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Part I
Chapter 1: Introduction
Forms of Closure
Eternalism and Presentism
Time and Alienation
Time and Interpretation
Time and Trauma
Literature and, Alas, Death
The Future Past
Chapter 2: Belatedness
Belatedness and Trauma
Reading and Rereading
Deconstructing Causality
Making Memories
Chapter 3: The Arrow of Time
Time and Meaning
Meaning and Entropy
Time and Retrospection
Time and Fragmentation
Chapter 4: The Rage for Order
The Poet as Maker
Aboutness and Afterwardness

Chapter 5: Clearing Places

Endings and Still Life
Endings and the Imitation of Life
Chapter 6: Forms of Teleology
Endings and Being

A Sense of Closure
Chapter 7: Getting Closure
Getting Closure
Getting Closure in the Digital Age
Tense, Aspect, and Fragmentation

Part II

Chapter 8: Forms of Apocalypse


Part I

Chapter 1

Forms of Closure

In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonneguts antiheroic protagonist,

Billy Pilgrim, is a traumatized survivor of the firebombing of Dresden.
The story follows his pilgrimage backwards and forwards in time to
confront his most horrific memory: emerging from the shelter of an
underground meat locker to bear witness to the devastation. At the
same time his story is about the impossibility to confront the event too
overwhelming to experience when it occurred. In the years following
Dresden Billy becomes a very successful ophthalmologist and a
seemingly normal man. The war does not impact him much, at least
from the perspective of what we imagine a normal life looks like. We
know, however, his normalcy is a faade foisted over the numbness of
shock that, ironically, makes him fit in perfectly with 1950s and 60s
contemporary middle class American culture. His complete lack of
personality allows him to blend right in.
Billys posttraumatic symptoms only begin after surviving an
airplane crash two decades after Dresden. We will return later to the
double-time structure of trauma: Billy manifests the symptoms of the
trauma of Dresden only after he survives a second life-threatening

event. What I want to reflect on first is how his traumatic breakdown

results in his belief that aliens from Tralfamadore have abducted him.
These aliens, who live in a sort-of Einsteinean four-dimensional world,
teach him how to come unstuck in time, unveiling to Billy the
mysteries of the universe.
The Tralfamdorians can look at all the different moments
just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky
Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent call
the moments are, and they can look at any moment that
interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on earth
that one moment follows another like the beads on a
string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
His lunatic vision that he evangelizes to the world imagines life
encompassing all of time, past, present, and future, as one
simultaneous moment frozen in amber. Unstuck in time, Billy can visit
any moment in the frozen network of causality in his life. He even
claims to have experienced his own death. It is merely one of any
number of events in the series of events in his life that he randomly
visits. The novel does not end with his death, but with a memory that
he claims makes him happy, which is, ironically, driving through the
devastation of Dresden in 1945. It does not turn out that it was, in fact,
a particularly happy memory: the horses pulling the carriage he rides
in undergo horrendous torture galloping on mutilated hooves. This
drastically calls into question his Tralfamadorian philosophy that one
should only focus on the good moments in life. Whereas Billy seems
consoled by his newly adopted philosophy to the point of quiescence,
everyone else believes, rightfully, that he has lost his mind.
The novel closes when the framed narrator, who appears to be
Vonnegut himself, returns to comment on the current events of life
coinciding with the time he composes the novel in 1968: the Viet Nam
War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

The first and last chapter bookends the novel with memoir. At the end,
the novels past and the authors life converge on the present, the
typical temporal crisis that occurs when a memoirist reaches the
present time of his or her writing. How do you end the narration of a
life that continues into an unknown future? Vonnegut ends the novel
like many novelists and memoirists, by reflecting on the nature of
history itself.
Although Billy Pilgrims narration ends in an irresolute position
(un)stuck between the future and the pastbetween Dresden and his
own deaththe novel achieves what we call closure because the
narrator returns to provide a reflective epilogue. It functions like
intrusive third-person narrative, a technique by which the novelist
enters into the narrative to provide commentary, which Vonnegut does
at random moments throughout the novel. We might say that
Vonneguts clarity in the last chapter encloses Billy Pilgrims lunacy.
Despite the postmodern playfulness with time, the ending of the novel
is fairly traditional. Many nineteenth-century novels end with an
epilogue in which the author pulls back from the narrative with an
omniscient perspective to scan over the novel as a whole.
Slaughterhouse Five, however, leaves a lot of questions
unresolved. Unlike traditional nineteenth-century realism, Vonnegut
confronts the horrors of the mid-twentieth century with ambiguous
open-endedness. The novel does not exhibit as much authorial control
as the epilogue-like final chapter suggests. The different narrative
voices imply a disparity between moral visions. Does the framed
narrator, a character named Kurt Vonnegut, who introduces the novel
and ends it, share Billy Pilgrims moral vision of an eternal and frozen
universe bereft of freewill? Does the actual author, Kurt Vonnegut, who
is the novels authority, share the moral vision of either the narrator or

Closure is constituted by complex perspective and action

configured in a sequence that we call plot. We call a conflict between
explicit and implied voices, ironic distance. The ironic distance
between the voices creates closure whereas the ending brings
narration to a final point beyond which linguistic marks disappear into
the blankness on the last page.
Tralfamadorian cosmology, however, argues that there is no such
thing as an ending. Irresolution is more true to our experience than
literal finality, since in life there is always more to come. Vonnegut
emphasizes irresolution and absurdity by ending with silly birdsong as
we enter into the white space after the final words of the novel, poo-
tee-weet? with questions that remain open to interpretation that can
only result in a return to the text, whether that means drawing from
our memory of the novel or going back into the text itself. In other
words, the novel might end, but we dont.
Like a Tralfamadorian universe, we can go back into various
moments of a novel. Interpretation of the end is, unlike its linguistic
termination, not irreversible. The ending that does not end
Slaughterhouse Five, and a closure that the enunciating narrator, who
returns to wrap up the novel, that remains irresolute enacts the
temporal experience of trauma. Life moves on, plodding forward in the
arrow of time, which Vonnegut makes clear when he offers a sort of
recap of current news in the final chapter. But 1945 and all of the
moments before and after also have their own way of moving on, the
return of the repressed, so to speak, that interrupts the possibility of
getting closure.

