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slightly wanky holocaust essay that won a prize yo

O silent dead – from white light our ashes will fly

[Postmodern ethics in post-holocaust literary reactions to the voices of the holocaust dead]

“In my imagination the man who I thought was trying to get in had been growing and growing in size until in the end he appeared to be a giant and the greatest Fascist that ever walked the earth.”
-Anne Frank


The dead speak to the living by not speaking at all. It is the attested function of literature, for many, that it plays a vital role in the exploration of discursive aporia; in particular, the aporia that is those human voices that, for whatever reason, are impossible to hear. Before postmodernism, the narrative is: once traced, these subaltern voices are represented in fiction by the benevolent author, and the wrong of silence is ‘righted.’ The imperative for these blanks to get ‘filled in’ becomes especially pressing once time has silenced not only the generation who remembered the voices we wish were recallable, but also everyone who remembered that generation personally. After memory, after post-memory, all that remains is the “post-“ – the hyphen firmly linking the afterwards to nothing, to the aporia of memory’s absence. This inability-to-know is thus an unsolvable epistemological problem, one that literature cannot put ‘right.’

                Postmodern ethics attempts to understand the most respectful way, not to ‘right,’ but to challenge this unsolvable problem, in a way that does not compromise the voice of the subaltern – either by perpetuating the subaltern’s silence, or by speaking on the behalf of the subaltern, who because silent is always unable to consent.

(I define ‘voice’ as: ‘the right and/or ability of the existed/existing individual to self-represent within the discourse of the present,’ and ‘silence’ as the inability and/or lack of the right to do this.)

Silence leaves the subaltern stranded; if I cannot hear a person, I cannot hope to help them or those like them, because I am unable to ever have even discovered that they need my help. As a result, the epistemological problem of subaltern silence is also an ethical problem, in the sense of Emmanuel Levinas’ ethics, which is the endless attempt to achieve a respectful and loving relationship between me and the other, in your singular, impenetrable, internal difference (‘Otherness,’ for short). There are many forces that can render an individual subaltern, but the force most challenging to ethics. most unnecessary and irrevocable, is a specific kind of death.

The silencing of death-by-natural-causes presents no ethical violation, because subalternity has not been forced without consent on the dead individual by a hateful agent. It is only in cases of death-by-murder that the epistemological problem of silence is atrociously amplified. A relatively minor ethical problem –I doubt anyone would complain if I wrote a poem from the perspective of my dead great-grandmother – becomes a vital ethical-philosophical conundrum, because the murdered voice has been deliberately silenced by an-other being, purely and prematurely because of the murderer, the agent of that murder’s anti-ethical hatred. The ‘hatred’ in murder is what

“…desires the death of the Other only in inflicting this death as a supreme suffering… To inflict suffering is not to reduce the Other to the rank of object, but on the contrary to maintain him superbly in his subjectivity. In suffering the subject must know his reification, but in order to do so he must precisely remain a subject. Hatred wills both things… In this lies the logical absurdity of hatred.”

In wanting the other to die, I therefore must first acknowledge the absurdity of my action in wanting to silence the other’s voice, and then select, in spite of my-self, to silence it. Murder, which is always irrational and therefore in an un-numbed situation always feels wrong – the Einsatzgruppen murder-squads got smashed to do their job – is the supreme ethical crime. It is thus through Levinassian ethics that I can approach an understanding of the importance of attempting to hear not the voices of all those who have ever died, but specifically the voices of all dead perpetrators and all dead victims of murders: an act exemplified in the crime of genocide, the atrocious mass silencing of “each singular [targeted] individual as a singularity,” as well as of the political voice granted by “the more general naming that binds and creates [targeted] communities.” To attempt to hear these voices is to attempt to comprehend both what is irrecoverably, unnecessarily, and unfairly destroyed by murder, and how it is that humans can become able and/or willing to enact this destruction of the ethical relationship. It is murder, in the present, whichI must attempt to eradicate, not the fact that someone was murdered. To analogise Gayatri Spivak’s objection to the idea of “white men… saving brown women from brown men,” it is unethical and useless for living people to want to save dead people from dead murderers. In using the attempt-to-listen to attempt-to-understand the atrocious consequences of past murders – something textual engagement can enable – I may learn the value of ethical activism against murder in the present.

The voices of the dead which I must attempt to hear may be almost-heard only in what Jacques Derrida names ‘cinders,’ – the trace-in-the-present of the other-in-the-past – a strange dust, found disturbed by the old vibrations of the absent prisoner’s screams in the night. The cinder refers to the presence of absence; as Maurice Blanchot puts it, “to be silent is still to speak.” This essay concerns itself with cinders made in the ovens of Auschwitz.

This essay focuses on a particular genocide, the Nazi holocaust, for no reason other than I have just taken a module on the literature of that holocaust. ‘Post-holocaust’ literature is authored by writers whose only connection to the holocaust, due to the aporia of temporal distance, is through representative texts authored in the voice of those with holocaust memory; or through post-memory, the use-with-permission of the memory of the once-heard voice. The nature of these representative texts – cinders which point to cinders – and the way in which they are exploited by the ‘post-’ author’s response to the silence those texts uncover, has profound implications for the ethical character of that response in its relation to the vital attempt to hear the subaltern dead of the holocaust. These ethical implications are demonstrated in texts by the poet Sylvia Plath, the novelist Martin Amis, and the band Neutral Milk Hotel.


“…the gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were down there and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by approximate books, films and myths… I would like here to erect a dyke against this trend.”

-Primo Levi

                Antony Rowland states that in order for writers to “provide ethical responses to the events in Europe between 1933 and 1945,” what is required is a sense on the author’s part of ‘awkward poetics.’ Rowland defines this in Levinassian terms as poetry that would “enable the poet to adopt a position of interpretative responsibility towards the victims they are representing,” essentially meaning art that, in representing subaltern voice, accepts and incorporates its inability to represent subaltern voice. Rowland says himself that awkward poetics “might be a little pious,” but that the only alternative to “interpretative responsibility” is apparently the anti-postmodern “unreflective seizure of Holocaust icons.” Rowland’s argument, essentially, is that art which encounters the problem of silence whilst writing the holocaust should make a performance of feeling “awkward,” about doing so. He is partially right, in that ‘post-‘ representation of the subaltern dead is always inherently unethical, and acknowledging failure is the first step to confronting it. But this guilt is “pious,” snivelling even, because it merely resolves the guilt the author and reader feel for enjoying a literary re-presentation-without-permission. It fails to actually address the silence, achieving only an apology to the subaltern who cannot hear you anyway.

                Where awkward poetics can have ethical value, though, is when it is used to camp an ‘un-awkward’ poetics. In two holocaust poems by Sylvia Plath, a performance is made of not feeling bad at all about the problem of silence. ‘Lady Lazarus,’ is written in the first person from the perspective of the Lady herself, who has risen from the dead to speak. She performs a “big strip tease” in which she “[peels] off the napkin” of deathly-otherness to reveal herself as being composed of holocaust icons, with her skin “Bright as…” the Ilse Koch’s supposed “Nazi lampshade” made of human skin, her body being made not of “Flesh, bone,” but of “A wedding ring,/A gold filling” and the “cake of soap” made from human fat – images gleaned from Plath’s “vicarious reception of the Holocaust through sensationalist media.” The Lady makes grotesque the idea that such images can in any sense bring the dead back to life, criticising the “peanut-crunching crowd,” who gets cheap thrills from this false “miracle!” Indeed, she dramatizes the ethical consequences of this capitalist transaction: “There is a charge for the hearing of my heart,” a devilish payment that the reader of these icons must make. The act of dying, in its necessary Otherness to lived-experience, is reduced unethically to a representative “art, like everything else.” This conception is revealed to be a violation of the Lady’s subalternity by the fact that she keeps trying to die and “not come back at all,” but is forced by the “call” of the present-consumers who demand that she speak her-‘self’ to them, for their entertainment. “Ash, ash –/You poke and stir,” until the original cinders become unethically re-inscribed with a stick-person, drawn by the post-holocaust living.

