By Niven Kumar (2010)
Literature takes as its space of meaning and operation the void that is created when language tries to move away from itself, to move away from the "mode of being of discourse" (1), that is, representation. The language of discourse is one dimensional, linear, and works towards itself. Instead of approaching itself until it reaches the point where it can only express its own truths, Literature is a language that finds a passage to the outside, where a gap in meaning is formed, where it disperses (2), where it speaks. This challenges the transcendentalism implicit in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am". This Cartesian formula is predicated on the principle that in order for existence to exist, thought or conscious thought, the thought that knows it is thinking, must first exist, a priori. Literature is the neutral space where the transcendental subject is no longer a priori; it is the anvil upon which the subject of Literature (what speaks, and what it speaks about) is laid bare, like an inmate of a penal colony is made to come under the harrowing regime of redemption.
This outside, the neutral space from which Literature speaks, is not one dimensional, but a multi-layered treasure of meaning, a palimpsest. As such, one is never certain of its centre, never able to apprehend its essence, since the outside never yields it. (3) The silence of Literature, then, is not its inability to speak, but its dispersed, non-linear temporality, its ability to transform thought into a material energy, forsaking the wordy interiority of consciousness. The outside, the neutral space of Literature, is also the void, the death of transcendental truths.
In such a situation, where the neutral space we speak of is a void that reveals nothing of its essence, but which we go back to over and over again, attracted (4) as we are by it, we are faced with an absence. It is not merely a physical, spatial absence; it is also a temporal absence, since in Literature, the “here’ is nowhere as well; the "present" is not present. However, the "not present" does not refer back to a past, since the past has the force of the "here" and "now".
The dialectical self-negation inherent in the language of literature calls to mind Beckett’s formulation of this theme: "What matter who’s speaking, someone said, What matter who’s speaking." (5) The absent present that is the site of the language of Literature (writing) encapsulates Beckett’s formulation. Writing frees itself from expressing the views of an author, who disappears once the first word is written, and creates a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.
Writing, then, is an anonymous process, a withdrawal that leads to a hollowness, which in turn leads to the erosion of the person who speaks. Writing carries the mark of death wherever it goes. Writing is an effacement of the writing subject, the murderer of the author who ceases to exist as his or her first word is born. "The writing subject cancels out the signs of his individuality." (6) The murder of the writing subject, the self-effacement, is the supreme act of Anonymity. It is the point at which Death meets and marries Anonymity, a turning away that denies itself even as it turns away, like a Christ who is thrice denounced before the final denouncement on Golgotha. By doing so, it speaks freely.
This zone of effacement speaks but silently, it writes but invisibly. In a sense it is a forgotten space that is always caught within the liminal space between the inside and the outside, or as Irigaray puts, like "the forgotten vagina", the "passage that is missing, left on the shelf, between the outside and the inside, between the plus and the minus." (7) For Irigaray, this constitutes the drama of concealment and unconcealment, visibility and invisibility, anonymity and individuality. Of course, this drama unfolds upon the battlefield of the relations of sexual difference. However, her metaphor of the concealed, yet ever looming orifice is Foucault’s "always receding" law, the intangible God that is always waiting on the day of judgement. For, if the law were self-evident, it would no longer be the law. If the law were decipherable, then, one could choose to follow it or disobey it. The "presence of the law is its concealment." (8) Just as Plato sees light as invisible, and which can only be seen as eidos, "an idea, or sight with form", in the things that are brought into existence (9), for Foucault, the invisibility of the law can only be 'seen' when it is provoked and appears in the form of punishment, or any other manifestation.
The law always resides on the Outside, and the Outside is always concealed in the web of its own complexity. In other words, the Outside negates itself even as it writes itself into the action which it envelops. This anonymous rendering of its own interiority dissolves all solidity that its manifestations seek to emphasise. In order for Literature to speak free from the secret interiority of the Outside it, too, like the law, must reside in his own concealment.
What arises from this cloaked drama is a contestation that revolves around the concentric circles of anonymity and individuality, between which lies the notion of Self, of Knowing. It is not the Knowing of the subject conscious of its own knowing, but the Knowing that seems to negate its own consciousness; in effect, a non-Knowing, a subjectivity that must also be a mystery to itself in order to be itself. This is not Gnostic mysticism, an all-encompassing wisdom that, being aware of itself, declares to the world that it is the inside, the centre, but the essence of writing, where language continually retreats within itself.
This predicament, which is pre-empted and fore-grounded in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, is the consequence of writing’s silence, its inaccessibility from the outside of itself where meaning is trapped between two poles. Cincinnatus C’s only recourse to this non-discursive space is through writing. Indeed, it is only when, through his writing, C becomes the text itself that he begins to break free from the discursive apparatus of the everyday. The gap within which C resides is the gap that cannot be accessed by Discourse, that being which resides at the very centre of the Dystopian Outside that absorbs all language and regurgitates it as its own.
