|ERIK S. RORABACK
PARA-BAROQUE CONCEPTUAL INTERSECTIONS & INTERVENTIONS: FINNEGANS WAKE, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW & THE WRITING OF THE DISASTER
"I believe that [. . .] eclecticism is the best way for postmodern theory to avoid the old philosophical traps of universal legislation and of dialectical subsumption and totalisation. Relativism and contextualism must reign. But the common practices of culture studies and of left academic criticism, much as I've learned from them, are to my mind not nearly relativistic and contextualist enough. Delimiting and situating particular practices, locating them in their specific circumstances and contexts, is often just a way for the critic to maintain a position of superior comprehension and mastery, since he or she is then able to present the Big Picture of which various cultural phenomena are just so many little pieces. And so, rather than move hierarchically from the specific to the general, from epiphenomena to underlying structures, from individual symptoms to the social totality, I have pursued the paralogical strategy recommended by Jean-François Lyotard (1984) and already practiced implicitly by the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations (1968). I have endeavoured to jump directly, and discontinuously, between the singular and the paradigmatic. I have shunned generality, and have instead 'universalised' exceptions, counterexamples, and extreme cases. Writing theory thus becomes a monstrous hybrid of empirical description and simulacral fabulation. Theory as 'pataphysics, rather than as dialectics or as metaphysics.'"
--Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body: Theory Out of Bounds, Volume 2, p. 265
Although Steven Shaviro's remarks here refer to a book on film (on George Romero, Jerry Lewis, David Cronenberg, R.W. Fassbinder, Andy Warhol and Robert Bresson) they still might sensitise us to some of the strategic methodological considerations of the present piece that essays a 'contextualist,' comparativist, interdisciplinary, and so de-familiarising approach to three canonical texts and writers in twentieth-century occidental letters, a line of manoeuvre that would want to complicate other methods that would wish ideologically to block a certain kind of speculative and analogical multi-disciplinary tradition of thought and criticism attempted here. This said, this article explores James Joyce's (1882-1941) major narrative, Finnegans Wake (1939), in the light of Thomas Pynchon's (1937-present) World War Two novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and Maurice Blanchot's (1909-2003) philosophical-literary text The Writing of the Disaster.
Often secondary literatures indicate that more could be done in juxtaposing Joyce and Pynchon, but the scholarly output remains small in this regard. The topic remains under-evaluated. One notable exception? Edward Mendelson, who in his 1976 piece "Gravity's Encyclopaedia" advanced the following hypothesis:
Although the genre that now includes Gravity's Rainbow is demonstrably the most important single genre in Western literature of the Renaissance and after, it has never previously been identified. Gravity's Rainbow is an encyclopedic narrative, and its companions in this most exclusive of literary categories are Dante's Commedia, Rabelais's five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby Dick, and Joyce's Ulysses.2
To this line of writings may be added Joyce's Finnegans Wake. This notion of the encyclopaedism of Joyce and of Pynchon was taken up later by some researchers, including the Berkeley thinker-critic Leo Bersani, who while not citing Mendelson's classic piece of Pynchon criticism, did produce in his The Culture of Redemption (1990) a sub-part titled Encyclopaedic Fictions that contained chapters on Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet, on Melville's Moby Dick, on Joyce's Ulysses (titled "Against Ulysses"), and on Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It should also be noted here that Pomona's late Brian Stonehill argued of Gravity's Rainbow in The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Pynchon from Joyce to Pynchon, the only book of which I am aware that has anything at all resembling a quasi-pairing, albeit it is not isolated on these two, narrative authors:
The genre of paradox seems to me a more useful category for interpreting the novel than 'encyclopaedic narrative,' since the latter label implies only that Pynchon threw everything in. The requirements of paradox account for more. The novel is immensely funny, as paradoxes often are, and as no encyclopaedia ever is. Puns, as we have noted, are paradoxical, and entire episodes of Gravity's Rainbow are contrived for the sake of one. Nor is any encyclopaedia self-conscious; but without its self-consciousness Gravity's Rainbow would be less paradoxical, and not itself. We have also been able to learn from paradox why the novel is preoccupied with paranoia, with entropy, and with its own relation to the reader's life. Not everything is lost to equivocation, the, for by displaying its own art, Gravity's Rainbow obliges us to affirm its value.3
The valency of Pynchonian paradox is undoubted, and yet for another mindset Pynchon's literary form of a chameleonic encyclopaedia in its blending of genres, voices, styles, and so on and on proves and provides for some decidedly comic if not wry moments of narration.