The Lady’s ‘self,’ and the voice that reveals this ‘self,’ are constructions of Plath’s. Lady Lazarus is a collage of the false images which cover the subalternity of the dead by falsely appearing to represent them and their experience accurately. As Rowland puts it, “the transformation of Ilse Koch into an icon of the Holocaust has had the effect of occluding the role of the SS in Buchenwald, and the collusion of the Germans living nearby the camp.” My attention becomes misdirected away from a real understanding of holocaust murders, and the cinder of the subaltern’s shriek is not heard – I would rather be titillated by the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” Plath’s poem therefore offers a critique of unethical re-presentation in all post-holocaust art inspired by over-mediated, ‘spectacular’ traces, and of the rhetorical figure of all ‘prosopopoeia’ – speaking on another’s behalf. The transparent quality of spectacular traces enables the living to determine the terms upon which the holocaust dead can be represented within post-holocaust discourse – the impossibility of their speaking is not even acknowledgeable, let alone challenged. Subalternity is obscured, in favour of a less troubling relationship of false, created knowledge. Same and Other are invasively ‘merged’.

This alluring-because-simplifying quality of the spectacular trace is dramatized in ‘Daddy,’ another of Plath’s post-holocaust poems. The ‘Daddy’ speaker describes images of herself and her dead father she has constructed and now rejected. The critiqued father-image is built from icons which signify ‘fascistic rightness’ and ‘fascistic power’; “The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna/are not very pure or true,” and what she “used to pray to recover,” she now sees as the “brute/Brute heart of a brute,” once the mediation of an alluring cultural impression is removed. “Every woman adores a Fascist,” she asserts, because a fascist conception of ethics is so simple that “not God but a swastika” might be enough to make sense of a universe that allows murder. The speaker yearns for this worldview because, albeit falsely, it makes sense of her father, and of the holocaust murder she knows. She describes her “heart” as split “in two,” between her post-memory of his actual voice, and her “Fascist” construction of him, which speaks on his behalf without permission, telling her what she wants to hear to alleviate her own guilt. The speaker tries obsessively to make herself into enough of a “Jew” to be ‘worthy’ of “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” By becoming a victim, she resolves the problem of failing to try and listen to the voice of the subaltern murdered, because she somehow is one of them; she can listen to her-self. The speaker fails, though. She cannot honestly say ‘I am a Jew,’ only the qualified “I think I may well be a bit of a Jew.”

Realising that a fascist understanding of ethics has become culturally rejected, that “they,” the “villagers” of the post-Nazism world, “are dancing and stamping” on “Daddy,” the speaker finally disconnects from the lure of the false image. The final word, “through,” puns on the sense of both an ending, and a successful telephone connection to aporia; she swaps the unethical “black telephone” for the impossible attempt-to-listen to her real father’s subaltern voice.

Plath’s poems therefore do not unethically represent the holocaust dead, because they are built on and about holocaust icons, which they reveal as lies. Plath’s post-holocaust poetry, beginning from this critique of the Lady Lazarus spectacle, begins to move towards an ethical relationship with the subaltern dead. The caller who ends “Daddy,” and the speaker of ‘Mary’s Song,’ opt to reject misleading false cinders, marking the beginning of a textual performance of the attempt to listen. This approach towards a conception of art congruent with postmodern ethics works for Plath because she consciously rejects ‘real’ cinders; both Martin Amis and Neutral Milk Hotel pointedly do tie their texts back to such cinders, and this creates correspondingly different ethical problems.


          No. ‘Ethical’ plays absolutely no [part] – the word does not exist.

          -Ernst B. - a Nazi doctor

Heavily inspired by Robert Jay Lifton’s psycho-historical investigation The Nazi Doctors, Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow works from a more originally ‘ethical’ web of cinders than those used by Sylvia Plath for her poems. Lifton’s book analyses the social and political factors that made it possible, in Nazi Germany, for doctors to murder patients in a manner they believed was ‘reconcilable’ to their Hippocratic oath. The Nazi Doctors achieves this through rigorous research of milieu and extensive interviews with surviving Nazi doctors – from which Lifton uses his psychologist’s training to deduce psychological principles that rationally explain medicalised murder and genocide. In this way, The Nazi Doctors is a wonderfully ethical post-holocaust text. It tries to understand the doctors it describes, without ever attempting to re-inscribe their subalternity. It is easier for nonfiction texts to be ethical than fiction texts; representation is not considered their generic remit.

                The characterisation in Time’s Arrow is based on the generalised psychological principles that Lifton uncovers in his book: “doubling,” in which an “Auschwitz self” capable of justifying hurting and murdering is created; and “psychic numbing,” the desensitisation which enabled Nazi doctors to dissociate themselves from the hurt and murder they facilitated. In The Nazi Doctors, it is understandable that the generalisation practiced by Lifton is not unethical; he makes points about Nazi doctors as a community that do not necessarily describe all individual Nazi doctors; the attitudes of the doctors vary, and the book carefully describes these contrasts. Time’s Arrow attempts to be ethical in that its protagonist is the fictional Nazi doctor Odilo Undervorben, rather than a representation of an actual doctor. However, the intertextual characterisation lifted from Lifton’s generalisations, and Amis’ grotesque exaggeration of this source, ultimately undoes the text; the doctors’ singularities are reduced from real, unique subaltern cinders into an archetype – “the worst man in the worst place at the worst time” – that inherently disrespects the subalternity of all dead Nazi doctors. Amis thus perverts Lifton’s findings, as well as ethics in general, with blatant post-holocaust authorial interjections and biases of his own. The text disrespects subalternity.

Odilo is recognisably an archetype because, as Sue Vice puts it, he “has done everything a Nazi doctor might do,” including participating in “euthanasia” murders, and the Einsatzgruppen killing squads. As discussed in The Nazi Doctors, these activities did precede the medical murders of Auschwitz, but experiences of the two were not at all universal for camp doctors. Unverdorben therefore represents an accumulation of the worst of Nazi actions, as opposed to a collation of their real internal lives. Amis’ stated aim for the text is to demonstrate that “the German idea… was… counter-human… like a ­counter-clock world.” This desire to represent the holocaust as “counter-human” perhaps rationalises writing Unverdorben as an apotheosis rather than a more directly cinderous character, as well as the novel’s backwards chronology, but this is nonetheless a misreading of Lifton, who rigorously provides human explanations for every facet of the holocaust. Much of Chapter 19 and much of the whole book is spent explaining the human psychological explanations for both the “German idea” itself, and its origins in human culture and behaviour. The Final Solution, Lifton believes, was very much “human,” and an understanding of it as such enables him and I to try to understand the (preventable) conditions required for murder on the level of genocide humanly possible. This requires an attempt to understand the otherness of the holocaust’s perpetrators. But Time’s Arrow makes understanding impossible; there is no otherness to an archetypical character. “Negation by representation is epistemologically to repeat the consequences of… murder,” and Unverdorben indeed does negate the sources of his cinders. He becomes hollow text. The Nazi doctors were not murdered, granted, but postmodern ethics will not accommodate revenging.