In other words, then, the story of Cincinnatus C and his beheading is the story of Literature, its self-concealment in the place of its own presence. Cincinnatus may write the text that we read, or the text we read may be the story of what Cincinnatus writes, but it is still the story of his disappearance, of his eventual submergence into the liquid ether of voices, what Blanchot would call the "space of death." (10)
The Mimetopia of Invitation to a beheading
Materialist Monism and the desacralisation of the Body
Cincinnatus C (11) exists on the fringes of his society. C, "the son of an unknown transient" and a mother he had only met once in his early twenties, and "who had conceived him one night at the Ponds when she was still in her teens", (12) spends his childhood in a "large institution". (13) Even at a very young age, he becomes aware of a strange and unique quality about himself, an opacity that sets him apart from the others around him. This strange quality allows him to retreat from the living world of physicalities into a place occupied by "beings akin to him". (14) Who these beings are is never made clear, but we do know that Cincinnatus’ childhood was filled with dreams within which the world was "ennobled, spiritualised ... the world would come alive, become so captivatingly majestic, free and ethereal, that afterwards it would be oppressive to breathe the dust of this painted life". (15) This free and ethereal dreamworld is a "burning blackness" (16) where he "spins like a top, with such propelling force, such tongues of flame" that he can feel "that primordial palpitation ... the mainspring of my 'I'". (17) Cincinnatus describes this point as the "final, indivisible, firm, radiant point". (18)
However, his difference, his unique ‘absence’, his ability to remove himself from his immediate physical environment becomes increasingly difficult to disguise. The more he is identified as belonging to the outside, the more he is made to conform. The law, as we have seen, resides in its own concealment (19), and as long as it is not awakened, or confronted with recalcitrance, it remains all encompassing and anonymous. C is brought under surveillance when his opacity begins to thwart the law’s perpetual yet imperceptible presence. At the age of twenty-two, C becomes a kindergarten teacher (his duties include "keeping busy little children who were lame, hunchbacked or cross-eyed". (20)) but a "second-degree complaint" (21) is made against him. He is put through a rigorous examination in which he is made to "write letters to various objects and natural phenomena, enact everyday scenes, and to imitate various animals, trades, and maladies." (22) The material must triumph, and the key to conformity is the ability of all individuals to mimic the material, to embody in both body and mind the materialist supremacy over things. C, however, is young, and the resourcefulness of youth enables him to pass these tests. He is released and is allowed to "continue working with children of the lowest category, who were expendable..." (23)
Cincinnatus is therefore already distanced, pushed to the outside by a "world of souls transparent to one another". (24) The novel depicts a dystopian-like world where, as Cincinnatus says, "matter was weary. Time gently dozed." (25) Matter, all that is material and discernible through the medium of matter, the order that is established via a system of empirical facticity, the ordering of things which is implied through the prioritising of the material over the idealist or metaphysical, in short, the system of materialist thought, is only arbitrarily and randomly categorised. The books in the prison library from which Cincinnatus is provided reading material are not arranged in alphabetical order. They are sorted according to the number of pages in each book. (26) Clearly, there is no essential order to this world, but merely "an ordering algorithm" (27) instituted by the ethic of the system in operation. Order disintegrates into entropy.
This entropy, however, is denied, staved off through the emphasis of an enlightened ordering that permeates Cincinnatus’ world. The novel opens with an austere rule of law: "In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper." (28) In his prison cell is a list of rules for prisoners, and even the spider that he finds within the four walls of the cell is described as the "official friend of the jailed". (29) Everything, therefore, that exists or occurs has already been mandated and prescribed, or else forbidden. Physical and material needs are given priority over everything else.
The legal system in Invitation rests on the assumption that a man condemned to die can and will remain content if his physical needs are met leading up to the execution. (30) The needs of the soul are overlooked and the immateriality that characterises the soul and all other concepts such as love, spirit, etc, are denied. Hence, M’sieur Pierre, the executioner, can extol the "pleasures of love", (31) the "pleasures of a spiritual order", (32) and "gastronomical pleasures" (33) by reducing them to the level of physical impulses. (34) In this world which mirrors that of the Soviet State (it shares a "materialist and epistemologically realist world view" (35)) a shadow like Cincinnatus C must keep hidden what will surely be his undoing.
Because he is opaque, because his soul is inaccessible to the intrusive rays of the collective, Cincinnatus is found guilty of "gnostical turpitude", "the most terrible of crimes". (36) Terrible because, his ‘gnosticism’ is a fortress of knowledge and knowing that allows him to penetrate the world beyond the empirical. The "material monism" (37) of the world of Invitation insists on the standardisation and regulation of souls. It seeks to establish and maintain a world that reeks of apocalyptic simplicity, reminiscent of Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. (38) His "basic illegality" (39) is that unlike the rest of the world, he refuses or is unable to remain within the strict codes of the regulated materialist system. (40)
Materialist philosophies propound a mechanistic reading of the world, and of our inner experience; the soul is merely a manifestation or an extension of the body and its practices. They also suggest a ready acceptance of the observable as real: the official friend of the jailed, the spider in Cincinnatus’ cell, is a toy, placed there for the purposes of authenticity. The spider, like everything else in this prison world within which C is caught, is mimesis, a grand production, it is representation of a ‘real’ reality, hence, a simulation. That the spider is not real does not matter to those who are its authors; that much of the events and procedures within the prison are scripted (which go awfully wrong) is of no consequence, however, since what is essential is the material and all its manifestations and representations.
Materiality in Invitation, then, has more in common with verisimilitude. The incarceration of Cincinnatus, the rights conferred upon him as a citizen, human being, and condemned man (his food is that which the jailers themselves have; visitation rights; privacy; delightful company, etc.), his eventual execution – all these have only a likeness to the truth, and therefore, the appearance of being true. This verisimilitude is what lends the world of Invitation its apparent inherent authenticity.
These premises, then, dominate the world of Invitation where the private, the inside, the interiority of the subject is open to public scrutiny, where space is desacralised (41). M’sieur Pierre, Cincinnatus’ executioner, can claim, therefore that "the structure of Cincinnatus’ soul is as well known to me as the structure of his neck". (42) It suggests a false engagement with the empirical world. It imposes upon the empirical a set of specious assumptions. This also true when the ubiquitous M’sieur Pierre’s very first words to Cininnatus are: "You bear an extraordinary resemblance to your mother. I myself never had the chance of seeing her, but Rodrig Ivanovich kindly promised to show me her photograph." (43) Cincinnatus’ "extraordinary resemblance" to his mother is taken on faith, since there is always some resemblance between mother and son, however remote it might be. Materiality is abstracted, isolated from itself – negated – and reapplied as a ‘new’ truth, a generic facticity, in short, it is ideologised. Verisimilitude. The Work, that is, the scripted world of Invitation, is made authentic. M’sieur Pierre is made to look the picture of credibility. What M’sieur Pierre has achieved here, is that he has become the personification, the embodiment of Discourse.
