William Spanos

from "The Detective and the Boundary"



As the profound influence of certain kinds of literature on existential philosophy suggests, the impulse of the Western writer to refuse to fulfill causal expectations, to refuse to provide 'solutions' for the 'crime' of existence, historically precedes the existential critique of Westernism. We discover it in say, Euripides' Orestes, Shakespeare's problem plays, the tragic-comedies of the Jacobeans, Wycherley's The Plan Dealer, Dickens's Edwin Drood, and more recently in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Kafka's The Trial, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and even in T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. (These are works, it is worth observing, the radical temporality of which does not yield readily to the spatial methodology of the New Criticism, which has its source in the iconic art of Symbolist modernism.) In Notes from Underground, for example, Dostoevsky as editor 'concludes' this anti-novel:

The 'notes' of this paradoxalist do not end here. However, he could not resist and continued them. But it also seems to be that we may stop here.

Taking their lead from the existentialists, the postmodern absurdists-writers like the Sartre of Nausea and No Exit, the Beckett of Watt and the Molloy trilogy as well as Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape (the titles should not be overlooked), Ionesco, Genet, Pinter, Frisch, Sarraute, Pynchon, etc.-thus view the well-made play or novel (la piéce bien faite), the post-Shakespearian allotrope of the Aristotelian form, as the inevitable analogue of the well-made positivistic universe delineated by the post-Renaissance humanistic structure of consciousness. More specifically, they view the rigid deterministic plot of the well-made fiction, like that of its metaphysical counterpart, as having its source in bad faith.

It is, therefore, no accident that the paradigmatic archetype of the postmodern literary imagination is the anti-detective story (and its anti-psychoanalytical analogue), the formal purpose of which is to evoke the impulse to 'detect' and/or to psychoanalyze in order to violently frustrate it by refusing to solve the crime (or find the cause of neurosis).


What I am suggesting is that it was the recognition of the ultimately 'totalitarian' implications of the Western structure of consciousness-of the expanding analogy that encompasses art, politics, and metaphysics in the name of the security of rational order-that compelled the postmodern imagination to undertake the deliberate and systematic subversion of plot-the beginning, middle and end structure-which has enjoyed virtually unchallenged supremacy in the Western literary imagination ever since Aristotle or, at any rate, since the Renaissance interpreters of Aristotle claimed it to be the most important of the constitutive elements of literature. In the familiar language of Aristotle's Poetics, then, the postmodern strategy of de-composition exists to generate rather than to purge pity and terror; to disintegrate, to atomize rather than to create a community.


We have seen during the twentieth century the gradual emergence of an articulate minority point of view-especially in the arts-that interprets Western technological civilization as a progress not towards the Utopian polis idealized by the Greeks, but towards a rationally mass produced City which, like the St Petersburg of Dostoevsky's and Tostoy's novels, is a microcosm of universal madness. This point of view involves a growing recognition of one of the most significant paradoxes of modern life: that in the pursuit of order the positivistic structure of consciousness, having gone beyond the point of equilibrium, generates radical imbalances in nature which are inversely proportional to the intensity with which it is coerced. However, it has not been able to call the arrogant anthropomorphic Western mind and its well-made universe into serious question.

As I have suggested, this is largely because the affirmative formal strategy of Symbolist modernism was one of the religio-aesthetic withdrawal from existential time into the eternal simultaneity of essential art. The Symbolist movement, that is, tried to deconstruct language, to drive it out of its traditional temporal orbit-established by the humanistic commitment to kinesis and utility and given its overwhelming socio-literary authority, as Marshall McLuhan has shown, by the invention of the printing press-in order to achieve iconic or, function in order to disintegrate the reader's linear-temporal orientation and to make him see synchronically-as one sees a painting or a circular mythological paradigm-what the temporal words express. In other words, its purpose was to reveal (in the etymological sense of 'unveil') the whole and by so doing raise the reader above the messiness or, as Yeats calls the realm of existence in 'Phases of the Moon,' 'that raving tide,' into a higher and more permanent reality.

This impulse to transcend the historicity of the human condition in the 'allatonceness' (the term McLuhan's) of the spatialized work of Symbolist literary art is brought into remarkably sharp focus when one perceives the similarity between the poetic implicit in W.B. Yeats's 'Sailing to Bzyantium' with Stephen Dedalus's aesthetic of stasis in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which as often been taken, especially by the New Critics, as a theoretical definition of modern Symbolist literary form:

You see I use the word arrest. I mean that the tragic emotion is static. Or rather the dramatic emotion is. The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire and loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical ordidactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

For Stephen, growing up has been a terrible process of discovering the paradox that the City-for Plato, for Virgil, for Augustin, for Justinia, for Dante, for Plethon, for Campanella, the image of beauty, of order, of repose-has become in the modern world the space of radical ugliness and disorder. To put it in Heidegger's terms, it has been a process of discovering that the at-home of the modern world has in fact become the realm of the not-at-home. This process, that is, ahs been one of dislocation. Thus for Stephen the ugliness and disorder, the 'squalor' and 'sordidness,' that assault has sensitive consciousness after his 'Ptolemaic' universe (which he diagrams on the fly-leaf of his geography book) has been utterly shattered during the catastrophic and traumatic Christmas dinner, is primarily or, at any rate, ontologically, a matter of random motion:

He sat near them [his numerous brothers and sisters] at the table and asked where his father and mother were. One answered:
-Goneboro toboro lookboro atboro aboro houseboro.
Still another removal! A boy named Fallon in Belvedere had often asked him with a silly laugh why they moved so often
He asked:
-Why are we on the move again, if it's a fair question?
The sister answered:
-Becauseboro theboro landboro lorbobo willboro putbobo usboro outboro
He waited for some moments, listening [to the children sing 'Oft in the Stilly Night'], before he too took up the air with them. He was listening with pain of spirit to the overtones of weariness behind their frail fresh innocent voices. Even before they set out on life's journey they seemed weary already of the way.
All seemed weary of life even before entering upon it. And he remembered that Newman had heard this note also in the broken line of Virgil giving utterance, liket he voice of Nature herself, to that pain and weariness yet hope of better things which has been the experience of her children in every time.

(Walter Pater too had heard this sad Virgilian note and in quoting the passage in Marius the Epicurean, another novel having its setting in a disintegrating world, established the nostalgia for rest as the essential motive of the aesthetic movement in England.)

Seen in the light of his discovery that random motion is the radical category of modern urban life-that existence is prior to essence, which the postmodern writer will later present as the Un-Naming in the Garden-City-Stephen's well-known aesthetic or rather (to clarify what persistent critical reference to Stephen's 'aesthetic' has obscured) his iconic poetics of stasis, both its volitional ground and its formal character, becomes clear. he wants, like T.E. Hulme, like Proust, like Virginia Woolf and like most other Symbolists, a poetry the iconic-and autotelic-nature of which arrests the mind-neutralizes the anguish, the schism in the spirit-and raises it above desire and loathing, which is to say, the realm of radical motion, of contingency, of historicity, in the distancing moment when the whole is seen simultaneously.

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