Eternalism and Presentism


Physicists call the Tralfamadorian perspective of time a block

universe. Huw Price describes the block universe as a view from
nowhen, a perspective of the universe separate from a particular
moment in time to constitute a single picture. On a literary level, then,
Billy Pilgrims vision of the universe is not lunatic. A novel is a complete
and fixed temporal world, a block. Linguistically frozenthe book you
read is not going to change suddenly mid-readingit is a pretty rigidly
determined form (which will raise interesting questions later about the
extent to which a literary work has consciousness and, therefore,
freewill). But it is impossible to see a story or a poem freed from
when, or from what we know in writing as tense.
The perspective of time freed from when, or tense, is known
as eternalism. It is the opposite of our conscious experience of time in
which only the present moment is real, or presentism. Whereas
presentism imagines time as beads on a string in which one
moment follows another, eternalism argues that the sequence of
beads on a string is an illusion.
We are all presentists. We reconstruct the past and the future
here in the present from the information and experience available to us
from one moment to another. Augustine is the most famous presentist.
In Confessions he argues against an ancient Greek tradition of physics
that understands time in terms of physical change. Refuting Aristotles
claim that time is the result of the physical movement of bodies,
Augustine argues that time is movement that we create in our minds.
For Augustine, then, we exist in a vanishing present. The moment we
apprehend any given now constantly recedes into the past, a realm
that becomes both fixed and, for Augustine, non-existent. Our only
temporal reality is the brief now when our minds work hard to
reconcile memory (the past) and anticipation (the future). The
presentist view reveals a temporal experience of life that is mentally

frenetic and temporally unstable, but it perpetuates existence forward

linearly nonetheless.
Augustines argument remains remarkably resilient. Countless
books on time by philosophers, literary critics, and even physicists
begin with Augustines famous musings about the difficulty of thinking
about time in Book 11 of Confessions. What then is time? If no one
asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not.
We cannot get out from under Augustine. This is because Augustine
asserts a truth we have not been able to refute: our experience of time
is relegated to perception.
Even Einstein (whose Theory of Relativity does not mean all
temporal experience is subjective, by the way), has to account for the
obfuscating function of the human perception of time. Further, you
exist in time, which is the crux of Martin Heideggers difficult
philosophical tome, Being and Time. You cannot step outside of time to
inspect it because you cannot step outside of yourself (and vice versa).
Even Stephen Hawking cannot step outside of Stephen Hawking to see
time unmediated by perception. As much as a physicist may want to
speak of an objective entity called time, it will always be, like any
phenomenon, observed from a particular place and viewpoint. In short,
all understanding of time is restricted to our ability to verbalize its
experience, to give it grammatical shape. Philosophers, such as Paul
Ricoeur (whose incredible three-volume Time and Narrative is a must-
read for anyone interested in the issue of the relationship between
literature and time), argue that narrative is a model of time. As we will
see, however, there are far too many ways in which the temporality of
life and of fiction conflict, making this a questionable thesis. I believe
that narrative is, in many respects, a grammar of time. Further, there
are many places in which life and fiction are permeable while there are
just as powerful ways in which literature is divorced from the actual
world. The relationship between fiction and life is a conflicted debate

that has prevailed for centuries, so it is unlikely that we will resolve the
issue here!
The Tralfamadorians see time as one big book in which
everything has occurred, is occurring, and will occur as one complete
and frozen universe. Like Billy Pilgrim who has come unstuck in time,
you can enter and exit the book at any place, but the content of the
book always remains the same. There is nothing that will change the
events on page 1,012 or page 3 just because you move between them.
The plot is fixed. Therefore, there is no free will in an eternalist
universe just as the Tralfamadorians claim that earthlings are the only
creatures in the universe who believe that they have the ability to
make their own destiny. The past, present, and future in an eternalist-
Tralfamadorian cosmology are not divided by tense, which conflicts
with the human experience of time. It is no surprise that Billy identifies
with determined and inhuman time since he has become, as Vonnegut
says, a lifeless plaything of history. Billys experience has convinced
him that neither he nor anyone else can exercise any free will to
change a world that can produce something as horrific as Dresden.
For obvious reasons, an eternalist or Tralfamadorian experience
of literature is not possible. An author or poet must temporally
configure a work by using tense and aspect, and a reader must read
through time. But I will suggest, eternalism is essential to literary
interpretation nonetheless. This is a difficult but central paradox for
literature and the biggest reason why literature is very distinct from
The analogy of eternalism to a book conflicts with experience.
We can only understand a book because we read it. We dont just exist
in it. It has been the dream of many students to learn by osmosis, but
books are entities that require one to engage in its temporal
movement from a beginning to an end. In fact, nothing in the world,
even inert matter, exists as a single moment of perception. Just as we

cannot experience an object, like a tree, as the pure phenomenon of

tree-nesswe are always reading a tree, bringing language in between
what we seewe cannot exist in a books book-ness as something
available in a single moment. Reading a book is a process that occurs
through time. Words follow one another in a forward movement to form
sentences. And sentences follow one another in a pattern that makes
sense. We make sense of what we read because one thing follows
another in a sequence.
The forward movement by which words make sense in a
sequence is inextricably bound to the arrow of time. The ability to
make sense out of text, to form meaning, requires movement that is
integrally part of times irreversible movement forward. Time also
moves in sequence. The unique configurations of objects in space in
any nanosecond never occur simultaneously. One moment cannot
occur simultaneously with the next. Two seconds in the sequence of
time never overlap. The world makes sense because time does not
allow for simultaneity. As John Archibald Wheeler says, Time is
natures way of keeping everything from happening at once. Even if
you speed-read, the words and sentences of a book remain sequential.
Words might blur by faster and faster like a film reel in fast-forward,
but you are still reading in a sequential linguistic order. Even if you skip
around in a book, or read sentences in reverse, the reading process
remains relegated to the forward motion of times arrow. Reading out
of order merely rearranges the text from the background of its linear
progression. Nothing has changed.