The language of Discourse, as we have seen earlier, is that which speaks of itself, of its own truths. To put it in materialist terms, it is the body that performs in order to represent itself to itself. A significant idea emerges from this statement. If representation is merely a substitution of the thing itself, then, the representational qualities of the Work within Invitation to a Beheading are, in essence, the only certainties. In other words, the materiality of the society that has incarcerated Cincinnatus C is predicated on its ambiguity, its haphazard claim to truth, which it imposes upon its populace. By communicating with itself, then, reality merely simulates the real. It is mimesis that produces the transparency of souls, because it is the endless simulation of the same. The living, physical reality is an empty shell, meaning-less and devoid of any form of substance, and therefore, authenticity. Reality, or the real, is nothing more than the mimetic impulse, that which Cincinnatus himself describes as "semi-sleep". (44)
Hence, the ritualised order that permeates all thought and action requires that the sentence be whispered. In accordance with this, the judge puts his mouth close to C’s ear and whispers the sentence. This theatricality is further matched by the ‘arena’ of the court:
... (H)e could see the gaudy pantaloons of their fops, and the hand-mirrors and iridescent scarves of the women of fashion... The defence counsel and the prosecutor, both wearing makeup and looking very much alike (the law required that they be uterine brothers but such were not always available, and then makeup was used), spoke with virtuoso rapidity the five thousand words allotted to each. (45)
The legal system is, therefore, a parody of itself, a caricature that revels in its own interiority, its own ‘self.’ In such a situation, noble principles of justice and morality become vacuous words, with no other life other than their own.
His own lawyer, a certain Roman Vissarianovich, is non-existent in the sense that he is merely a parody of the law sent to protect Cincinnatus. On his first entrance, he is ruffled and sweaty, and visibly troubled because he has, moments before, lost one of his cuff-links. When C asks him why he is being refused knowledge of the exact execution date, Roman exclaims, "Can’t you even now remain within legitimate limits? ... I dropped in merely to ask if you didn’t have some legitimate wishes ..." (46) In the middle of this interview the Prison Director, Rodrig Ivanovich, enters to return Roman his lost cuff-links, despite the sacrosanct confidentiality between lawyer and client.
However, it is here that a significant shift occurs in the narrative. In an exchange between the Director (Rodrig) and the lawyer (Roman), the conventional definitions that distinguish one individual from another begin to disintegrate:
'Listen to him', chuckled the director. 'He has to know everything. How do you like that Roman Vissarionovich?'
'Oh, my friend, you are so right', sighed the lawyer.
'Yes, sir', continued the former, giving his keys a rattle. 'You ought to be more cooperative, mister. All the time he’s haughty, angry, snide. ... No need to mope as you do. Isn’t that right, Roman Vissarionovich?'
'That’s right, Rodion, that’s right', concurred the lawyer with an involuntary smile. (47)
In an instant, the distinctions between the director of the prison, Rodrig, and the bearded jailer, Rodion who, at the beginning of this episode in C’s cell was not even present, disintegrate as in a burlesque. The rapid-fire exits and entrances belong to the world of farce and the commedia d’ell arte. Not only must C contend with the uncertainty of a beheading that has already happened (48); not only must he contend with a materiality whose vacuousness is hidden by the many masks it wears; not only is he a prisoner of a materialist regime that delimits the world of potentialities into a world of fixed outcomes; Cincinnatus must also struggle to interact with a materiality that is arbitrary, artificial, a materialist vision predicated upon that which belongs firmly in the realm of vraisemblance.
Similarly, a little later on, Rodion the jailer rushes into the cell to say that C will be allowed to see his wife the next day. He leaves the cell, bumping into the director as he does so. The director repeats the same message ad verbatim. Rodion the jailer has left the cell, now occupied by the prisoner and Rodrig the director. But C spots "leather apron and red beard, apparently left behind by Rodion ... still cluttering the chair." (49) The director speaks of cleaning up the cell for the wife’s visit the next day. Wishing to hear no more half-truths and the insignificant preoccupations, C requests that he leave the cell. However, it is Rodion who answers, "Quite impossible." The leather apron and the red beard that were cluttering the chair a little earlier on, are now missing, and comfortably affixed to Rodion’s person.
Cincinnatus recognises, therefore, that he is
... surrounded by some sort of wretched spectres, not by people. They torment me as can torment only senseless visions, bad dreams, dregs of delirium, the drivel of nightmares and everything that passes down here for real life. In theory one would wish to wake up. But wake up I cannot without outside help, and yet I fear this help terribly, and my soul has grown lazy and accustomed to its snug swaddling clothes. (50)
These spectres rule the land; they are the law. His own death has already happened, and yet he does not know when it will occur. Knowledge of this most significant detail in the story, a detail that is brushed aside by everyone he comes in contact with is, in essence, the kernel of his most intimate self, the point of his subjectivity, the very coordinate upon which all other points of his life so far, and his life hitherto, hinge.
Like an Elizabethan parade of apparitions, the "wretched spectres" that pass for real life, then, are part of an elaborate performance, a grand theatrical experience that can culminate only in the demise of the performance. This is so because the performance itself leads to no resolution. In other words, it is pure performance, a pure staging, a representation of itself for itself.
The defamiliarised, desacralised world of Invitation is a Dystopian world, an imaginary world gone wrong, even if its founding principles hold the promise of the establishment of a utopia. The other classic examples of dystopian fiction already mentioned all depict societies whose goal is a paradisaical state of being. The Utopian vision sees the world as perfectible, that humanity can be perfected, that a state of divinity and grace can be established on earth, that human society and humanity can be made in the image of itself. While utopian spaces are essentially unreal (51), the vision which they are constitutive of are present in all societies, the creation of a better place to live, the establishment of a ‘good’ society. Dystopias, essentially dysfunctional utopias, are the manifest failure of this utopian vision, even though they are predicated upon the same fundamental principles of perfectibility. Indeed, that is what the ‘system’ in Invitation is geared towards, a society of ‘good’, ‘moral’ beings whose lives are in some way conditioned and determined for them. That is why, the reticence of Cincinnatus, his inability to suppress his opaque double, the "I" that sees beyond the desert plains of materialist myopia, the self that cannot be fashioned by any moral code or state dogma, the soul that fails to fall within the limits of the already prescribed mode of being is frowned upon, made to conform, by all the means possible, hounded by the conformist pressures of the surrounding society. (52)
The entire world of Invitation is performative. That is why the world of Invitation is a mimesis of a utopia, a dystopia that aspires to perfection, and therefore, mimics it. It is a Mimetopia, a simulation of itself. It stages itself in what can only be described as a farce, a tragic farce that plays with the life of one man, one human among spectres.