As for Bersani's provocative work, it is also worth noting here that the York Joyce critic Derek Attridge in Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History (2000) and the New York University scholar Denis Donoghue in "Is There a Case Against Ulysses?" (1992) were the first critical texts of which I am aware that began to engage with Bersani's richly dialectical and self-reflexive piece on Ulysses and its at times implicit polemic against those segments of the conformist, conservative and reactionary industry of Ulysses criticism. At any event, the attempt here is to place Joyce, Blanchot and Pynchon into the same interdisciplinary basket of cultural, Irish, French and American Studies. It is important not to misunderstand here: The present piece is not interested in the so-called "influence" that may have existed between any combination of these three narrative authors; rather, it wishes to elucidate how Finnegans Wake may be seen both to herald and to announce Gravity's Rainbow and The Writing of the Disaster and how all three texts shed light on one another and are in a "contextualist critical strategy" more comparable and cross-illuminative than canonical, nationalistic or ideologically imperialistic approaches to literary history would have us think. The philosophical strain of The Writing of Disaster and of its ability to toss a different light onto the Wake and onto Rainbow enables us to recognise the mandarin Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno's (1903-69) dictum, "In order to be adequately experienced, a work of art requires thought and hence philosophy, for philosophy is nothing more than intransigent thought."4
But first of all, let us consider the life-narrative of externalised self-exile within self-exile that the somewhat isolated Joyce sought during his compositional work on the mortuary of culture that is Finnegans Wake compared with the more internalised self-exile within self-exile life-narratives of Blanchot in France and of Pynchon in the United States. The notion of Joyce as an exiled and so neo-, post- or para-Baroque artist may be seen in the Bulgarian born Parisian psychoanalyst-critic Julia Kristeva's words in a section titled, "Void or Baroque Speech"
To be of no account to others. No one listens to you, you never have the floor, or else, when you have the courage to seize it, your speech is quickly erased by the more garrulous and fully relaxed talk of the community. Your speech has no past and will have no power over the future of the group: why should one listen to it? You do not have enough status--'no social standing'--to make your speech useful. It may be desirable, to be sure, surprising, too, bizarre or attractive, if you wish. But such lures are of little consequence when set against the interest--which is precisely lacking--of those you are speaking to. Interest is self-seeking, it wants to be able to use your words, counting on your influence, which, like any influence, is anchored in social connections. Now, to be precise, you have none. Your speech, fascinating as it might be on account of its very strangeness, will be of no consequence, will have no effect, will cause no improvement in the image or the reputation of those you are conversing with. One will listen to you only in absent-minded, amused fashion, and one will forget you in order to go on with serious matters. The foreigner's speech can bank only on its bare rhetorical strength, and the inherent desires he or she has invested in it. But it is deprived of any support in outside reality, since the foreigner is precisely kept out of it. Under such conditions, if it does not founder into silence, it becomes absolute in its formalism, excessive in its sophistication--rhetoric is dominant, the foreigner is a baroque person. Baltasar Graci?n and James Joyce had to be foreigners.5
This is clear. And as for the para-, post- or baroque-like autonomisation of art that one sees in Joyce's major work, one finds this creatively extended in Blanchot and in Pynchon. Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster formalises this self-reflective quest for autonomy and for self-elaboration, in interrogating the concept of silence, at some length. Consider too the relative isolation of that arch-biographically-bourgeois Joyce while writing the Wake in Paris from 1922 to 1939 and then the well-nigh total reclusiveness and silence of Blanchot during the post-war period until his death in 2003 and of Pynchon for his whole public life down to the present day, in the light of the following two extracts from The Writing of the Disaster, a work that tries with its use of the genre of the fragment to ask how language can possibly even begin to represent or present, let alone even ruminate on, the intolerable disasters of the twentieth-century:
And to be silent is still to speak. Silence is impossible. That is why we desire it.6
To keep still, preserving silence: that is what, all unknowing, we all want to do, writing.7
In fact, it would seem that silence is what many important post-Joycean writers such as Pynchon and Blanchot have sought to achieve after Finnegans Wake, a work after all that destroyed a certain kind of totalising if not ideologically proto-fascistic sort of modernity (there are obviously many modernisms) and signalled the advent of a certain non-fascist classic form of progressive post-modernity (as opposed to the post-modern elements one may find in many pre-1940 writers, for example). We may ask too, why this special obsession with silence? It is pertinent here to cite the French philosopher-interdisciplinarian Gilles Deleuze (1925-95), "The great post-war philosophers and writers demonstrate that thought has something to do with Auschwitz, with Hiroshima [. . .]."8 In addition to art's ostensible connivance with the great evil powers, the 'cruelty' and rudimentary sort of modesty involved in a pregnant type of silence point to Adorno when he writes, "When cruelty rears its head explicitly and directly, as it does in modern art, it thereby validates the thought that in the present age art can no longer rely on its a priori ability to transform cruelty into form because reality has become overwhelmingly powerful. Cruelty is a result of the self-reflection of modern art, which despairingly realises that it would find itself in the role of a henchman of the powers that be, if it were not cruel but conciliatory instead."9 Furthermore, the notion that a strategy of silence is the only morally suitable and non-fascist way for an artist's comportment after the often complicit part played by culture in the unbearable disasters of the twentieth-century Adorno seems to hint at here: "An age of silence has settled on art. It renders works of art obsolete. But while they do not speak any longer, their silence speaks all the more loudly."10 Forasmuch as life-narratives constitute a sub-text or adjacent text to the writer's work of literature, Blanchot and Pynchon have in their biographical silences heeded this lesson. Their modes of being need not be seen as examples of fatalism or quietism, though there certainly is a tenor of that, but rather as even more the will to avoid having truck with the great maleficent powers that would otherwise colonise their true powers of Niklas Luhmannian 'variability' or humanist creativity.