As just one example of unqualified generalisation and extrapolation of Nazi doctor behaviour within the text which causes ‘hollow text,’ “Odilo is given bizarre sadist and necrophiliac sexual perversions, which are never implied by Lifton. This is all totally incongruent with Odilo’s split-self’s assessment of him as a “moral being … absolutely unexceptional, liable to do what everybody else does, good or bad, with no limit, once under the cover of numbers.” He is clearly exceptional, designed to be so; Time’s Arrow misleads its reader.

Even when accepting that Amis was not trying to relate Odilo to every Nazi doctor’s voice, this representative falling-short still causes the novel to fail aesthetically. If the backwards narrative is so constructed in order to satirise the “counter-human” nature of Auschwitz, then surely an ‘accurate’/ethical representation of perpetrators is necessary to fully realise this satire? A hollow-text boogeyman is of course able to be “counter-human.” This is not of ethical interest. Trying to understand the human ability to behave in ways that are “counter-human,” alternately, is ethically fascinating, and potentially useful. It is because the Nazi doctors are responsible for atrocities that their subalternity must be respected, so that we might respect the imperative left us by their victims.

Ultimately, it all comes down to approach. Lifton’s text is recognisably hermeneutic, in that its generalising representations are the result of a move towards understanding. Amis’ novel is, alternately, poetic – the text starts at a generalising representation, and then, aptly, works backwards. It begins from a position of having-already-understood. The dead’s voices  are re-inscribed by Amis’ predetermined satirical agenda. Before the text begins, Time’s Arrow has always failed as an ethical representation, and thus fails in its own aims. Post-holocaust literature from ‘real’ cinders must, then, perform a hermeneutics in order to approach the ethical. Neutral Milk Hotel’s second album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea, exemplifies such a performance.


I was walking around wondering, “if I knew the history of the world, would everything make more sense to me or would I just lose my mind?” And I came to the conclusion that I’d probably just lose my mind.

-Jeff Mangum

                In the Aeroplane over the Sea, as a piece of post-holocaust art, works mostly through the medium of apostrophe. Apostrophic art allows for a way to address silence in a way that respects subalternity, in that the artist speaks to the silent-dead, and not for them. Aeroplane dramatizes the relationship between a mourning speaker and addressed Anne Frank-figure, who, in an ethical gesture, is allowed to be non-responsive.

                On ‘In the Aeroplane over the Sea,’ the joy of entering into a relationship with a textual cinder, in its finity and impermanence, is performed. The speaker “[hears] a voice as it’s rolling and ringing” through him, in “notes that bend unreachable,” unreplicable, unique. He describes his love of this textual other as “a beautiful dream that could flash on the screen/in a blink of an eye and be gone from me,” acknowledging its beauty and impermanence. He wants this vision-of-a-relationship to last, recalling, with echoes of Plath, how he used to “push [his] fingers through/your mouth to make those muscles move” in a sad parody of speaking. This subaltern figure cannot communicate, though, and representation is revealed as a self-serving charade.  In a minor key, he ponders what he might not know about the addressed figure: “all secrets sleep in winter clothes/with one you loved so long ago/now we don’t even know his name.” This Anne Frank-figure might have loved a boy once, but she hasn’t told us about it in The Diary of a Young Girl, so we can never know, because she cannot speak to tell us. The misery of this is alleviated slightly for the speaker by the fact that they will be joined together in death, when they both become Other; when they die, their “ashes will fly/from the aeroplane over the sea,” an aeroplane capable of bridging, say, between Denver, 1998, and Holland, 1944. “How strange it is to be anything at all,” he decides. How strange that I can speak and you cannot.

                Once the speaker starts to wonder about the ‘real’ girl behind the text, he begins to protest this strangeness. On ‘Holland, 1945,’ the first song on the record to allude explicitly to Anne Frank and the holocaust, he describes her death from typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, “only weeks before the guns” of the British liberators “all came and rained on everyone.” He ascribes specific, historical blame to her murderers – “they buried her alive/one evening, 1945,” but this is the closest Aeroplane comes to anything like anger. Mostly he just wonders where she is, now that she’s dead and subaltern. Is she a “little boy in Spain,” still a victim of fascism, “playing pianos filled with flames,” still a blazing artist? She is compared to an imagined brother who refuses to come back to earth, who “says it was good to be alive/but now he rides a comet’s flame/and won’t be coming back again.” This contrast makes Anne’s attempt to ‘live’ again through the voice of her diary seem deliberate, similar to Bhubaneswari Bhaduri’s decision in Can the Subaltern Speak?  to “render her body graphematic” through methodical suicide. Through Blanchot, I may understand all self-representation as a kind of suicide;

To write one’s autobiography… in order to expose oneself, like a work of art, to the gaze of all, is perhaps to seek survival, but through a perpetual suicide… In a sense, the “I” cannot be lost, because it does not belong to itself. It only is, therefore, as not its own, and therefore as always already lost.

Even The Diary does not enable Anne to speak beyond death; it is an elaborate suicide note describing not her-self, but how she wished to be remembered. It is “the living travesty of completed Meaning.” The only cinders of actual lived experience we get from Anne are “indentions in the sheets/where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore,” as even her own self-representation is unethical towards the self it represents; it necessarily kills it through hardening it into an image. A self can never be an image, but without the image, no trace of the other self exists.­­

                On ‘Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2,’ the real self that the image blocks is addressed. This subaltern self, unable to speak, makes its presence felt on both ‘In the Aeroplane,’ and this song through the use of a choked-sounding, non-verbal musical saw. Here, the absent “daddy,” “brother,” and “sister” are spoken to, in a melancholic tone which recycles the themes of the rest of the album. The necessity of death for unification with the other to occur is dramatised:

When we break
We’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place where some holy spectacle lies
When we break
We’ll wait for our miracle
God is a place we will wait for the rest of our lives

Ultimately, In the Aeroplane over the Sea is written through a white light hermeneutics. Mangum’s “belief that all things contain an eternal white light” informs the album as post-holocaust art; rather than begin from a position of ‘understanding’ and guilt and work backwards, like awkward poetics or Time’s Arrow, it begins from a confused and broken position, performing a moving towards the non-occurrence of the realised ethical relationship with the ‘white light’ of your endless otherness in time and space. The record, by illuminating the sadness of this failure to connect, becomes a sublimely powerful criticism of murder, because it tries, by apostrophising the already-destroyed, to illuminate what it is that murder destroys: the self that can never be re-presented, even by itself, now without even the right to actively re-trace itself into the “anonymous continuity of humanity.” This is why the white light of your otherness is holy; like “God”, it is unique and uncommunicable. Trying to touch it, “we will wait for the rest of our lives,” for the non-occurrence. Seeing this white light, I cannot murder. My psychic numbing is destroyed. Standing face to face with my victim, I see the trace of an Anne behind her eyes.

                Emmanuel Levinas rejected art in his philosophy because it “is not transcendent.” I do not know if he really understood the potential of art to reveal the vital urgency of a postmodern ethics, but I think he might have enjoyed Aeroplane, or Georges Perec’s W., or Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mary’s Song,’ or any other text that practices a white light hermeneutics. Says Levinas:

You know, one often speaks of ethics to describe what I do, but what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy.