C’s mistake is that he is opaque, impenetrable, not because he has a resilient; his is a "fleshy incompleteness ... a greater part of him was in a quite different place, while only an insignificant portion of it was wandering, perplexed, here – a poor vague Cincinnatus, a comparatively stupid Cincinnatus, trusting, feeble, and foolish as people are in their sleep. But even during his sleep – still, still – his real life showed through too much." (53)
Two Cincinnatuses, then; two sides – one that operated in the materialist "semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind", and another that finds meaning and sense of wonderment in "a more genuine reality". (54)
The doubling (which we shall look at in the next section) is itself a mimesis, but this time, the mimetic qualities of this coupling is a critique of the Mimetopian materialism of the Work. We have seen above how its arbitrary materialism delimits the possibilities open to an objective, or wholistic apprehension of the world. Instead of allowing for a pluralistic engagement with things and ideas, ‘reality’ is curtailed and contained within defined borders.
Rodrig and Rodion are practitioners of the "art of dissimulation", as Nietzsche would have it, wrapped in the drapery of convention, where perception glides "across the surface of things and sees forms". (55) In their world, where language is ‘legislated’ (56) to establish the first laws of ‘truth,’ there is no "sensuous perception". (57) Instead, things are named, that is, they are given form. They are made to conform to a system of signs. However, form is a prison that obliges the use of customary metaphors; that obliges practitioners "to lie in accordance with firmly established convention", (58) an endless simulation of an empty form. This becomes the sole concern of a system of empirical reality. It is a parody of the highest order, a Sisyphusian ritual that is pure form.
The two Cincinnatuses are heirs to what Nietzsche would call "sensuous perception", a non-schematic impulse that cannot be named. Therein lies the crack in the armour of the Work, the anonymous impulse that Cincinnatus must suppress in order to remain a functioning element in "a world of souls transparent to one another". (59) In his prison cell is written an anonymous "Nameless existence, intangible substance", (60) which he finds on the wall where the door covered it when open. An open door, a free passage outside, an anonymous missive, a clue to his own potential. Another scribbled message in the wall reads: "Measure me while I live – after, it will be too late". (61) Again, the crack appears, and there is a possibility of one of the two Cincinnatuses slipping through this crack. "Measure me while I live", but which of the two Cincinnatuses is to be measured?
‘What a misunderstanding,’ said Cincinnatus and suddenly burst out laughing. He stood up and took off the dressing-gown, the skullcap, the slippers. He took off the linen trousers and shirt. He took off his head like a toupee, took off his collarbones like shoulder straps, took off his rib cage like a hauberk. He took off his hips and his legs, he took off his arms like gauntlets and threw them in a corner. What was left of him gradually dissolved, hardly colouring the air. At first Cincinnatus simply revelled in the coolness; then, fully immersed in his secret medium, he began freely and happily to ...
The iron thunderclap of the bolt resounded, and Cincinnatus instantly grew all that he had cast off, the skullcap included. Rodion the jailer brought a dozen yellow plums in a round basket lined with grape leaves, a present from the director’s wife.’ (62)
Who is it that dissembles himself? Earlier, Cincinnatus moves a table to position it below the barred window. He places the chair on top of it, and clambers on to look out through the window onto the scene outside, but is unable to see anything. Rodion comes in and tells him to get off the table, and he does. But later, when Rodion has left the cell, Cincinnatus tries again to move the table "for the hundredth time ... but, alas, the legs had been bolted down for ages". (63)
Who speaks? Who writes? Cincinnatus. However, his writing is double, like Freud’s Msytic Writing Pad, a writing machine that allows what is written to be erased by lifting the double sheeting that rests on a wax slate, yet leaving a trace of the inscription on the slate, which can be discerned under special conditions. (64) In other words, the two Cincinnatuses work in tandem, first one, then the other, writing themselves with the already-present knowledge that despite this act erasure will occur when (t)he(y) meet(s) the mortal hour. However, at his beheading he (the other Cincinnatus) walks away from the erected platform upon which his beheading has been performed. As he notices the swing of the executioner’s hips guiding the axe down towards his neck, he steps away, but Cincinnatus has already been beheaded because he sees the pale prison librarian "doubled up, vomiting" on the steps. The execution is performed, the erasure is complete, but the inscription on the wax slate persists in the form of one Cincinnatus, who walks towards "beings akin to him". An event that is not – cannot - be anticipated nor comprehended, by the system of empirical reality:
He was overtaken by Roman, who was now many times smaller and who was at the same time Rodrig: ‘What are you doing?’ he croaked, jumping up and down. ‘You can’t, you can’t! It’s dishonest towards him, towards everybody … Come back, lie down – after all, you were lying down, everything was ready, everything was finished!’ Cincinnatus brushed him aside and he, with a bleak cry, ran off, already thinking of his own safety. (65)
This anonymous abyss is a welcome release from the prison managed by spectres. Cincinnatus moves outside of a mimetic stronghold, moves into the abyss, into its centre, "the concentration of ambiguity" (66) where, before he enters he must renounce all idols. Cincinnatus’ double writing not only allows him to slip through the cracks. Not only does it allow him anonymity. It allows him, through this anonymity, to inscribe his presence within the abyss, where it remains, resonant. It is inscribed in the double-sheeting of the mystic writing pad that is Cincinnatus’ body/soul. In short, Cincinnatus inscribes the abyss upon his secret skin, thus, becoming the abyss.