Temporal Alienation

For Billy Pilgrim, eternalism serves as a comforting escape from

the brute fact of times arrow. If everything occurs in a simultaneous
past, present, and future, free will does not exist. There is no need to

worry about the moral effects of human action. As Billy says ***The
block-universe of eternalism is far more determined than anything John
Calvin could have ever imagined! Causality forms one giant
simultaneous design.
For most physicists, eternalism is the actual design of the
universe. The past, present, and future are all equal. In other words,
physics does not assign any special value to tense. Literature,
however, assigns time asymmetrical value by dividing its passage into
tenses. This creates the biggest distinction between the physical and
the literary models of life. The fact that we divide time into tense, such
as was, is, will be, means that we bestow value on time, a viewpoint, or
aspect. By bestowing value that gives words a shape, we create
temporality, the organization of time into a plot. Plot moves because
tense forms out of cause and effect. Causality matters and makes
sense because actions and consequences are shaped by a viewpoint.
The world in narrative, in other words, takes on moral form. Time in of
itself has no value; temporality forms from a viewpoint that allows us
to imagine a purpose to life by providing times physical inertia with
The laws of nature in the physical universe are not accountable
to moral codes of ethics. There is nothing, in fact, about the operations
of the physical world that necessitates moral meaning. There is
nothing moral about gravity. Hurricane Katrina did not happen because
of moral causality (despite the fact that certain fundamentalist
ministers argue that it was Gods wrath over homosexuality). The
operations of the physical world will continue on in its forward
movement in spite of any moral law we project on it. In fact, the
universe is a pretty impersonal place. Space occupies a vast emptiness
that terrified Pascal and continues on whether we exist or not.
Since the beginning of written history the human is compelled to
make nature conform to human concerns despite the fact that nature

functions in spite of our presence. The alienation of the human from

nature is the most powerful factor that motivates us to make fictions.
As we will see, fiction grows more difficult and self-conscious as
technology increasingly divides our experience of time from the natural
world. The more that we own time, the more complex and
indeterminate temporality in fiction becomes. We have been bending
time to our will through fiction since the dawn of storytelling. For
instance, poets and authors anthropocentrically reconcile the
disturbing disinterestedness of the natural world with human concerns
by reversing cause and effect when they depict nature responding to
our feelings. We are not sad because it is raining; it is raining because
we are sad. The terrible storm does not coincide with King Lears
descent into madness; the storm breaks out because of King Lears
descent into madness. Hurricane Katrina does not form because of a
confluence of atmospheric pressure systems and moisture that foment
in the middle of the Atlantic; the hurricane destroys New Orleans (for
lunatic fundamentalists) because God is angry over homosexuals.
This reversal of cause and effect in literature in which nature
sympathizes with our feelings is known as pathetic fallacy. You can find
examples of pathetic fallacy in most stories, poems, and even more
commonly in movies. Weather is one of the most conventional ways in
which to establish mood in a film. It is always dark and stormy because
the characters are in conflict. It is always sunny and spring-like
because the characters are happy or have resolved conflict. Nature, in
other words, empathizes with humans. In reality, nature could give a
shit about us.
We treat time in the same dynamic as pathetic fallacy by
imposing on its passage our own concerns and values that it does not
inherently possess.
The act of reading is one of the most powerful ways in which we
resist the brute impersonality of the universe. The sequential nature of

language in which one word follows another to create cause and effect
makes morality possible for us by temporalizing events despite the fact
that there is nothing inherently moral or conscientious about time.
Therefore, the fact that text makes sense because it mimics the
forward and sequential movement of time has great ethical
implications concerning our being in time. Whereas time is terribly
impersonal, temporality is ethical. It is impossible, I argue, to examine
the relationship between time and plot in literature without recognizing
the ethical implications of reading. The value that we give to the
essentially inhuman nature of time is a consummately ethical concern.
Reading and our responses to what we read have consequences.
The relationship between time and narrative or lyric, however,
must also take into account certain laws of physics that do not conform
to our understanding of literature. Time is never going to speed up
because we are having fun or slow down because we are miserable;
and we are never going to become unstuck in time because we are
traumatized. But science does not account for the powerful nuances of
the imagination. Literature allows us to identify with lived experience in
which we perceive time slowing down or speeding up or coming
unstuck. It is the metaphors we live by to describe time as running
out, or time is money (the examples can go on for pages, as George
Lackoff shows) that literature address and which shape the ways we
experience and act in the world.
Whereas time is not inherently moral and physics can easily
ignore time-consciousness, the moral shape we provide action and
events is integral for literary interpretation. The examination of time as
a model for scientific theory unfettered by the wily musings of
consciousness contrasts the more literary perception of time as a
model of human consciousness in all of its slippery, egocentric
perspectives experienced in a perpetually vanishing present.
Consequently, neither a purely scientific nor a purely literary

understanding of time is satisfactory. Time remains as hard to grab

hold of as it was nearly two thousand years ago when Augustine
struggled to provide its mysteries with theology. Physics has not gotten
to the bottom of things, despite Einsteins indelible theories. No matter
how much science can anatomize time, there is always something that
remains mysterious about the human experience of it that can only be
addressed by the imagination.
Even to form a coherent theory of time, science requires
language, and language is temporally embedded. In order write about
time one will remain constrained by the convention of using tenses to
coordinate temporal place and aspect to shape viewpoint within text
itself. Unless we evolve into beings that can communicate with some
kind of immediacy that does not require language to mediate between
perception and reference, language will always intervene in its
meaning-making function relegated to a forward moving, sequential
linguistic order shaped by temporal structure. We cannot experience
and express the instantaneous phenomenon of things, which means
that delay, a gap that measures out thought and action, or perception
and articulation, is encoded in the fabric of existence. We will be
examining this in depth in terms of belatedness.
The Tralfamadorian vision of the universe as one simultaneous
moment that abolishes was, is, and will be, might be a physical model
of the universe in which past, present, and future have equal value, but
such symmetry is alienating from human experience. Our subjective
experience of time as temporal beings is asymmetrical, divided up into
units of unequal value. It is impossible to create texts that define a
world without using the sequence of words organized by tense and
shaped by a perception of that world. Science can systemize theories
concerning time, but literature revels in its irreducible mystery.
Despite the temporality of literature, there is a great deal of
credibility to the Tralfamadorian notion of temporal determination. The