[1] Following Jacques Derrida and Norman Finkelstein, I politely refuse to capitalise the Nazi holocaust, unless in quotes. This is not out of disrespect for its victims, but a concern that Nazi holocaust exceptionalism reduces our ability to grieve for the victims of all other holocausts, and tends to serve questionable political purposes. All murder is identically unethical.

[2] Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank, Otto Frank, (Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers, 1995), pp. 36-37.

[3]Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 269

[4] Ibid. p. 294

[5] Stephen Morton, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (Oxon: Routledge, 2005) p. 56

[6] Maurice Blanchot, The writing of the disaster, (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) p. 10

[7]This is permission in the ethical sense of re-presenting a voice that the writer has actually heard, not permission in the literal sense. This is dramatized in Maus, when Art Spiegelman-as-character asks his father if he can include a story of Vladek’s in his novel and is refused, but then does so anyway after his father’s death – he lacks permission, but nonetheless has ethical ‘permission’ to do so, because he knew his dad, and attempts to represent him ethically.

[8] The Holocaust and the Postmodern, p. 22.

[9] Antony Rowland, Holocaust Poetry, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) p. 11

[10] Ibid. p. 12

[11] Sylvia Plath, Ariel: The Restored Edition, (Faber and Faber: London, 2004) p. 14.

[12] Holocaust Poetry, p. 46

[13] Holocaust Poetry, p. 40.

[14] Ariel: The Restored Edition, p.73.

[15] Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, (USA: Basic Books, 1986) p. 178

[16] The Nazi Doctors, p. 419

[17] Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow, or the Nature of the Offense, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991) p. 12

[18] Sue Vice, Holocaust Fiction, (Routledge: London, 2000) p. 33

[19] Martin Amis on writing Time’s Arrow, ”, The Guardian Online,<.> [accessed 24 May 2012] (para. paragraph number)

[21] The Holocaust and the Postmodern,  p. p. 269

[22] Time’s Arrow p. 157, 158

[23] Ibid. p. 164

[24] Martin Amis on writing Time’s Arrow

[25] Pitchfork Media, ‘Neutral Milk Hotel’, (2008) <> [accessed 23 May 2012]

[26] Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane over the Sea. (Merge Records: Durham, 1998)

[27] Gayatri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (downloaded from Wikipedia)

[28] The writing of the disaster, p. 64

[29] Ibid.. 48

[30] Kim Cooper, 33 1/3: In the Aeroplane over the Sea (London: Continuum International, 2005) p. 70

[31] The writing of the disaster p. 7

[32] The Holocaust and the Postmodern, p. 342

me not really understanding deconstruction but writing about it anyway

                All the Legions of the Bereaved: Historicity, the Other, and the Ethics of Deconstruction in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition

The enormous energy of the twentieth century, enough to drive the planet into a new orbit around a happier star, was being expended to maintain this immense motionless pause.”[1]

                To change the present, one must be able to change the past. Firstly this essay will, with the help of Karatani Kojin, demonstrate that the ‘immense, motionless pause’ of The Atrocity Exhibition’s present is a satirical response to specific historical changes. I will then show that, in response to this “pause,” there is in Ballard’s writing, not a didactic moral message, but an ethical imperative, in the sense of Emmanuel Levinas’ writing on ethics. This imperative does not imperiously design a world free from the ‘pause.’ Rather, it illustrates the serious problems the ‘pause’ causes for a person’s relationship with what Levinas calls ‘the Other.’ Then, in a gesture with parallels to Jacques Derrida’s ‘deconstruction,’ Ballard’s writing begins to look for a point of exteriority from which an alternative world might, hopefully, come into being.


In his essay “Origins of Japanese Literature,” Karatani Kojin describes the revolutionary effect that the introduction of Western-style landscape painting had on Japanese culture. Japanese painting and literature was altered irreversibly as the traditional, transcendentally arranged tsukinami – reminiscent in technique of Renaissance painting – were displaced by the novel concept of perspective in art. Perspective introduced to Japanese artists the idea of painting what the individual’s eyes looking outward at a landscape could see, and from this, the subliminal and profoundly philosophical inference of a separation between the inner self and the outer world. The term “inversion,” used by Karatani to denote such paradigm shifts, is defined in the notes as “the reversal of an epistemological or semiotic constellation that, once established, represses its own historicity and assumes an appearance of naturalness or inevitability.”[2] Once this “landscape,” – this Western epistemological solipsism – had taken root in Japan, the “inevitability” of the concept made it impossible to think and create with the mental conditions within which pre-“landscape” art had been produced.[3] There was a sensation, for some, of having become stuck, or “trapped,” and being hard pressed to explain why.

 J. G. Ballard has made a career out of searching for and subverting such “inversions.” Frequently in The Atrocity Exhibition, he comments on phenomena that, despite having the appearance indisputable of truths, have in actuality merely had the fact of their historicity repressed.  While it is obvious to anyone who reads the news that human beings “would have no difficulty in exterminating each other down to the last man,” the socio-psychological implications of this development, humanity’s “current unease… unhappiness and mood of anxiety,” are far more easily taken for granted as merely representing some default human condition.[4] Ballard asks, “What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash?” and then answers his own question with the desensitised, tuned-out psyche of Traven, protagonist of The Atrocity Exhibition.[5] In the novel, the hero Traven is on a quest to acknowledge and assault some of the toxic inversions of his time. Ballard’s nowhere-man protagonist parallels the writer Sōseki, whose “fear that he has been cheated by [the effect on his psyche of] English literature,” as Karatani Kojin puts it, “expresses the anxiety of a man who suddenly finds himself trapped in the midst of a ‘landscape.’”[6] Ballard shares this anxiety:

“We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality…”[7]

For Ballard, since your “reality” is constructed mainly upon a collection of obscured inversions, it constitutes the most elaborate possible fiction. If this fiction were to have a theme for Ballard, an overarching inversion that allows and shapes all the lesser inversions, it would be what he calls repeatedly in The Atrocity Exhibition the “death of affect,” which is an inability to feel empathy, a numbness.[8]

Traven’s numbness to his memories is in fact only broken twice in the entire novel: in the revelation of its genesis, located almost secretly in the nightmare paragraph headings of chapters eleven and twelve, in which he sees “his wife’s death” and “the spectre of his daughter’s body.”[9] Traven’s wife died. Marilyn Monroe died. His daughter died. The Apollo astronauts died. Four hundred Japanese soldiers died. John F. Kennedy died. His daughter died. Reagan’s running for president. His wife died. Nothing means anything anymore. In the most realistic and straightforward section of the novel. Traven, recalling “the easy deaths of his childhood,” relives the dehumanisation and neglect of defeated Japanese soldiers by their American captors.[10] Traven expresses no emotional reaction whatsoever – except in the glib, unaffected title of the section: “Too Bad.” As in, oh well; as in, shit happens. 

The war experiences of the protagonist have created within him an indifference towards human suffering. After the death of affect, “the only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations,” divorced of real empathy.[11] The human condition’s inherent loneliness has become grotesquely amplified. Using Emmanuel Levinas’ terms, Traven’s relationship with “the other” has become unethical, a sort of non-relationship. His noble and misguided quest to repair this relationship comprises the main action of the novel’s plot.