Becoming the Abyss
In Virginia Woolf’s short story The Mark on the Wall, (67) two worlds are described, a double world, each with its own stipulations, each with its own codes, its own premises and foundations of truth. The narrator in The Mark, like our Cincinnatus, traverses these two worlds and is more comfortable in one, and alienated from the other. Which is the inside, and which is outside? Both characters, Cincinnatus and Woolf’s narrator, ‘belong’ to both and yet they are also caught within the two of them, vacillating between two extreme poles, like a Kafka unable to live in a world of men, yet unable to stray too far away from it.
The two worlds of Woolf’s narrator collide in the realm of thought. It is in this realm that she wanders, across a vast space of possibilities, confined by nothing except her own inner potential to dream. However, her silent meanderings begin with a mark on the wall, a mark she has never seen before and which now fascinates, intrigues, troubles, perplexes her. "How readily", she says, "our thoughts swarm upon a new object." (68) With this, she is swept away, transported into a world where the mark on the wall not only takes on the essence of other beings – a nail, one that hangs miniatures, not paintings – but also a whole universe that is implied by this one initial premise - a miniature of a lady with "white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way – an old picture for an old room". (69)
Such a standardisation of things is immediately undercut by the narrator’s own seemingly aimless wanderings in her mind. Things in the physical world, in the ‘reality’ of tangible objects and phenomena develop a fixity, thinks the narrator. As she says, "The military sound of the word is enough. It recalls leading articles, cabinet ministers – a whole class of things indeed which as a child one thought the thing itself, the standard thing, the real thing, from which one could not depart save at the risk of nameless damnation." (70) Language, then, becomes a game, a convention that attempts to pour life into the thing as the word is uttered.
The scepticism of the narrator, her flight into a world away from the language of "military sound", her movement away from the fixity of things towards a "nameless damnation", the space where no word exists, no standards dominate - that scepticism is not that of existence, of life, but a scepticism of death. It is a scepticism that questions the limits to understanding, in short, it is a distrust of knowledge, of truth, of verification and summation, a knowledge that is based on what Nietzsche would call "empty husks" with which "they will for ever exchange illusions for truth." (71)
The various possibilities open to her investigation on the nature of the mark on the wall lead her to conclude that "nothing is proved, nothing known." (72) Only a physical examination of the mark, only if she got up from her chair, walked to the wall where the mark was and inspected it, only this would reveal to her the true nature of the mark on the wall. But, she argues, what would she have gained.
Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars? (73)
This, above all, is a scepticism of death because it defies the fixity that is given to the language of empiricism or materialist thought. Rather be curtailed by the unknowability of things, she enters a space on the outside of ‘language’, the space of death which is not death but, always through dying, passes into a space and time where and when "nothing is proved", but everything is possible, where death does not finalise, but keeps on coming forward and then retreating, an eternal recurrence that can only end in a becoming from nothing.
Her reveries (they are reveries since they are celebration of a unfettered imagination, but being beyond mere imagination and fantasy, are also native to a realm of knowing that escapes the "military sound" of the word) recall Cincinnatus’ own, since both reveries belong to the same realm of wonderment, a forever seeking new limits, new borders to transgress, a real in which limited being is affirmed. (74) The two ‘modes of being’, sitting and standing, are emblematic of the duality of worlds – of thought and action respectively, of silence and noise, of invisibility and visibility, imagination and facticity, creativity and conventionality, fluidity and fixity, fecundity and stagnation. Woolf’s narrator’s creative impulse is facilitated by a freedom of movement in and out and around objects of contemplation. She attains a fluidity of thought, and hence, a prolific creative outburst of associations and possibilities. The mark on the wall, therefore, is no longer merely a mark, an empirical phenomenon, grounded and therefore, fixed in its own facticity. It is also, through the seated narrator’s imagination, all things at the same time, a point in which that has come before, and all that will come are present and reflected in it.
However, this infinity into which the Woolf narrator slips is a precarious point that must always defend its own limits, limits that are themselves indefinable. In other words, the flight to the outside is not only an escape from the harness of the fixity of the inside, the common space, the system. It is also a burden that must be mindful of the constant danger of the collapsing of its fluid walls. As she sits, lost in the outside, drowning in the abyss of the aleph, she is suddenly aware of an interference.
Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing... There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying –
‘I’m going out to buy a newspaper.’
‘Though its no good buying newspapers... Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!…All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.’
Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail. (75)
No sooner has the material world intruded upon the reveries of her otherworld than the mark, hitherto a conduit of meaning and pathways to other spaces outside, is reduced to an empirical certainty. Now it has shape, definition. The mark is no longer a troubled area of conjecture, but a fixity, an identity. Yet, with this identity comes a certain loss of presence, a quality that is required for human experiences to be what they are. That is, human experiences cannot be reduced to what can be said about them. (76) This inarticulabilty provides "the possible with a site that is impregnable, because it is a nowhere." (77) Scientific language, the language of empirical realities ‘captures’ the meaning of this ‘nowhere’ but it stays within the inside, within the wall that separates it from apprehending the object of its desires completely, and in its essence. The ‘capturing’ of the object is always already a flawed project because it invariably pins it down, clips its wings in order for it to be apprehended, in order for it to be articulated.
What the Woolf narrator fails to achieve - complete autonomy from the forces that threaten the world of fecundity and creativity – Cincinnatus C attains, but only after he confronts his own execution, his mortal hour. The ultimate escape is revealed to him only at that hour when the axe falls upon his neck, like the merciless methodologies of the scientific regime which cull its object of inquiry into a form that can be apprehended.