most unique aspect of literature that will be essential to understanding

closure and endings is how any work embodies a past-future tense in
the temporal paradox that makes literary experience possible in its
relationship to time. Narrative or lyric makes sense because it
constitutes a complete and unique temporal whole that cannot be
replicated in life but which depends upon lifes forward motion
nonetheless. The interpretation of texts entails an oscillation between
enternalist and presentist views of time that conflict and even
contradict each other. They are two irreconcilable modes of
understanding a text that form provisional and intuitive resolutions to
the temporal paradox of the past-future tense involved in reading.
The backward and forward movement in time in Slaughterhouse
Five reflects Billy Pilgrims traumatized mind. He copes with the return
of the repressed by framing memories in terms of time travel. The
novel charts a shattered selfs attempt to master a trauma that cannot
be articulated. Vonnegut blends his voice with the narrator, who
introduces and closes the novel, and Billys story as it is narrated
through a particular narrative voice. He also interweaves a complicated
movement of time, providing a viewpoint to the narrative that unifies it
into a whole. The novel might present a fragmented, disjointed,
temporally distorted narrative, schizophrenic, as the subtitle
characterizes it, but the framed narrator and the evident hand of
authorial control crafting the juxtaposition and movement of scenes
creates a powerful sense of closure. The novel does not feel irresolute.
It projects completion.
And yet there is an equally powerful sense that narrative cannot
provide the trauma of Dresden, the horror of atrocity Billy and
Vonnegut witness, with any kind of closure at all. Billy approaches the
atrocity gingerly, painfully, indirectly. Each time jump juxtaposes
scenes of Billys experience in the war that move linearly to the climax
in Dresden. (Notice that, early on in the novel in Chapter 2, Vonnegut

does offer a very linear plot summary for Billys story, which illustrates
the famous distinction Vladimir Propp made between story and
narration that will be important later in this book.) The traumatic
experience cannot be known in its happening; delay widens as a result
of trauma, and Billy must wind through time toward it. The trauma,
therefore, threatens to disrupt the novels unification. The work as a
whole not only leaves us questioning the morally weighted viewpoint of
Billy and Vonnegut, but also forces us to negotiate complex narrative
deferrals that Vonnegut turns into the trope of time travel.
Slaughterhouse Five is a novel that makes the relationship
between trauma and time evident. I will be arguing that all literature
responds to trauma of sorts. Trauma or conflict outrages principles and
virtues that we live by. But if what we value were not conflicted, there
would be little content for a work. Trauma is akin to conflict. Both
disrupt how we come to understand the very principles and virtues we
live by.
There is, then, a tense relationship between conflict and
structure. We must examine the structure of time in literature that
creates wholes out of conflict and unspeakable horrors of life that
always remain fragmented. Conversely, we must also examine the
conflict in life that informs structures of time in literature.

Time and Interpretation

The analysis of time in literature is usually approached in terms

of poetics, which means interpreting how a text means, as opposed to
hermeneutics, which entails what a text means. Although the
applications of these terms can be slippery, hermeneutics is concerned
with forming methods of interpretation to use in the analysis of text
while poetics assumes that a text appears to mean something and
examines the devices, conventions, and structures authors use to

create the appearance of literary coherence. Since temporality is the

structure we impose on the experience of time, its analysis is usually
confined to poetics.
The Russian Formalist critic, Roman Jakobson, calls the process
by which authors make writing appear meaningful, literariness. The
term seems useful enough to me. We recognize a work as fiction
because an author uses devices that distinguish a work from non-
fiction. Literariness and appearance are ineluctably bound: an author
or poet bestows language with the appearance of literariness through
Closure and endings are tropes. They are devices or conventions
integral to a works appearance. The devices authors use to play with
time, which Gerard Genette calls anachrony, are also tropes that
impose a structure over time. Flashback, foreshadowing, parallel time,
in medias res, etc., create the unique appearance of a slice of time as
moments selected from an infinite array to compose a fictional
But the emphasis on poetics also creates a conflict for
interpretation. Time is clearly wrapped up in our perception, which
means that temporality in literature engages some kind of conflict or
disruption in the linear experience of time. The plot of a narrative, for
instance, requires conflict or disruption in order to move from a
beginning to an end. There is no such thing as a copasetic story. How
and when a storyteller begins a story are in of themselves disruptive
acts, bound up in the ways in which he makes choices that will shape
its temporal appearance.
To interpret the ways in which time is the central phenomenon by
which we read and understand literature means that we are always
seeing structure as the result of meaning. In other words, time is not
inert in literature but represented by a viewpoint that bestows it with
theme (a word I do not particularly like, but it will have to do for now).

Therefore, any poetics of time will always require a hermeneutics of its

representation. What a text means is wrapped up with how a text
means, and vice versa.
But a third form of interpretation, extrinsic criticism, has become
much more popular in the past few decades. Extrinsic criticism focuses
on extra-literary issues, such as politics, history, culture, modes of
production, and myriad concerns that surround a text. These
approaches are less concerned with examining a text as a formal
whole, an aesthetic object isolated from the world and available for
disinterested inspection (although this does not mean that political or
cultural critics exclude such formal and aesthetic concerns from their
work). In fact, extrinsic criticism is more apt to see a text not as an
autonomous whole, but as embedded in a network or intertexuality of
other works. The word text, of course, comes from textiles, which
means weaving.
Extrinsic criticism is a reaction against the formal hermeneutics
and poetics that dominated literary studies well into the 1980s and
emphasized close reading. In the far more political period of the
1960s and 70s that enters academia, particularly the growing
multicultural demographics of a university, scholars and students
begin to believe that it is irresponsible, untenable (and, dare I say,
unethical) to treat a work of literature as though it stands above or
outside of the concerns of the culture in which it was produced,
including the politics involved in syllabus development for a classroom.
Extrinsic criticism accounts for a great deal of the so-called culture
wars of the 1990s that produces numerous headlines and paranoia
concerning the death of Shakespeare and the birth of cultural studies
and whatnot.
Extrinsic forms of criticism remain strong today because
globalization has forced English to address post-colonial and non-
canonical texts while examining multicultural experience that formal