                TRAVEN and the OTHER

                Levinasian ‘ethics’ is not an ethics in the traditional sense; it is not a set of rules or principles, not a ‘metaphysics.’ It is rather an attempt to get to the heart of what ethics is really about, which is the relationship between myself and ‘the other’ human being.[12] I will never perceive another person’s internal self, as the inside of the other’s mind will always be inaccessible to my experience – “if what belongs to the other’s own essence were directly accessible, it would be merely a moment of my own essence, and ultimately he himself and I myself would be the same.”[13] The reason this is so is because of the problem of intentionality, a notion borrowed by Levinas from the phenomenologist Edmond Husserl which states that “consciousness can never meet anything alien to itself because the external world is a product of its own activity.”[14] The world is never simply there and present; all that we experience is a system of signs, never the actual things-in-themselves. Simon Critchley defines Levinasian ethics as “first and foremost a respect for the concrete particularity of the other person in his or her singularity.”[15] By accepting my intentional representation of a person as all that person is, I do an unethical and illogical disservice to them as a singular and separate being, because I know that I can never directly experience that person’s ego – it is an irreconcilable Other to my Same.

                Along these lines,part of the problematic of The Atrocity Exhibition spawns from what Husserl calls “analogical apperception,” or the method by which one can assume the existence of other egos from the evidence that “the world contains bodies which act and respond in ways much like [my] own.”[16] Traven’s world has become oversaturated with perverted versions of this evidence, mainly from the mass media, so that composing a concept of the other from such information becomes a confusing struggle against extra layers of semiotic artifice – the deciphering of media-images of “celebrity” images of human beings – icons of icons of icons. What meaning and jouissance there is, in relating to the other human, of trying impossibly to assimilate their difference to my experience, becomes almost impossible to discern once it becomes difficult to satisfactorily define who or what the other even is. In the notes to “Princess Margaret’s Face Lift,” Ballard writes of how celebrities are “infinitely remote” even while “the zoom lens and the interview camera bring them so near to us that we know their faces and smallest gestures more intimately than those of our friends.”[17] Traven is totally incapable of making any differentiation between these figures and his lovers and colleagues. It is important, if one cannot know that the other is really in there in the body before us, that one at least is able to feel that they are there – but the death of affect prevents this.

                If the face of the Other has become harder to recognise, then an individual’s responsibility towards individual others becomes even more vitally important. The worst atrocities happen in darkness, in the places that are easiest to ignore. Traven, aware that something is wrong with his world, attempts to solve the problem in various ways, none of which, sadly, bring anybody any nearer that happier star.


                “The writer has no moral stance,” says Ballard: indeed, by suffusing The Atrocity Exhibition with “a set of options and imaginative alternatives,” instead of explicit metaphysical moralising, he performs a profound ethical gesture.[18] In The Ethics of Deconstruction, Simon Critchley explains how Jacques Derrida’s textual practice of ‘deconstruction’ contains within itself an ethical function, in the Levinasian sense of opening a relationship between the Same and the Other. Taking at face value Ballard’s rational assertion of the textuality of reality, that “we live inside an enormous novel,” one can observe Traven performing bizarre acts throughout The Atrocity Exhibition, acts that can be explained as having a deconstructive and therefore ethical function. According to Critchley,

“…what distinguishes deconstruction is double reading… most often by first repeating… ‘the dominant interpretation’ of a text in the guise of a commentary, and second, within and through this repetition, leaving the order of commentary and opening a text up to the blind spots and ellipses within the dominant interpretation.”[19]

The inversions that stuck Traven in the ‘immense, motionless pause’ cannot be undone; the revelation of the historicity of one’s particular ‘landscape’ cannot undo its fixed circumstances of creation. What’s left to Traven is to repeat the aspects of his universe that he finds most troubling, on his universe’s terms, ‘in the guise of a commentary,’ and in so doing open up those blind spots and ellipses through which an alternative might present itself.

We can see Traven attempting commentary and the escape from commentary at various points in the novel. Upon finding the “precise, if largely random, configuration of atoms in the universe at any given moment… never again to be repeated… to be preposterous by virtue of its unique identity,” Traven is observed quietly “raising and lowering his arms in a private calisthenic display… repeated several times.”[20] By carefully and deliberately rearranging the “configuration of atoms in the universe” in this insignificant but deliberate manner, Traven is futilely attempting to recreate a previous iteration of said universe, in what is “presumably an attempt to render time and events meaningless by replication…”[21] To read the exact same thing again and again until a gap appears is to undermine the dominant interpretation of a text, and Traven hopes to undermine here an inversion that he finds displeasing (the idea that all things are separate from each other and not an “undifferentiated mass”).[22] On a less trivial scale, Traven seems to notice that something about his relationship with the Other is broken, and indeed most of the chapters depict the attempts of Traven to use (im)perfect repetition to try and reveal ellipses in his history. He tries to recreate the death of JFK, solve Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, revive the Apollo spacemen, and reinvent sex; all in ways that encompass as much of his text-reality as possible. Critchley says, “the goal of Derridian deconstruction is not simply the unthought of the tradition,” – an undoing or negation of these tragic events – “but rather that-which-cannot-be-thought,” as in their actual reinvention into something different.[23] These so-called “alternate deaths,” as Ballard calls them, “represent [Traven’s] attempt to make sense of these unhappy events and attribute to them a moral dimension and even, perhaps, a measure of hope.”[24] Traven undermines himself however, through his fatal flaw: an inability, or unwillingness, to actually comprehend the ‘dominant interpretation’ of his text-reality, and thus be able to repeat it with any real cathartic validity. Attempting to overcome the ‘death of affect,’ the inversion that numbed him to the other, he attempts misguidedly to deconstruct the tragedies of celebrities: people made of images, not images made of people, like poor Karen Novotny or his dead daughter. Traven repeatedly ‘kills’ Karen in each of the aforementioned scenarios, his “fears and obsessions mimetized in her alternate death” – we learn little to nothing of hers.[25] He doesn’t actually change the fact of JFK’s death in his strange reinvention of it. He has achieved nothing that will actually protect or revive the other.

                Traven’s problem is that textual deconstruction can only ever work diachronically. On a text that can be perused leisurely in the dimension of space, aporias can be located, opening up exteriority. Traven’s ‘reality-text’ can only be perused synchronically, in the linear direction of experiential time. He is therefore a powerless victim of time, of the aleatoric arrangement of atoms in the universe. Karen catches Traven stacking mirrors into a “box-like structure” and asks him if he’s building a trap for time, but Traven doesn’t get it.[26]

                Traven, “tormented” by “the very facts of time and space,” comes to realise the truth of his worthlessness as the novel progresses.[27] His last hurrah comes in the aptly-titled chapter “You, Me and the Continuum,” in which he appears as “the second coming of Christ.”[28] This absurdity of this action is highlighted in the text by the gradual introduction of jokes - it’s all been “a complete cock-up.”[29] Traven dies for his own sins, “sacrificed” for “this unknown soldier” from his past “to be resurrected now to return to his Flanders field.”[30] The last we hear from Traven is of his dreaming about his dead family, before the text transmutes into mockeries of Traven’s deconstructive experiments and he disappears altogether.