In order to reach that "threshold of revelation", Cincinnatus must, can only write, since "meaning must await being said or written in order to inhabit itself, and in order to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning." (78) However, his very first jottings are hapharzard, discontinuous words that are far from the depths into which writing must go in order to speak, in order to become presence:
On the table glistened a clean sheet of paper and, distinctly outlined against this whiteness, lay a beautifully sharpened pencil, as long as the life of any man except Cincinnatus, and with an ebony gleam to each of its facets. An enlightened descendant of the index finger. Cincinnatus wrote: ‘In spite of everything I am comparatively. After all, I had premonitions, premonitions of this finale.’ (79)
The length of the pencil will be whittled away till what remains, when Cincinnatus is finally taken to be executed, is a tiny stub, the pencil depleted, and now un-usable, but where all that needs to be written has already been written, the way out to the Outside open, and no turning back. No sooner are they written down than he scratches them out. His words are hollow, disjointed. They recall the words on a piece of paper concealed in an envelope that his lawyer, Roman Vissarionovich, presents to him as hope of some kind of reprieve. Cincinnatus tears the envelope to pieces, but when he tries to reconstruct at least one sentence from the scraps of paper he finds that "everything was mixed up, distorted, disjointed." (80) Cincinnatus’ first words, therefore belong still to the stilted performativity of the Mimetopia. His efforts to reclaim his interiority dissolves into a mimicry of that very structure which has taken his interiority hostage. Later, he will find his voice, but till then, he can only speak and write with the voice of the spectres that imprison him, and he will struggle with his death, with his dying, which now, at the beginning of the pencil’s life, he sees no way of transcending.
Cincinnatus, still considers his secret anonymity, his otherworldliness, a "basic illegality" (81) and the instruments of his incarceration insurmountable: "The iron thunderclap of the bolt resounded and Cincinnatus instantly grew all that he had cast off, the skullcap included." (82) Cincinnatus, at the initial phase of his imprisonment, stands between the world and the Book, between Mimetopia and writing, between the Inside (which is always shut out from the Outside by a fundamental error of judgement, or way of seeing: in order for the Inside to grasp phenomena, it must always delimit them to their discernible form only) and the Outside.
The prison Librarian is a welcome oasis in the desert of the fortress, for it is the only way Cincinnatus can while away his time in the cell, awaiting his unknown hour of death, with books, with writing, with reflection. However, books, which are his only solace, are scoffed at by Rodion the jailer. (83) They are the antithesis to the meaning of the Mimetopia. The latter is, in its essence, a simulacra of the book, all that is exterior of the book, which is forcibly separated from the world of the book. It is separated from the Book because it has ceased to recognise the Inside (the soul) as anything but as a manifestation of physical impulses. The only kind of writing that this society favours is epitomised in the novel Cincinnatus is given to read, one entitled "Quercus". The title figure of this novel is also its central hero – an oak tree that forms the focal point. The author of this novel interweaves activity within the oak’s surroundings with scientific descriptions of the tree itself. "Quercus" represents the "acme of modern thought." (84) It is empirical historicism that claims that the history of the world can be gleaned from recorded events occurring through a linear passage of time. This, Robert Alter argues, represents the quintessential "naturalistic novel", a novel of "photographic realism" that is devoid of humanity,[ 85) whereas, what can possibly save Cincinnatus is a writing of a different kind, one that goes beyond the mere facticity of things.
Cincinnatus’ struggle to position himself within this pull, within the extremes of the Mimetopia and Writing leads him to a self-realisation of his own essential self, his own disappearance from the world of named, and therefore, colourless objects. He writes:
Oh, my anguish – what shall I do with you, with myself? How dare they conceal from me ... I, who must pass through an ordeal of supreme pain, I, who in order to preserve a semblance of dignity (anyway I shall not go beyond silent pallour - I am no hero anyway ...), must during that ordeal keep control of all my faculties, I, I ... am gradually weakening … the uncertainty is horrible – well, why don’t you tell me, do tell me – but no, you have me die anew every morning... (86)
There is no escape from death. Even his writing is a shallow exercise in futility. It is only impatience that goads him to write, the interminable wait for definition, for death, which defines, which fixes. Yet, lurking amidst this impatience is a shadow of an insight into the salvation contained within the pencil:
On the other hand, were I to know, I could perform ... a short work … a record of verified thoughts ... Some day someone would read it and would suddenly feel just as if he had awakened for the first time in a strange country. What I mean to say is that I would make him suddenly burst into tears of joy, his eyes would melt, and after he experiences this, the world will seem to him cleaner, fresher.
He senses the possibility of history: "Some day someone would read it ..." He feels the vastness of that interior vision. More importantly, Cincinnatus imagines the existence of another. This hypothetical other, for whom he must write, is the necessary outlet for his emerging inner sight, the abyss, which he will become later. (87) This other, a visionary double, he who would see the world as he, Cincinnatus, does and it would "seem to him cleaner, fresher", also writes, for in this double, this other who will one day read his words, lies the inscription, the trace of another world, like the anonymous inscription left on the wax slate of Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad. It is this thought of the visionary double that lights his path toward the one creative germ required to embark on the road to the Outside.
No, I still ought to record, to leave something. I am not an ordinary – I am the one among you who is alive – Not only are my eyes different, and my hearing, and my sense of taste – not only is my sense of smell like a deer’s, my sense of touch like a bat’s – but, most important, I have the capacity to conjoin all of this in one point – No, the secret is not revealed yet – even this is but the flint – and I have not even begun to speak of the kindling, of the fire itself. My life. (88)
This recalls Kafka’s diary entry of July 28, 1914:
I am more and more unable to think, to observe, to determine the truth of things, to remember, to speak, to share an experience; I am turning to stone, this is the truth... If I can’t take refuge in some work, I am lost. (89)
Kafka’s inner turmoil, his dissolution, his increasing alienation comes in direct conflict with the fact that "the attraction of the human world is so immense, that in an instant it can make one forget everything." (90) He vacillates between this human world and the world of writing, the abyss where, even though a salvation, leads him to a never-ending death:
What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life had dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me. But the strength I can muster for that portrayal is not to be counted upon: perhaps it has already vanished forever, perhaps it will come back to me again, although the circumstances of my life don’t favour its return. Thus I waver, continually fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. Others waver too, but in lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught up by the kinsman who walks beside them for that very purpose. But I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying. (91)
Both states of being are states of death. Kafka is lost, a stone, dead-weight if he bathes in "the attraction of the human world", but his writing is the pathway to "the eternal torments of dying."