studies, such as close reading, often elide. An important question in

this book concerning time and trauma will be, why, despite the
exponentially increasing interest in the sociopolitical consequences of
literature, ethics and morality remain almost taboo subjects. Ethical
issues are so clearly bound to the political ramifications of literature,
and yet ethics somehow carries the same stink in literary studies as
structuralism. (In part I think the distrust of ethics has to do with its
misleading association to moral criticism.)
Our current time-consciousness, particularly as it develops into a
traumatic and post-apocalyptic era, constitutes extrinsic concerns in
this book. Even though I will be more concerned with how literature is
temporally structured by post-apocalyptic and post-traumatic
concerns, the formal conventions of a text are ultimately effected, if
not created, by the extrinsic, cultural consciousness of its historical
The structuralist movement, which examines the deep codes
and conventions that structure all of language and literature, is too
totalizing for the more nuanced interpretation of text today. But
structuralism has also been too devalued. I have expressed my
discomfort with the word theme, which is the rough equivalent of the
structuralist emphasis on myth or archetype. There are conventions of
seeing and understanding the world that repeat and displace
throughout literary history. For instance, a vast amount of fiction and
poetry (despite Darwin) repeats in various forms the myth of a singular
catastrophe, a tragic fall, that divorces human from God, human from
nature, human from self. One can detect shadows of Adam and Eve,
the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the fall in myriad literature up until
today. Always beware of the mysterious stranger who enters into a
seemingly stable world depicted in the beginning of a story, I
frequently tell my students. Or watch for the archetypal imagery in any

story that involves a character willing to transgress an established

code of some sort in order to attain what he desires.
The emphasis on theme in high school and foundational college
education in literature results from its inherent universality. We can all
identify with any of the themes of literature because they resonate
with human concerns that have been and continue to be fairly
immutable. Themes are aspects of the world that, through a sort of
general consensus, a culture considers to be, in a phrase of Paul
Tillichs, ultimate concerns. There is, in the end, a limited battery of
universal themes: the search for self-knowledge, the corruption of
power, the deceptiveness of appearance, etcetera. It is one of the
resilient aspects of literature: the fundamental concerns of humanity
remain fairly stable. One can find the same themes in ancient
literature as one can find in the contemporary novel. It is unlikely, for
instance, that our culture is going to value mans inhumanity to man in
the near future, or believe that glorifying war is a good thing, or that
the course of true love always runs smooth, or that certain conflicts
have clear moral implications. Such resilience, as we will see later in
the book, accounts for the fact that, although 9/11 is supposedly the
event that changed everything, the structures fictions use to respond
to it remain fairly traditional. The terrorist attacks did not create new
literary forms.
The reason I cringe at the word theme is that it is too easy for a
student to choose one and prove in an essay the ways that the text
conforms to it. Most of the themes of literature are already so
established that they are automatically assumed and expected when
we read a work. The more labor of interpretation entails interpreting
how an author conflicts theme, the much more variable aspect of
literature (although the how of a text is also remarkably resilient
throughout history). By examining the ways in which an author
structures a workthe unique ways in which an authors vision

incorporates the conventions and devices of literary appearancethe

reader might discover that a work more than often challenges
comfortable assumptions of a theme. A forgotten area of literary
studies is the readers expectations.
I want to take the issue of theme and the how of theme a step
further. It is more interesting, I believe, to examine conflict itself as
structuring events that create the sense of theme much in the same
way that the poets use of figurative language creates the sense of
It is impossible to ignore the lineament of closure and endings in
a work and the conventions that create an organic sense of temporality
to negotiate conflict and trauma. The structure of any narrative, for
instance, with a beginning, middle, and end is totalizing no matter how
experimental or irresolute an author makes a work, particularly in its
function to bring unification and coherence to the haphazardness of
writing in its representation of the deep antinomies of life. In fact, as I
will argue, there is nothing more fictional and artificial than an ending
and the closure that it gives to a literary work, and this poses problems
for interpretation.

Time and Trauma

It is a commonly held notion that the growth of trauma theory in

the early 1990s was an attempt to provide ethics to structuralism and
deconstruction in the development of Holocaust Studies at Yale. Close
readings tend to diminish actual human concerns in the world that a
poem or story expresses. At the same time, trauma theory
incorporates formal and structural interpretation that the sociopolitical
and ethical implications of trauma challenge. The study of trauma in
literature brings the formal study of literature together with the
sociopolitical examination of text quite nicely.

((In this book, however, I want to avoid a potentially serious

problem with current trauma theory: the tendency to use traumatic
experience as the theme of literature, a method that is fairly
uninformative and that often precludes meaningful discussion. Instead,
I want to assume that most literature deals to some extent with trauma
since a work requires conflict.
Since trauma is experience that is too overwhelming to
comprehend when it occurs, the symptoms of trauma result from the
delayed response to the original event. Trauma can only be understood
in light of this temporal delay, which, as I will continue to argue, is
inherent in the structure of all literature. The general argument of
trauma theory, therefore, is that trauma can only articulate an
account, a history, of the traumatic event in a literary language, but
that account will never adequately capture the trauma itself.
In the seminal book, Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth,
arguably the founder of trauma theory, emphasizes the structure of
belatedness in traumas representation. Traumatic events, she says,
are not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only
belatedly (4). Therefore, most trauma theory recognizes the double
time structure of trauma. A secondary event instigates the symptoms
of trauma as an event that could not be experienced or articulated at
the time of its happening. Billy Pilgrim can only experience the trauma
of Dresden by circuitously revisiting the war and his life afterwards. His
pilgrimage culminates in his twentieth wedding anniversary when the
contorted expressions of the barbershop quartet remind him of the
horrified expressions of the German guards seeing the destruction for
the first time. As most clever readers point out, it is the one memory,
and the climax of the novel, that Billy does not time travel to but
results from an actual flashback.
Delay is encoded in traumatic or overwhelming events in
literature in the form of fragmentation, temporal distortion (the literary