Again Blanchot: "Detached from everything, including detachment."11
The "detachment" and extra acuity that comes from getting out of one's own context, thereby endowing one with a more flexible stance on art and on society, gives Joyce, Pynchon and Blanchot the ability to add a Niklas Luhmann (1927-98) "second-order" level of analysis to their investigations; that is, by 'second order' I mean in the tradition of the German social systems theorist Luhmann who claims, "We shall call observations of observations second-order observations."12 That is to say: these three writers question the nature of observations themselves, and also move toward an increasingly intense form of excruciatingly honest self-reflexivity in regard to their own compositional work and aesthetical-cultural power. For example, by separating the signifier from the signified and thereby achieving a form of pure aestheticism that complicates himself out of having a large reading audience, Joyce in Finnegans Wake offers, it is well known, a particularly radical and progressive self-reflective investigation into the nature of language, of narration and of representation. To continue, Gravity's Rainbow, for instance, takes literature to a new plane from its important encyclopaedic antecedent, Finnegans Wake, by incorporating an even more egalitarian array of cultural discourses into its discursive register. So, one may claim that the democratisation of the contents for literature that occurs with Finnegans Wake finds a pellucid lineage in Gravity's Rainbow. As concerns Blanchot, his post-war theoretical and literary works dissolve canonical and conformist criteria for what constitutes primary and secondary, or literary, philosophical and theoretical texts, so that his work seems to cry out for new forms of critical writing, or new genres of writing still to be discovered for a post-literary, post-philosophical, and post-theoretical age. Some of Blanchot's most compelling and thoughtful works are supposedly literary-critical, philosophical, or theoretical (for example Le pas au-del?, English translation The Step Not Beyond) and yet clearly these reductive generic categories do not suffice.
Here is Blanchot again, "Writing is evidently without importance, it is not important to write. It is from this point that the relation to writing is decided."13 The self-effacing quality of two of Joyce's key forebears, Pynchon and Blanchot, from the vocational standpoint (both eschew publicity, conferences, festivals, interviews and so on) points toward this last extract about the pre-emptive modesty involved in minimising any posited value of writing, and of the importance of placing oneself outside of as many dangers as possible of corruptive systematisation at the level of the society, of the university, of the publishing domain and so forth if one is to continue to effect discontinuities in the name of writing. The danger of being consumed by various artistic sub-systems or sub-cultures (including of course that of institutional stardom: the Norton Anthology effect, as it were) is something of which Blanchot and Pynchon seem keenly cognisant. Therefore, just like Joyce in his gesture of blasting out of, or self-exile from, his native soil, Blanchot and Pynchon too are sensitive to the fact that the power of the artistic social system is extremely dangerous for their conditions of possibility to produce art. As Adorno put it in his chef d'oeuvre, Aesthetic Theory, "True art challenges its own essence"14 and "art is an allergic reaction against art."15 So then it is against a certain spirit of the societally institutionalised "great writer" of the nineteenth-century that rather paradoxically the ultra-elitist neo-baroque modernist and post-modernist art of Joyce, Blanchot and Pynchon increasingly contest.