The doubling that occurs here is the Kafka of The Metamorphosis, (92) the vacillating from one realm to another, the identification of one’s self in both realms. Gregor Samsa is forever shut out from the attractive human world. Yet, he is still very much a part of the world from which he is forcibly shut out. This is the error his family members make – they do not realise that Gregor has retained his human impulse, and relinquished only his human form:
Gregor had a shock as he heard his own voice answering hers, unmistakably his own voice, it was true, but a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which left the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then rose up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one could not be sure one had heard them rightly. (93)
The Double exists alongside Gregor. He is that Other who sees the world for what it is, who would, like Nabokov’s "gangrel" (94), do what he would like to do but cannot. The insect that gradually takes over, who is the only one among the family who would later think Grete’s violin playing is excellent, when in fact it is not, also houses or carries Gergor the son and brother, whom the attractive human world unfortunately cannot see. Kafka repeats this idea elsewhere: "Everone carries a room about inside him." (95)
What is so attractive about the human world? The Chief clerk and Gregor’s boss are loveless figures who make demands on him and his family. His parents, who demand a life based on Gregor’s own efforts; his sister Grete who dreams the dreams that he is in fact the author of so that he is now responsible for her life; later on Gregor discovers that their debts could have been paid off a lot sooner but was not done so, forcing him to work as hard as he had been. Expectations, obligations and dishonesty. Where is the attraction? It can be found in the hesitation Cincinnatus displays in the matter of his execution. He does not want to die. He does not want to be banished. It is also mirrored in his need to be understood. He beseeches his wife Marthe to open her eyes and understand him and what the authorities were going to do to him. This wanting to belong is echoed in Kafka’s narrative:
But Gregor was now much calmer. The words he uttered were no longer understandable, apparently, although they seemed clear enough to him, even clearer than before, perhaps his ear had grown accustomed to the sound of them. Yet any rate people now believed that something was wrong with him, and were ready to help him. The positive certainty with which these first measures had been taken comforted him. He felt himself drawn once more into the human circle and hoped for great and remarkable results from both the doctor and the locksmith, without really distinguishing precisely between them. (96)
Yet, Gregor is imprisoned in his own room. The two doors in his room, the one that connects him with the living room and the other with Grete’s room, open into his room, not out. The world he so desperately wants to belong to, that he so desperately seeks understanding from, has easy access to him. Gregor, as a human, has access to them only as an instrument at the service of the family and his employers. However, Gregor the insect has lost his access to this world, no longer is he of any use to it. He is now a burden. His materiality has been judged and it is found lacking. His ‘imprisonment’ is a result of his inability to conform to the demands of the world he wishes to be part of.
Similarly, Cincinnatus’ imprisonment, as we have seen, is a logical consequence of his inability to conform to the demand for translucency. His opacity becomes for him, what the arthropod form is for Gregor – a door that shuts him off from the world of spectres, but at the same time a door that opens onto the abyss from where he can speak at last.
Cincinnatus, then, like Gregor, who vacillates between his own interests and the interests of the family that enslaves him, like Kafka, who vacillates between the world of humans and the world of the abyss, like the Woolfian narrator, who struggles to protect the walls that surround the world of thought, fights an on-going battle with the temptation to fall back on conventional ‘wisdom’, especially since he is raised in a society that discourages original creativity (97) As long as he harbours the belief that salvation can be found in the confines of the materialist world, he will never find a way out of it. However, the more he writes, the more he is shown, or made to see that there exist pathways leading out from the Inside:
There, tam, la-bas, the gaze of men glows with inimitable understanding; there the freaks that are tortured here walk unmolested; there time takes shape according to one’s pleasure ... There, there are the originals of those gardens where we used to roam and hide in this world; there everything strikes one by its bewitching evidence, by the simplicity of perfect good; there everything pleases one’s soul, everything is filled with the kind of fun that children know; there shines the mirror that now and then sends a chance reflection here... (98)
Writing, art, is the most important instrument of liberation, precisely because its symbolic structure and metaphoric texture obliges it to abandon the one-dimensionality of the discourse of the everyday (99):
I have as yet said nothing, or rather, said only bookish words ... but as there is in the world not a single human who can speak my language; or, more simply, not a single human who can speak; or, even more simply, not a single human; I must think only of myself, of that force which urges me to express myself. (100)
Then, a little farther on: "there is something I know, there is something I know, there is something ..." (101)
It is clear that Cincinnatus senses a presence, as does the Woolfian narrator, a presence that she locates deep within the hazy realm of conjecture. Gregor Samsa, likewise, can claim to be aware of an "undertone", a double nature, an inscription, a trace of a ‘nowhere’, a mystic writing that lies on the Outside, a mirror that "now and then sends a chance reflection here". It is significant that Cincinnatus introduces the mirror image in his writing. The classic theory of mimesis claims that art is a mirror held up to nature, that art does nothing, says nothing more than what is already ‘said’ in the material world. The novel "Quercus" that Cincinnatus reads in his cell conforms to such a theory of mimesis. Its comprehensiveness and positivistic attitude to the facts merely perpetuate the illusory idea that the material world has an autonomous existence distinct from the sentient centres of experience within or giving rise to it. (102)
Kafka, like Cincinnatus who is slowly awakening to them, has seen these sentient centres, these points of ambiguity where "language coincides with its disappearance. (103) This concentration of ambiguity, as Blanchot would have it, the abyss that one must enter in order become language, become the abyss (Kafka: "...I have a great yearning to write all my anxiety entirely out of me, write it into the depths of the paper just as it comes out of the depths of me, or write it down in such a way that I could draw what I had written into me completely." (104)) is not the mirror that is held up to nature, which reflects everything like a one-dimensional linearity implied and espoused by the materialist monism of Cincinnatus’ world, but the refractive nature of the artistic imagination. (105) It is the double, that shadowy space that when held up to nature changes the path of our perception, disrupts the modes of seeing and apprehending, and which allows Cincinnatus C and his con-sociates – the seated Woolfian, Kafka, and Gregor Samsa – to disappear, to evanesce, to syncopate.
