). To become a greater defiler than Byron and to revel in it (his jouissance) is to become Polly-the-rectifier, Polly-the-purifier (thus, becoming katharmos) of what Byron has defiled (Claire in particular). As inept at this as with all else he tries, his abjection becomes more deeply entrenched in the permanent ambiguity he feels as to the role he plays in the world and in relationship to Byron and company. Thus, every action he takes simply creates a vicious circle, a spiral downward.

  • 1 I am applying to Polidori’s situation and psychological behavior a variant of what Kristeva uses t (...)

24Not knowing his place and feeling the reversals of what he thinks he is or is supposed to be (an accomplished doctor, a mind that can intellectually wrestle with the best, a writer who can elicit respect), he takes on another trait of the abject—being pharmakos, or a scapegoat. As the scapegoat—the being ejected from the group, society, and the universe— his ejection should purify what remains, but it doesn’t. The Diodati group becomes what Kristeva would call “a miasma” of “sterility, disease, and [future] death” (Powers, 85)1. And Polidori’s agos becomes an insurmountable and deeply self-destructive variation of the defilement that Oedipus ultimately transcends at the end of the dramatic trilogy.

25Polidori’s defilement is not the transgression of proper boundaries through maternal incest, but it shares the similarity of being a defilement “[which is] the stopping of life; (like) sexuality without reproduction” (Powers, 85). It is Polidori’s latent homosexual desire with its accompanying self-denial and self-loathing, combined with an arrested ego development, that become the stopping of life on several levels:

  • the sexual act that won’t produce (in this case, reproduce);
  • his feelings of defilement (what he sees or wrestles with in his desire for Byron) that will literally stop life—his own suicide;
  • his literary production (his story)—that is really a still-born derivative that is part Byron (not at his greatest) and part himself;
  • a self-identity that is composed of lifeless parts (like Mary’s monster) animated into existence and doomed to a meaningless life and death by a universe too consumed by its own creative process to acknowledge or love back what it creates, and too arrogant to care whether all that it creates is good, and, in fact, too flawed itself not to be defiled by its own unleashing of violence and death.

26Polidori cannot survive the abjection at the hands of this rejecting, bungling universe as Mary’s monster couldn’t survive the abject rejection by its “father/creator” Victor, despite the monster’s longing for that “father.”



Camus, Albert. Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Paris: Gallimard, 1942. Cited in full on Christophe Wambst’s personal web page devoted to philosophical texts. 20 April 2004 < de%20sisyphe.html> Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Kristeva, Julia. Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980.

Kristeva, Julia. of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Madden, David W. Understanding Paul West. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Smith, Amanda. “PW Interviews Paul West.” Publishers Weekly, 28 February 1986: 108-09.

West, Paul. Lord Byron’s Doctor. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

West, Paul. Rat Man of Paris. New York: Doubleday, 1986.

West, Paul. “Rocking Horse on Mars.” Town and Gown Feb. 1985: 18-22.


1 I am applying to Polidori’s situation and psychological behavior a variant of what Kristeva uses to explain Oedipus’s situation and behavior at the end of Sophocles’s tragedy: “Entering an impure city—a miasma—he turns himself into agos, defilement, in order to purify it and to become katharmos. He is thus a purifier by the very fact of being agos. His abjection is due to the permanent ambiguity of the parts he plays without his knowledge, even when he beleves he knows. It is precisely such a dynamics of reversals that makes of him a being of abjection and a pharmakos, a scapegoat who, having been ejected, allows the city to be freed from defilement” (84-5).


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