notion of flashback takes on new contexts in an age of PTSD), and

epistemological indeterminacy. The prevalent sense of belatedness
confounds the most common forms of narrative, the Gods-eye-view or
the linear narrative in which the relationship between word and world
is stable and transparent, and the author asserts a knowing authority
over his or her material. It is no surprise that a growing self-
consciousness of neurosis leading up to and following World War I
(eventually becoming systematized as post traumatic stress syndrome)
coincides with the radical literary departures from traditional
representation in the early twentieth century.
Consequently, the concerns of trauma theory widen from
individual and isolated experience to encompass history itself. As an
interpretative structure placed over the sequence and passage of
events, history has a tendency to elide the true contingency and
incomprehensibility of the past. (Caruth) Paradoxes abound. For trauma
theory, history is that which cannot be represented. The past cannot
be articulated. What is important, therefore, is to examine what history
fails to signify, what coherence and closure obfuscates, and how the
creation of the appearance of meaning and literariness distorts
traumatic experience (which is already a distorted experience). It is,
undoubtedly, thorny terrain.
I do not disagree with this deconstruction of meaning in verbal
representation concerning trauma (although I have many
disagreements with deconstruction). Where I have problems, however,
is in the assumptions of literary closure. As I will continually
emphasize, closure does not mean bringing conflict to a close. Trauma
theory has a tendency to cast experience into an orphaned state,
raising trauma to the paradigm of errant and indeterminate meaning.
In short, it is too easy to fall back on the incomprehensibility of trauma
itself as a theme. It is a sort of interpretive cheat, or shortcut, I believe,
to argue that a work explores how experience is too overwhelming to

put into words. The unspeakable and unknowable status of trauma is

known as the traumatic sublime. Such an approach is not unlike the
clichs, it is too sad for words, or words fail to describe the beauty
of (fill in the blank). Hence, the unsayable and the unknowable
becomes in of itself, theme, which, paradoxically, is a form of closure
that closes interpretation. (There is a whole realm of inquiry that is
fascinating known as the apophatic, which essentially means knowing
what things are by knowing what things are not.)
The result of the traumatic sublime is that trauma becomes
elevated to a nearly supernatural category of experience. I have no
plans to diminish the sublime nature of literature, by the way. And
certainly I do not plan to diminish a relationship between literature and
the sacred, the central subject of Part II. (There is a salient relationship
between traumatic experience and the sublime that turns experience
into something hallowed.) I want to avoid, however, the tendency of
the sublime to turn a literary work and the trauma it addresses into
something cut off from interpretation and sequestered into a space
akin to the sacred in its root definition, set apart. Such setting-apart
has very crucial consequences not just on how we interpret text, but
also on how we see and act in the world.
The genocide in Europe from the late 1930s to 1945, for
instance, has been elevated to the term Holocaust, which makes it, as
many scholars point out, sort of inaccessibly sacred, something that
cannot or should not be discussed. The Holocaust becomes taboo. This
is the reason why many prefer the term, Shoah. The same
phenomenon occurs with 9/11. Very quickly the site of the terrorist
attacks became sacred or hallowed ground while our acts of
memorializing the event elevates and sets it apart. There is every
reason for 9/11 to become the traumatic sublime; but there are also
reasons to be critically wary of turning 9/11 into a space that should
not be transgressed with thought and language.

Caruths theory poses a dilemma: traumatic experience defies

representation, so attempts to articulate it results in an affront to
understanding that threatens to close off the possibility of meaning.
Dominick LaCapra argues, Caruth . . . seems dangerously close to
conflating absence (of absolute foundation and total meaning or
knowledge) with loss and even sacralizing or making sublime, the
compulsive acting-out of a traumatic past (History 121). Susana
Onega and Jean-Michael Guteau describe the sublime of trauma as the
failure of faculties concerning traumatic experience, claiming,
trauma would, thus, be compatible with a conjectural mode that
would throw us subjects, in our capacity as readers and critics, into a
complex ethical state of a disquieted negative capability (19). I am
actually comfortable with Keats notion of negative capability in the
context of trauma, as I will make clearer later in the book. However, it
does seem to me a dead end for trauma theory if it succumbs to the
same emphasis on absolute categories of the ineffable as theology.
A way in which to avoid the traumatic sublime while preserving
the poetic sublimity of a work, nonetheless, is to examine the effects of
providing conflict with closure. There is a link between the stories we
tell and our ethical sense that trauma complicates. When we tell
stories, we are driven to make them unified and to give its content a
theme or a message. Despite the clich, there is a moral to every
story, even on the simple level of a tasteless joke, because there is a
reason why they are articulated. Storytellers and poets have a
message, a purpose, a vision, having to do with what it means to be
human. Themes, the moral to the story, are ultimately ethical at the
same time as they are acts that provide conflict with closure, which is
the biggest reason why scholarship tends to treat ethics like something
venomous. Such closure that provides literature with a purpose or
theme often elides actual human suffering. As we will see, the tropes

of closure falsify experience. (Fiction, for all intents and purpose, is

Closure is the tradeoff of literature. The unification of a story or
poem, which I have been calling forms of closure, is necessary
aesthetically (stories need to be articulate and interesting) and
ethically (stories have a point, a purpose, even if the point is
pointlessness itself). But unification is something externally imposed
on material that does not have inherent coherence. One could call this
the principle of conservation in fiction. Every attempt at symmetry
between fiction and actuality corresponds to a conserved quantity of
conflict. In other words, there will always be an asymmetrical
relationship between narrative or lyric coherence and actual human
As part of this principle of conservation, an author must contend
with the fact that trauma, the conflict from which a message is
demanded, is almost impossible to address. The unification a text
forms is a necessary artifice. It is a convention or an appearance that
creates a works sense of meaning and literariness. Closure, therefore,
is a trope. The difficulty a critic must confront is the disparity between
the actuality of trauma or conflict and the aesthetic completeness of a
literary work. What, for instance, might the necessity of an ending, the
choices entailed in order to shape the unruly material into a story,
elide concerning the actual antinomies of human experience?
The structure of traumatic experience is inherent in the structure
of literature since both are bound to the temporal paradox of past
future tense. But trauma is also something that has real implications
on lived experience. So a great deal of this book will examine the
intrinsic concerns of text: how the temporal structures of text reveal
traumatic belatedness (how literature constructs these structures) and
the sense of meaning we can draw from analyzing these structures.