Indeed, now that his writing had gripped him, in the sense that he struggled no longer with the awkwardness of the word, that his poetic imagination had begun to rise from some unknown place, we see that the thematic concern of his writing
... will now be the precious quality of Cincinnatus; his fleshy incompleteness; the fact that the greater part of him was in a quite different place, while only an insignificant portion of it was wandering, perplexed, here – a poor, vague Cincinnatus, a comparatively stupid Cincinnatus, trusting, feeble and foolish as people are in their sleep... (106)
We now see a gradual shift in Cincinnatus’ physical presence. Whereas at the beginning of the text, Cincinnatus is described in terms which suggest awkwardness, encumbrance and oppression –
... he had to be supported during the journey through the long corridors, since he planted his feet unsteadily, like a child who has just learned to walk, or as if he were to fall through like a man who has dreamt he is walking on water only to have a sudden doubt... (107)
- now, at the sudden discovery of that absent space from which everything can and must be said, into which one merges, becomes submerged in a nullity, he begins to take on the appearance of an apparition:
... it was as if one side of his being slid into another dimension ... as though at any moment … Cincinnatus would step in such a way as to slip naturally and effortlessly through some chink of the air into its unknown coulisses to disappear there with the same easy smoothness with which the flashing reflection of a rotated mirror moves across every object in the room and suddenly vanishes, as if beyond the air, in some new depth of ether. (108)
This recalls the stepping away of Woolf’s narrator and Gregor Samsa’s otherness. Cincinnatus’ ghost-like countenance - "... the light outline of his lips, seemingly not quite fully drawn but touched by a master of masters..." (109) - coincides with his realisation of the inventedness of the beings around him – "I am quite willing to admit that they are also a deception but right now I believe in them so much that I infect them with truth." (110)
The distorted, simulated forms of his jailers, the mimetic performativity that underlines their spurious existence is "infected" with truth. Their septicity has made his escape impossible, but he realises now that they are merely inventions, borne out of that "rotated mirror" that can both invent and make vanish, the machine of the abyss of which he is the engine. The refraction of this rotated mirror cuts into pieces the ‘reality’ of beings and objects and at the same time gives rise to a kaleidoscope of possibilities.
Whence comes this realisation that he embodies the machine of the abyss? Cecilia C, his mother arrives for a visit one day, unexpectedly, He has only seen her once in his life. She has ceased for him to be of any significance in his life. Even his father is nothing but a "legend" to him. That his own mother has no knowledge of the father’s identity is laughable to him. Cincinnatus accuses his mother of being a parody, false. If even his own beginnings are suspect, like everything around him in his prison world, his own visions must be groundless. The origins - the ballast of a life, the mother-function, which is the primordial script, that which engenders and brings forth - is the double of the abyss, that which concludes, becomes nothing, a returning to the depths of a ‘nowhere,’ the inarticulability of language itself. This binary constellation – origin/conclusion, birth/death, surfacing/descending, affirmation/negation – is constitutive of that we have been calling the abyss. The same conditions apply to both states of the binary – the mother function brings forth to the surface from the beginning, the starting point, an unknown place but which is always the first place; the anonymous body descends into an unknown space that is already the last place, the only place from where all can be said. This doubled writing begins deep within the first stirrings of life within a body, secret inscriptions that are carried within a person (111) as one carries one’s room with wherever one goes. (112) The inscritption remains, carrying forward its trace, like an invisible signature. However, this signature can only be read anonymously, deep in the recesses, or depths of the abyss.
If, then, his mother is as false as the spectres all around him, Cincinnatus push to the Outside is jeopardised: "... I have pinned my hopes on a distant sound – how can I have faith in it, if even you are a fraud?" (113) Yet, Cecilia C brings with her a secret. She discloses that his father too, was like him, absent, evanescent. That is why all she remembers of him is his voice, for he had transcended the gaze of the empirical. She tells him about objects called nonnons which she used to play with when as a child. These incomprehensibly-shaped nonnons came with a special, distorted mirror that, when held up to ordinary objects, reflected nonsensical distorted objects. However, when they were held up to these strange distorted nonnons, they were transformed into beautifully-shaped things, like a flower or a ship, a person, a landscape.
The nonnon mirror, therefore, is that refractive force of the artistic imagination, the chink in the air which Cincinnatus often felt himself slip into, that syncope within which contained a world of distorted objects made wondrous by a mirror which negates, and in the negation, brings forth a new form, a new way of seeing. The distance between the distorted mirror of the nonnon and the nonnon itself is the space of absence, the liminality that transgresses the origins of language, but which speaks with the clarity of visionaries. It is also the distance between mother and son, between the falsity of her mirror, and Cincinnatus’ nonnon-like incomprehensibility. Faced with her mirror, shining for a second through her eyes, Cincinnatus "suddenly saw that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also." (114)
The abyss is now at hand, awaiting his final transformation. That can only happen if two conditions are fulfilled. The first condition requires that he must recognise that the word restricts, fixes; it is nothing but a normal object that when held up to a nonnon mirror is distorted, like the spider in his cell, which in actual fact "consisted of a round plush body with twitching legs made of springs", (115), or like the cell itself, "which in fact was no longer there", (116) having somehow been dismantled as Cincinnatus was leaving it to go to the place of execution (they are distortions of reality, staged representations that have no meaning other than the fact they are merely distorted simulations of what is considered ‘real’), or that it is itself a mirror that merely reflects a material reality that is aut