Traven never succeeds in bringing the dead back to life, but in his failure he does revive the “affect” of his past, finding redemption in “nightmares of anxiety.”[31] The ghost of his daughter brings close to him “all the legions of the bereaved,” and Traven – like the Mariner who in darkness remembers how to pray – feels for all the others.[32] Levinas writes that death, in its immunity to intentionality, indisputably proves the existence of “something whose very existence is made of alterity. My solitude is thus not confirmed by death, but broken by it.”[33] Death forces me to remember the Other, and to remember the Other through the death of another takes empathetic feeling, a loving relationship towards difference.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a warning, then, against the tragic inversion born of grief for the lost other. If you allow the ‘death of affect’ to invert your reality, then you and your friends are in for a world of hurt.




Ballard, J. G., Crash, (London: Vintage, 1995)

Ballard, J. G., The Atrocity Exhibition, (London: Fourth Estate, 2006)

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction (Oxford: Blackwell 1992)

Davis, Colin. Levinas: an introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996)

Karatani Kojin, ‘Origins of Japanese Literature’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Vincent Leitch et al., 2nd edition (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010), pp. 2035-2045

pfft i don’t need to read anything i’m a champ

‘Do you love your lover more than God?’ is a question pertinent to both comedy and tragedy. I will discuss ‘religion’, not in any specific doctrinal sense, but as the attitude of the individual towards experiences of Otherness[1] – experiences that transcend their ‘everyday’ reality. These attitudes are inextricably linked to considerations of genre within two exemplary texts. Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes is a tragic novel about heresy, and its consequences; here I define ‘heretic’ as ‘one who seeks an experience of Otherness, within material experience.’  In Angela Carter’s Wise Children, a comic novel, there is a corresponding sense of atheism, with its own implications for understanding experience; here I define ‘atheist’ as ‘one who seeks a material understanding of material events, and consequently as much as possible rejects any experience of Otherness.’ To be a heretic is to yearn to die, to experience death. To be an atheist is to yearn to live, to experience life. These yearnings and their consequences shape the general generic qualities of the plots of both novels, as well as their generic attitudes towards human subjectivity, and what it is to love another human being.

Symbols are used extensively in both novels to evoke tragic-heretic and comic-atheist modes of experience. Le grand Meaulnes, like Wise Children,is narrated by a character mostly in flashback, and this colours Francois Seurel’s use of symbols: there is a sense of fixity created by the consistent associations that he writes from his memories that tells us something about his worldview. Seurel’s friend Augustin Meaulnes arrives on a “cold Sunday in November,” and we soon learn that his younger brother “died one night after bathing in a polluted pond….”[2] This doesn’t bode well for Seurel – this almost subliminal association of Meaulnes’ toxic charisma with the cold and with corrupted baptism recurs throughout the text. Meaulnes’ heretic ideology is a symbolic constant – his quixotic trip to “the lost domain” occurs in the dead of winter, Seurel learns of Meaulnes’ first abortive attempt to change his heretic worldview on “a bright winter day, sunny but uncertain,” a pathetic fallacy which reveals the emotional contradictions involved.[3] Seurel, writing the story, cannot, or is unwilling to, escape the influence of Meaulnes’ worldview. When Meaulnes has left for Paris to seek his lost love Yvonne, Seurel is trying unsuccessfully to enjoy a trip to the river with his new ‘friends.’  On the way there, “the sun was hot…. on the hot sand.” They encounter a spring where…

…we [lowered] our faces cautiously to the surface of the limpid water… some of us, I for one, scarcely succeeded in quenching our thirst: because the transparence of the water made it hard to judge the right distance, with the result that faces plunged in and noses were filled with something so icy it seemed to burn.[4]

All the contradictions of the Meaulnes-ian heretic worldview are summed up here in a web of returning symbolic motifs: the urge to temper the ‘heat’ of Meaulnes-free life with cold; the urge to be successfully baptised, seemingly incompatible with ‘cooling,’ and the urge to satiate a ‘thirst’ for something unquenchable, which the narrator, despite best intentions, fails to do. It appears that even with Meaulnes temporarily absent from the narrative, memories themselves becomes representative of the heretic attitude that Meaulnes possessed and imparted to Seurel. Thus, in the deixis of Le grand Meaulnes’ narrator, the aforementioned aspects of experience always signify the same concepts. There are no ‘innocent’ cold spells, or bodies of water, and so on, anywhere in the novel. This sense of semiotic fixity, this text-world in which the signifier always points to the same set of signifieds, creates a material experience in which the genuinely new or exciting is impossible; memory, or tradition as a form of memory, anchor everything in place, and things can only mean what you have already supposed they are ‘meant’ to. Meaulnes makes erratic, spontaneous decisions, chasing lost domains and impossible ideal loves, in order to try to experience anything Other to this inherently unexciting world of fixed signs – but this remains impossible within the limits of material experience. Existence will always fall short; Meaulnes and Seurel therefore have a ‘tragic’ understanding of experience.

This ‘fixing’ tendency of Francois’ narration is parodied through Wise Children’s Ross ‘Irish’ O’Flaherty, an obvious cameo of American modernist writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald probably read Le grand Meaulnes in France before writing The Great Gatsby (andeven if he didn’t, their general modernist use of symbol is very similar). The examples of Irish’s acidic, corny prose that narrator Dora Chance are used as a refutation of the (often distinctly modernist) heretic understanding of existence. When Irish calls the sunlight “ardent, yet somehow insincere,” Dora refuses to accept the legitimacy of this reading of the sunlight-as-signifier. “And how can sunlight be insincere, Irish? …the most democratic thing I’d ever seen, that California sunshine.” [5] Dora rejects a particular reading of experience that makes her unhappy, instead calling the sunlight “democratic,” i. e. open to subjective interpretation. Dora’s material understanding of material experience is dependent on the free play of the sign; for the atheist, signifiers cannot be permanently tied to their specific ‘real-world’ referents. In this way she is free to re-inscribe experience in terms favourable to her own temperament, to make herself happier. Dora rejects any impossible search for Otherness within material experience, because said experience always already contains a potential for difference from itself and thus re-inscription anyway; an experience of Otherness becomes unnecessary when one can always move along the chain of différance towards exciting favourability within non-Other material experience anyway. This is fundamentally a ‘comic’ understanding of signification, and thus experience; the way we see things is always able to change, to whatever is best for the individual Self.

There is a sense then, despite these differences, that in both a modernist novel like Le grand Meaulnes and a postmodernist novel like Wise Children,signifiers and signifieds possess a detached relationship to some kind of ‘real’ that must exist underneath or behind the process of signification, and therefore be Other to our semiotically-derived experience. This, some argue, creates a ‘vacuous’ sense to existence, a perpetual feeling that something is always already lacking, and unreachable. Critic Stephen Gurney argues that Meaulnes is the embodiment of what C. S. Lewis calls “the dialectic of desire.” Lewis explains this “dialectic,” i.e. the fundament of how humans experience material existence, as being such that…

…human beings are so constituted that they perpetually feel the vacuity of present satisfactions. In order to hide this emptiness and discontent they are perennially engaged in the search for some object to fill the vacuum of their existence. Each object that they pursue inevitably disappoints precisely insofar as it falls short of their expectations or fails to secure an imperturbable contentment.[6]

Lewis unwittingly describes here a staunchly ‘tragic’ mode of existence, in which humans are always dissatisfied, and, therefore, inevitably doomed to unhappiness. The problem with this particular narrative of how experience works, though, is that it assumes an opposition of mutual exclusiveness between material existence and an ‘ineffable’ human happiness – a ‘religious’ opposition. This opposition is deconstructable in that it presupposes the lack of a third option, the ‘comic’ mode of experience, in which “human beings” are indeed “so constituted that they feel the vacuity of present satisfactions,” but, having observed this, decide to embrace and enjoy exactly this “vacuity.” The ‘comic’ human being/character finds this ‘failure’ of existence to be both comforting and funny. In the ‘tragic’ world of Meaulnes and Seurel, though, this humour is unthinkable – in a world where nothing truly unexpected is possible, humour has no precedent or value. There can be no funny irony or incongruity. Once the boys become obsessed with finding the lost domain, they lose all their friends. A playground game in which boys gaily ride on each other’s backs like horses becomes a “ruthless” site of war-like “violence.”[7] Invited along for hi-jinkery with schoolmates in Meaulnes’ absence, nicking liquor and drinking it in a barn, Seurel’s “one idea is to get out of the hayloft, for this kind of escapade I thoroughly dislike.”[8] Knowing that existence is a disappointment, Seurel is unable to find joy or meaning in anything that isn’t the Meaulnes-ian tragic quest for ideality.