But these intrinsic concerns will also bear on what it means to be

human in the early 21st century. These concerns have consequences.
Trauma theory is not a new paradigm for literary criticism. It is a
new arrangement of ideas that offers different ways of paying attention
to the forms of text. This gets forgotten in the fervor of its critical
movement over the past two decades. The complexities of belatedness
are very close to us and are part of our daily experience, and can be
incorporated into the wider humanities. More importantly, the same
temporal structure of trauma inhabits a whole range of non-traumatic
discourses that share similar characteristics to those studied in trauma
theory. There are many experiences that cannot be registered in their
moment, causing a delay that yields fragmentation, juxtaposition,
superimposition, and temporal anachronies in their representation. For
instance, the experience of joy or a spiritual awakening shares in the
similar delayed response to overwhelming experience. In fact, with the
emphasis on conflict in narrative or the critical status of language in
poetry, the structure of trauma exists in all of literature. Therefore, my
book looks not simply at trauma, but at the structure of experience in
which trauma is made manifest.

Literature and, Alas, Death

Providing a coherent link between past and the present with plot
in order to get closure confronts an even larger issue than mastering
immediate experience. Plotting prepares for the ultimate close, death,
which is the fate of life that bears down so exigently on ancient and
renaissance tragedy, and that continues into the novel. All quests for
self-knowledge ultimately resolve in death. The truth frees at the same
time as it kills. Ahabs quest for the White Whale is a quest for the
truth, which ultimately becomes the quest for death. The literary term
plot is, ironically, the same noun to denote the portion of ground where

we bury the dead. The homonym reveals a truth. All plots are end-
directed, designed to draw the reader to a portion of the end. T.S. Eliot
claims that all poems are epitaphs. The plot of life inexorably reaches
the same end.
It is often the agony of tragedy, as in King Lear, that when the
depths of self-knowledge are reached, as in the recognition scene at
the climax of the play, death is right around the corner: death is the
price of freedom. It produces the feeling of tragic futility, of waste, or
what we will see as the ineluctable nature of time, entropy. We reach
astounding truths and confront the necessities of life only for those
necessities to kill us!
Catharsis is partly accountable for our relief that we still have a
chance. Unlike Richard III, we have a horse. But it is also wrapped up in
the vision of life in the full. Since we have no way in which to
experience our own death, tragedy allows us to cope with it by
projecting a meaningful sense of lifes beginning and end from the
middle. Despite the tragic waste of self-knowledge that arrives too late,
we are allowed to exit the play, to come out of it after the end. We are,
in other words, survivors.
There is a powerful relationship between trauma and tragedy,
particularly in a Christian context of narratives of salvation and
redemption that become secularized in the psychoanalytic process of
working-through trauma in order to get closure. Serial catastrophe
that reaches a crescendo in 9/11 intensifies our interest in trauma
theory. Ultimately, our preoccupation with trauma becomes endemic in
our deepening sense of belatedness, or what I will refer to as
afterwardness, a powerful feeling akin to a contemporary post-
apocalyptic imagination. Visions of life and what remains after the end
have become dominant in both literature and visual media.
A literary tradition that begins with an apocalyptic imagination
has, to a certain extent, come full circle to a predominant concern with

the literal, actual end. But instead of being a religious concern, the
post-apocalyptic has become post-traumatic. To risk sounding like a
myth critic, which I am not, I argue that literature in the West begins in
trauma and displaces trauma throughout time in many different forms
from apocalypse, to tragedy (and comedy), to post-apocalypse.
This traumatic and post-apocalyptic mindset, which is really one
and the same, has complex effects in literature and the ways we
interpret text. All interpretation is bound to the formal temporal
structure of the past future tense of fiction and lyric. The crisis of
ending that fiction or poetry addresses, and the intensifying difficulty
of literary endings in general that reaches a peak with the modern and
postmodern novel, becomes ultimately an ethical concern in
contemporary literature that literary criticism can address much more
richly and humanly than science or religion (if only literary studies
were not so sacred off by ethics).
We are more exigently aware of living in a time characterized by
afterwardness than any other era, but we are losing a sense of what it
is we come after. In a time when everything seems to be at or after an
end, we need urgently to ask what we should value. What remains?
What do we have time for? These questions become increasingly
difficult when the vanishing present that is our consciousness of time
makes the tradition or the whole of our experience vanish too.

The Future Past

All readers experience the suspense involved in the forward

movement of a plot, the anticipation of a journey toward the end that
will provide surprise and satisfaction. Dont tell me the end! is one of
the most common exclamations when someone embarks on reading a
book for the first time. It reflects the implicit knowledge we all share
that a book has an unchangeable and unique future that depends upon

the readers own actualization of the experience. This might be the

most personal aspect of reading. Despite a community reading the
same book, each person wants to experience the future it offers on his
or her own terms. It is not just the novels ending, but my ending that I
do not want you to ruin. As the community of reading grows more
hyperlinked through the Internet, the new warning has arisen: the
Spoiler Alert.
Kierkegaard famously claimed that life must be understood
backwards but lived forwards. His insight suggests the complex
relationship between the past and the future in life and fiction. The
crucial difference between life and fiction is that a work must be
understood from a retrospective stance gained from within its forward
movement. You cannot step outside of life. One can stand outside and
after a work in order to understand it as a whole. We always have to
look to the past in order to move forward in life, but we cannot dwell
after its end. A text, however, can be examined from beyond the end.
We can stand outside of a narratives temporality in ways that we
cannot stand outside of the temporal experience of life.
Fiction might flaunt this freedom with time, but its freedom is
also restrained by convention, particularly the temporal structure that
necessitates an ending. In a paradox made explicit by the balance
between order and contingency in a literary work that an ending must
negotiate, the temporal freedom of fiction depends upon the
limitations of closure.
An ending provides a work of literature with its unique
retrospection: a work possesses a fully formed future. Whereas in life
the future is unknown, something for which we await in every moment,
in the world of fiction, the future has already taken place. In life we
cannot inhabit the future and turn it into a memory, whereas in fiction
we can dwell after the works future and experience it retrospectively.