Scholarly literature often assumes or suggests that Joyce instances modernism's most cogent case of a will to artistic authority, and yet in Finnegans Wake Joyce simply cannot control all the readings of his major work in advance; the textual field is too rich and unwieldy for any subject position to master it, including Joyce himself. So, against the grain of the intriguing tradition of the North American Marxist Fredric Jameson (1934-) and psychoanalytic-critic Leo Bersani that says Joyce is an imperialist modernist, I find the later Joyce of Finnegans Wake to have a radical sort of progressive post-modernist trajectory that overcomes his earlier more atavistically modernist and imperialistic propensities.16 Again: there are of course innumerable modernisms and postmodernisms, both negative and positive, regressive and progressive, so this is not intended as any kind of univocal descriptive statement of either of these periodising categories.
The oft-eagle-eyed critic Bersani would controvert himself in regard to Joyce's Finnegans Wake at least with what he polemically says about Joyce's Ulysses in his piece "Against Ulysses", when he writes of Gravity's Rainbow, "The novel's ungraspability is both a resistance to our attempts to take possession of it and a model of freedom"17 for this applies to Finnegans Wake as well. Both late Joyce and middle Pynchon want then in a Bersani-inspired key here to elicit from their readers new kinds of circulation within their works that would refuse totalitarian or neo-fascist interpretive strategies. Accordingly these words from Blanchot about Hegel (1770-1831) in The Writing of the Disaster apply also by extension to the Joyce of Finnegans Wake and to the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow:
One cannot 'read' Hegel, except by not reading him. To read, not to read him--to understand, to misunderstand him, to reject him--all this falls under the authority of Hegel, or doesn't take place at all. Only the intensity of this non-occurrence, in the impossibility that there be such a thing, prepares us for a death--the death of reading, the death of writing--which leaves Hegel living: the living travesty of completed Meaning. (Hegel the impostor: this is what makes him invincible, mad with his seriousness, counterfeiter of Truth [. . .])18
Joyce who is 'mad' in a positive and progressive way with his laughter, jokiness and obsession with words and with neologising acts that themselves enact a negative task of destruction, and Pynchon who also is radically 'mad' with his paranoiac and "neo-baroque" imagination might also be outdistanced by their readers if they both do (experimentally) and do not (with a will-to-dominate) "read" texts signed by Joyce and by Pynchon. Both prose writers do after all, firebomb their readers with their rational-neo-baroque show of encyclopedic cultural authority, leaving the reader left to discover new reading strategies to negotiate this. This Joycean and Pynchonian attempt at a baroque sort of absolutism also illuminates Adorno's thought, "Works of art are neither absolutes themselves nor repositories of the absolute [. . .] In short, they seem both to have and not to have the absolute. In order to approach the truth they need concepts, while at the same time being unable to afford them."19 Illuminative here are these words from Blanchot, which illuminate precisely one such "concept" that these texts require: 'absent meaning',
To write, 'to form', where no forms hold sway, an absent meaning. Absent meaning (and not the absence of meaning or a potential or latent but lacking sense). To write is perhaps to bring to the surface something like absent meaning, to welcome the passive pressure which is not yet what we call thought, for it is already the disastrous ruin of thought. Thought's patience [. . .]. This meaning does not pass by way of being, it never reaches so far; it is expired meaning. Whence the difficulty of a commentary on writing: for writing signifies and produces signification, unable as it is to sustain an absent meaning.20
Indeed, the notion of 'absent meaning' captures precisely what Joyce accomplishes in Finnegans Wake and Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow, for both texts famously immobilise clear-cut readings in the service of an almost unlimited substitutability of possible literary forms, semantic meanings, or phonetic effects. So for example, even if one were to gain some sort of total knowledge after decades of painstaking exegesis of the contents of Finnegans Wake or of Gravity's Rainbow, one would still be hard put to pin these texts into any particular canonical narrative form/descriptive category. So it is in regard to questions of literary-critical "form" and not only of content and phonic effects that the 'absent meaning' of these two narratives takes on import.
Another similar notion about what constitutes "the writing of the disaster" for Blanchot is as follows:
Knowledge becomes finer and lighter only at the outer edges, when truth no longer constitutes the principle to which it must finally submit. The nontrue, which is not falsehood, draws knowledge outside of the system, into the space of an aimless drifting where key words no longer dominate, where repetition does not serve meaning (but is the ultimate collapse, of the ultimate)--where knowledge, without passing into un-knowledge, no longer depends upon itself, and neither results nor produces a result, but changes imperceptibly, effacing itself: no longer knowledge, but a likeness thereof [. . .]. When knowledge is no longer a knowledge of truth, it is then that knowledge starts: a knowledge that burns thought, like knowledge of infinite patience.21
Certainly the possibility of representing the Truth with a capital "T" is what Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow do render impossible, however encyclopaedic their aims; it is rather what remains after total knowledge--the "un-representable"--that really interests these texts. Furthermore, as implied earlier both writers display an acute awareness of how literature services other forms of social power and by extension social evil; thus they self-parody their own efforts to represent the real (e.g., the social or the economic) by presenting inklings of the unrepresentable. They also display an understanding of how their author power enables them to employ narrative strategies that short-circuit clear connotation for their readers if they allow themselves to be controlled by a consumptive exegetical program, instead of a more playful and productive critical form of interpretive literary software that would for the reader be more a output oriented one than an acquisitive one. All-important here is the positive, progressive and radical value and ideal of play.
Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow share another property, and it is linked in a para-critico-literary allegorical baroque strategy here to what Blanchot writes near the end of The Writing of the Disaster:
Thought seems immediate (I think, I am), and yet it is related to study: one has to rise early to think; one has to think and never be sure of thinking. We are not sufficiently awake. We have to wake beyond wakefulness; then vigilance is the night, wakeful. It is pain, and separates, but not visibly (not by a dislocation or a disjunction that would be spectacular): silently, quieting the noise behind words. Perpetual pain, lost, forgotten. It does not make thought painful. It does not let itself be comforted. The pensive smile of an inscrutable face which heaven and earth--both vanished--and day, night--each having passed into the other--leave to him who no longer looks and who, bound to return, will never leave.22
Finnegans Wake asks us to 'wake beyond wakefulness', for despite being a frustrating, funny and intoxicating text it is also a very thoughtful narrative that wants its readers to escape the reductive tyranny of canonical sense or comprehension and, as all art, to think the un-thought. Put differently, Adorno says, "Art wills what has never existed so far."23 Also, in its negative task as an exterminator of books, Finnegans Wake is "for all its hilarity" as Hermann Rapaport has said "a book of the dead, perhaps".24 Gravity's Rainbow too demands that its readers wise up to an awareness of the intertwinement of everything, an understanding that arises out of a good form of paranoia, which is perhaps not paranoia at all (or at least not a bad regressive form of it), but rather the obtainment of a more systemic understanding of both one's own "subject-position" [Louis Althusserian (1918-90) "ideology" qua Jameson in his Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic] hence with respect to one's "ideology", one's space-time and so on, and of the larger, macro-political and systemic order of things. Hence both Joyce and Pynchon also beg for what Blanchot calls 'un-knowledge' when he narrates: "Un-knowledge is not a lack of knowledge; it is not even knowledge of the lack but rather that which is hidden by knowledge and ignorance alike: the neutral, the un-manifest."25
As regards the unarguable chaotic quality of these three works, this point from Adorno is perhaps not without interest for us here, "Several writers, among them Karl Kraus, have argued that in a total society are should bring chaos to order rather than the other way around. The chaotic features of authentic modern art only appear to stand in contradiction to its spirit. In reality, they are the ciphers of a critique of spurious second nature; they seem to be saying: 'This is how chaotic your order really is'" (138).26 The chaos of the violent historical-empirical twentieth-century would seem to require works of literature that would register the immensity of such data.
I shall end with a para-allegorical, critico-literary baroque question: Can reading Finnegans Wake or Gravity's Rainbow produce or awaken a post-baroque ethical subject? How could one ever be so sure that this was possible? What would its efficacy be if it were feasible? At any event, if the reader is to respond courageously, ethically, generously, imaginatively, justly, morally, or rationally in the name of 'un-knowledge' or of 'absent meaning' or even of 'vigilance' to these twentieth-century (neo-) baroque tomes, then it would seem that the reader-critic might engage with the irrational and violent disasters of the century of which they are a part, formalise, and volatilise.
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. Eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tidemann. London: Routledge, 1984.
Attridge, Derek. Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Bersani, Leo. "Against Ulysses." The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard UP, 1990. 155-78.
Blanchot, Maurice. L'Écriture du désastre. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.
_____ . The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma 2: L'Image-Temps. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985.
_____ . Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.
Donoghue, Denis. "Is There a Case Against Ulysses?" Joyce in Context. Ed. Vincent J. Cheng and Timothy Martin. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 1992. 19-39.
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 1996.
_____ . The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Penguin, 1976.
Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.
Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knodt. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. London: Vintage, 1973 (2000).
Rapaport, Hermann. Heidegger and Derrida: Reflections on Time and Language. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body: Theory Out of Bounds, Volume 2. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
Stonehill, Brian. The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988.
© Erik Roraback, 2005
|volume 5, issue 2, 2004-5|