When vacuity is enjoyable however, as it so often is in postmodernist art, characters are able to make themselves happy using nothing but what’s in front of their eyes. This atheist characteristic motivates the use of makeup in Wise Children: Dora and Nora, both seventy-five, nonetheless “painted the faces we always used to have onto the faces we have now.”[9] Trying to doll themselves up, they eventually decide they look like “female impersonators.” The tragedy of irreversibly lost youth is jokingly signposted– “It’s every woman’s tragedy… that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” If the twins adhered to the “dialectic of desire,” this realisation would hurt. But Dora, deciding to change what their makeup’s failure is ‘meant’ to signify, instead says that “we’ve known some lovely female impersonators in our time.” This is a ‘vacuous’ satisfaction; despite all the makeup, the twins don’t look any younger, and they are aware of this. But they go to the party smiling anyway, going with – laughing at – what they’ve got. There is no sense of disappointment, despite how much the makeup’s result “falls short of their expectations” – because Dora and Nora have no expectations. With personally changeable ‘comic’ signification, becoming an ideal is unnecessary; the object of material perception can always be re-inscribed into something that can be lived with enjoyably.

                One’s generic relationship to Lewis’ “dialectic” has significant connotations for how relationships between human beings are understood. For a die-hard heretic like Meaulnes, love is necessarily separate from everyday material existence; if a perception of the loved person-as-object is necessarily ‘vacuous,’ then that person-as-object can never be worth truly loving. Consequently, the love between Meaulnes and Yvonne is doomed to tragic failure from the outset, because Meaulnes’ love can realistically only be pointed at something Other to material experience – an ideal, which Yvonne is not. Roland Barthes tells us that “…to bestir oneself for an impenetrable object is pure religion. To make the other into an insoluble riddle on which my life depends is to consecrate the other as a god.”[10] Meaulnes is only capable of wanting Yvonne when this consecration has occurred. The first time he sees her, he puts words in her mouth, giving her a personality of his own construction: she looks at him briefly, and this look “seemed to say: ‘Who are you? How do you happen to be here? I don’t know you… And yet I do seem to know you.”[11] Meaulnes has completely imagined an ‘ideal’ connection between them. Talking later, he learns her name. “‘The name I gave you was a more beautiful one,’” he tells her.[12] When they are reunited later in the novel, he is only able to work up the resolve to propose marriage to her when she has left and is out of his sight, and in his mind he can “consecrate her” again. On some level, though, Meaulnes does seem aware of how artificial his love for Yvonne is; after their first meeting, with with the party ending and Yvonne nowhere in sight, he bizarrely refuses to look for her, seeing “no purpose [that] could be served by delaying his departure… Once back at Saint-Agathe his impressions would sort themselves out.” Away from the ideal-corrupting otherness of the real Yvonne, “he would be free to dream of the young lady of the chateau.”[13] Dreams remain preferable to Meaulnes, who faces an untranscendable opposition between loving his ideal, in its falseness, or dying, as both are his only conceivable routes to Otherness. When his search for (his ideal) Yvonne in Paris appears to have failed, he writes to Seurel: “Perhaps… death will provide the meaning and the sequel and the ending of this unsuccessful adventure.”[14] Understanding love from within the confines of heretic discourse, the ‘comic’ option as escape route completely eludes him.

                Both Wise Children and Le grand Meaulnes do, though, explore how a comic-atheist can transcend this opposition, and the ways in which they do this are closely linked to their genres. Dora and Irish’s relationship dramatizes the necessary failure of heretic relationships; ever the poet, Irish thinks of Dora in romantically idealised terms: “the treacherous, lecherous chorus girl with… her scarlet heart, sexy, rapacious, deceitful.”[15] Dora rejects this hurtful reading of herself, for which Irish assigns her a “chronic insensitivity to the poet’s heart.” She simply refuses to be anybody’s ideal, seeing the desire to do such as immature:

When I was young… I wanted to live in just the glorious moment… Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does  come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time…[16]

She rightly dumps Irish, realising his vision of her to be a cruelly impossible ideal, wilfully naïve to the point of selfishness – “what he wanted for himself was an infinitely renewable virgin – one he could do every night who’d be untouched again by morning.”[17] Dora and her German teacher agree that Irish’s is “a metaphysical problem,” which is as close to a direct refutation of the “dialectic of desire” as either novel gets.

                Correspondingly In Le grand Meaulnes, there are rare moments in which Meaulnes is able to reject the “dialectic of desire.” After romantically rejecting Frantz’ ex-fiancé Valentine Blondeau  in favour of resuming his seemingly-fruitless search for the lost Yvonne, he becomes filled with remorse, momentarily forgetting Yvonne altogether:

But for Meaulnes at that moment only one love existed, a love that had been met only half-way and then cruelly repulsed… he had resolved to find Valentine at whatever cost before it was too late.[18]

Suppressing his remorse, he abandons this unexpected resolution in order to attend a party at Yvonne’s homestead Les Sablonnieres, the tantalising ‘lost domain.’ But for a moment, he has nonetheless come “half-way” close to loving a ‘real’ woman, loving the ‘material’ Valentine. Her attitude was beginning to rub off on him. Valentine, having abandoned Yvonne’s brother Frantz because of his heretic love for her – “He only saw me the way he imagined me, not as I really am” – tells Meaulnes, somewhat cryptically, that what she likes about him is in fact her own “memories.”[19] The extent to which this is an atheist understanding of loving, rich with ‘comic’ potentiality, is explored more fully in the final scene of Wise Children.

A central part of the hyper-comic extravaganza of Wise Children’s ending is when Dora and her uncle/surrogate-father Peregrine have sex with each other – the most atheist-comic instance of love in either novel. Whilst she and the vigorous centenarian Perry have at it, Perry, for Dora, ceases to be a “ribald ancient.”[20] She chooses, in this erotic moment, for him to become instead an apotheosis of all her best sexual memories, “the curtain call of my career as a lover.” Dora sees only the best of all her laundry list of lovers in Perry; even ‘Mr Piano Man,’ who she found repulsive, comes back for her through Perry, “having used a powerful mouthwash, thank goodness.”[21] For this loving act, Dora wilfully enhances her material experience by bouncing Perry and his sex along the chain of free signification, making something that might have been sad or disappointing – incestuous sex with a very old man – into a life-affirming event. Perry doesn’t have to be an ideal, Other-to-the-material figure for this to occur; Dora, as an atheist, can make him amazing, something like ideal even, all on her own. As Barthes wonders:

What would happen if I decided to define you as a force and not as a person? And if I were to situate myself as another force confronting yours? This would happen: my other would be defined solely by the suffering or pleasure he affords me.[22]

The moral of Wise Children, and of atheism in general, is that we are free to define others as a force, and enjoy them on the terms that suit us best. Like Dora, we are free to reject tragedy.

                But, sadly, things are not always this simple, and the decision to be comic is not enough to completely transcend the problems of love. Wise Children is defiantly a comic novel, but what it is that the novel defies does creep into the text. Dora tells us that “a broken heart is never a tragedy,” but contradicts herself right afterwards by saying that “untimely death” and “war” are the only things that count as tragedy – as if death and war were somehow not heart-breaking.[23] Dora reveals here where it is that the free play of the sign fails us, because untimely death is indeed always a tragedy. To be an atheist, to achieve some control over the play of signification, does not make you God; re-inscribing the meaning of the material can never be the same as actually changing it; and the most unchangeable material fact is, of course, dying. The end of the relationship that death represents cannot even be re-inscribed, because after the death of a loved one, only the relationship’s absence remains. In this sense it is impossible for death to be comic, and for this reason both deaths and the Second World War represent aporias within Wise Children. Dora pointedly refuses to include the war in her narrative, and the dead are only able to participate in the comic finale (in which every character in Dora’s extended family-of-love takes part) absently, as memories and ghosts – (Tiffany and Perry, one must remember, were only assumed to be dead). An atheist like Dora yearns to live, in that they yearn to enjoy their material existence without the need for what is Other to it. But what-is-beyond-death is always necessarily Other, unknowable. If we are to engage in existence, if we are to live love and love life, then we cannot indefinitely avoid a yearning for Otherness, in the form of grief.

                That this forced confrontation with tragedy has value is demonstrated in the epilogue of Le grand Meaulnes. Meaulnes, upon returning to Les Sablonnieres and learning of his wife’s death in childbirth, is given his baby girl by his friend Seurel. Meaulnes, upon finally seeing his daughter, is “embarrassed by his own tears and tenderness.” The child, showing precocious understanding of Meaulnes’ temperament, noticing how Meaulnes has “failed to meet her eyes,” – failed to appreciate her in her material presence – gives him “a sharp little smack on his bearded mouth.” This is just the wake-up call that he needs. “This time, he lifted her high in the air, bounced her up and down, and looked at her with an attempt at laughter.” The grief Meaulnes feels for the tragic death of Yvonne has provided the impetus for him to finally renounce his tragic hereticism in favour of comic atheism, and the novel ends with him “wrapping his daughter in a cloak, to carry her off with him…” into a world of comic potentiality, “on some new adventure.”[24] Death, as the unalterable material tragedy that breaks the heart by ending love, such that the free play of the sign is unable to place this interruption in a ‘comic’ light, thus provides the necessary impetus for comedy to exist at all. For if death is the end of love, then to seek an ideal, to seek what, like the after-death, is Other to material experience, is to deny altogether any real chance at love. As Alain-Fournier said, in a letter to a friend,

… I, for my part, go eagerly towards everything until its mirage fades away in my grasp, then I am offered the perfect satisfaction, the pure, the beautiful, the everlasting which I seek. I am offered God.[25]

And that’s nothing to joke about.


Alain-Fournier, Le grand Meaulnes, translated by Frank Davison (Oxford: Penguin Books, 1966)

Barthes, Roland, A Lover’s Discourse, translated by Richard Howard (London: Penguin Books, 1990)

Carter, Angela, Wise Children, (London: Vintage, 2006)

Gurney, Stephen, Alain-Fournier (Weymouth: Twayne Publishers, 1987)

[1] This essay follows the phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas in its use of this terminology. “Other” with a capital letter refers to everything that is beyond the individual’s subjective material experience. “other” with a lowercase letter refers to the unknowable subjective material experience of another human being.

[2] Alain-Fournier, Le grand Meaulnes, (Oxford: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 12

[3] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 120

[4] Le grand Meaulnes p. 129

[5] Angela Carter, Wise Children, (London: Vintage, 2006), p. 121

[6] Gurney, Stephen, Alain-Fournier, (Weymouth: Twayne Publishers, 1987) p. 48

[7] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 90

[8] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 119

[9] Wise Children, p. 192

[10] Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse, (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 135

[11] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 63

[12] Ibid. p. 64

[13] Le grand Meaulnes. p. 73

[14] Ibid. p. 122

[15] Wise Children, p. 119

[16] Ibid. p. 125

[17] Ibid. p. 153

[18] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 202

[19] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 193

[20] Wise Children, p. 220

[21] Ibid. p. 221

[22] A Lover’s Discourse, p. 135

[23] Wise Children, p. 153

[24] Le grand Meaulnes, p. 206

[25] Alain-Fournier, p. 21

Oct 6

to do list

make fb event for book soc next Thursday

collect painting from archipelago works

clean room

do laundry

read books for dissertation

transcribe steve roggenbuck love poems

arrange lunch with ruth


cry salty tears

eat my own shoelaces


Oct 3

a smoking area

hi I’m james
and I’m quite safe
yeah, history and politics
population is gay
I’m writing my dissertation all about my balls, actually
top banter til you have to do the stats
have you heard?
the bird is the word and the market solves
our tennis court’s working on inequalities of health, yah,
it’s still on the committee
try this mate, rising tides gets you
so high, it’s actually ridiculous
how’d it go - I guess that tongue gettin eaten?
rinsed that since sixth form
i have to go find my friends, bye

Oct 3


a shotgun full of hand jobs (blue eyes)
why are these colors so bright
these lines so numerous as to blur
my head hurts
I’m mitt romney - my mexican mormon granpa wants me dead for fucking him
with drugs - I hate myself
still smile at u in lectures though
facebook chat has a shark emote
it’s the only way i have to tell you
how much I shark you - which is so much
if I lost the race
maybe that would actually be just fine


facebook comment by sam rae

want to be a fish in the same school as joe vaughan


facebook comment by sam rae

want to be a fish in the same school as joe vaughan

from facebook chat :)

from facebook chat :)



do you


all of the


you were


in and out

of focus




with no ice

and i

can always  

find some

antarctic mood

and i

can drown

in your


and be happy

and alone

alt ▲ cops

i was a kid and you were all the police
tellin me what to do all the time
goddammit i’ll wee and poo in outer space
the whole beach
- but you need the police
a kid pushed me and i got concussed
i was sick in the car i wet myself
and animals get hit by cars
and die
i am a kid i love the police love their hats
how strong they stop bad
i am a teenager. i’m FUCKING bad
FUCK the police

can’t kill police will kill
i’m        important to die
       too                              now

i’m 18 and hating
sick of waiting
got my badge now
fuck the chief of police
fuck him behind his back
his fucking head

i don’t know if they fags or what
(i will be a fag cop)
they fucking with me
cos i’m a teenager
(i will be a teenager cop)
(i will be both
teenager faggot cop.)
Come at me bro
people like me
time passes the chief dies
i get promoted
we all get promoted
sociological problems of 
police force tribalism
and civilian alienation
disappear now i reckon
i arrest you
i kiss you
i keep your cell really beautiful
we could make love 
with the door open 
for the first ever time
you leave
and i’m crying
but it’s ok
i keep your cell really beautiful