There is evidently a tradeoff of temporal freedom between life

and fiction, which I called a works principle of conservation. In life the
future is malleable (at least, in our perception of it, the future is open),
but we do not have the freedom to skip ahead to the future, so to
speak, in order to evaluate the present. We are stuck with reconciling
the present with the past and with an envisaged future. However, to
the extent that fiction realizes a futurethe ending of a novel is fixed
and unique to that novelthe future in fiction is not open, even though
we have the freedom to know that future in order to evaluate the
content of a work as a whole. The text really is a determined little
universe. Fiction is both free to invent a fully realized future and
restrained by its structures totalizing effects.
A narrative or a lyric is a fully formed future that waits for the
reader and that he or she draws into and actualizes in the present.
Temporally actualizing experience, or making experience or memories
present to oneself, is a process in phenomenology called
presentification. We make the past or the future of a literary work (the
beginning, middle, and end) present to ourselves in our act of reading
and interpreting. In any act of reading or interpreting a text, we are
energetically making its material present to us in the moment. A
completely formed future that lies in wait and that the reader
presentifies is completely unique to literature and impossible to
replicate in the actual world. In life we can anticipate and project our
desires into the future, but all of our acts of presentification are
relegated to the ways in which we reconcile the present and the past.
When you open a book and begin to read, you hold a complete
and realized future in your hands. Even the first word of a novel
establishes a future that has already been configured by the author in
the past. The first word summons the end since, in temporal terms, a
word in a sentence is bound to the sentence as a whole. The reading
process delays the complete experience of a sentence as each

sentence moves toward the delayed end of the narrative. There is a

constant oscillation between incompletion- completion, fragment-
whole, while reading that is temporally bound. The mind must
negotiate a remarkable amount of memory and anticipation while
reading: each word drifts into the past as the mind must expect and
comprehend the next word.
Reading always happens, therefore, in the past future tense. A
simple example is a sentence like, I knew you would come to the
A slightly different way of understanding the realized future of a
narrative is the rhetorical term prolepsis: stating something about the
future in the present as if it has already happened. It is a statement
that affirms or projects a future event already occurring.
This experience of the future in the present has not been
examined enough on a phenomenological level, even though it is part
of the ubiquitous excitement everyone shares about reading a book. A
book already has a fully realized future waiting for us. This experience
of reading in the forward movement of suspense is possible because
we know that the narrative is going to move somewhere, and if we
stick with it, we will reach its end. We know that the novel has a future
waiting for us to reveal its secrets. The novels future in of itself is not
going to change as a result of reading it. The act of reading does not
change the words that wait for us sentence to sentence. Therefore, we
experience a strange temporal distortion that is only possible in fiction.
In the activity of reading, we move toward a future that has already
happened. Not only that, we move toward a future that is made
possible by a writer who creates it before we read. A book is a future
prepared for us in the past. No matter how the author plays with
chronologybeginning at the end, beginning in media res, jumping
around in timethe works future remains realized. The process of
reading, which is an activity that not only takes time but also takes

place in time, actualizes the future and transforms it into our present
experience of reading, or presentification, making something from the
past or the future present for our inspection.

Reading and Rereading

Rereading a work is not a simple repetition. Although one reads

the exact same text, any reader experiences how the work seems very
different when you read it a second time. The words are exactly the
same as you left them, but your perception of them have changed as a
result of the retrospection rereading affords. The experience of
rereading allows you to examine aspects of the content that had been
occluded by anticipation and suspense.
The first time you read a novel your mind is expending a lot of
energy digesting plot, the consecution of events. You wont have a firm
grasp of the novels vision until you reach the end. A work is always a
thriller the first time you read it: everything about a first reading is
involved in the anticipation of an unknown but fully formed future lying
in wait (unless, of course, you skip ahead and read the ending first).
But memory is an impediment. You have to reconcile a beginning and
middle, which you may have read hours or days ago, with the ending.
The past of your reading has receded, making the present of the
ending you have reached dominate over the rest of the novel.
The process of reading, therefore, resembles the double-time
structure of trauma. The suspense of reading a text for the first time
suspends the cognitive ability to know it. You cannot really understand
a text until you get through reading it. A first reading resembles how
shock challenges sequential causality that the movement of plot
creates. (Many stories play up the element of shock, placing a totally
unexpected event somewhere in the plot that drops one into a state of

unknowingness. The shocking beginning is an evidently great way to

hook a reader at the same time as it is disorienting. Detective fiction
usually begins with the murder.) We are always in the middle of things
when we read for the first time.
A rereading, however, resembles abreaction. You can return to
the text to re-experience it in order to attempt to master it with a
distanced knowingness. When you read a book a second time, you are,
in a sense, reading about the book, knowing it as a whole entity that
can now be entered from the outside. In fact, when you reread a book
you revisit the initial experience of reading toward the future as an
event that we could not, at the time of reading, fully know, but that is
now part of the past. A rereading, therefore, is more retrospective than
an initial reading while it is also revisionary. It triggers, to a certain
extent, the initial experience with a text that could not be grasped the
first time around.
((There are apparent theistic aspects to reading and rereading. I
will examine a more religious analogy to reading in Part II. For now, in
terms of time and futurity, there is an element to the first reading of a
book that resembles finitude while rereading is more akin to the
eternal. The novel we reread is more fully present than the
fragmentary experience of reading in fits and starts the first time.))
Although a fully formed future in fiction reflects the inventive
freedom of the mind, presentification poses problems for
interpretation. If narrative is, as philosophers claim, a model of time, it
certainly conflicts with lived experience. In life the future is not already
there, waiting to reveal itself to us. The future is not like the pages of a
book or the frames of a film, fully formed into a configuration of things
already established and calibrated in time. Only by our own efforts and
as the result of events that are beyond our control does the future take

shape. There is no readymade future. The future in life as opposed to

fiction is not a prefabrication that reading or interpretation discloses.
Tragedy is so powerful in ancient Greece because their emphasis on
fate makes the predestined nature of narrative endemic to the
representation of determinism. Oedipus the King will always end the
way that Sophocles wrote it. MORE ON DETERMINISM
The future in the past tense is, perhaps, the most powerful way
in which fiction conflicts with life and poses serious problems to the
notion that narrative provides a model of time. The form of the future
that fiction provides, in fact, might make literature ultimately divorced
from life. It is the single most powerful way in which to argue that a
poem or a novel is, indeed, a heterocosm, a completely separate and
alternate world, an alter mundus.

* * *

This book will move through a series of interpretations and

meditations on the nature of closure and endings in literature, each
chapter building toward a more dense analysis of apocalypse.
Chapters 2 and 3 will focus on the formal literary conventions of
closure and endings. Put simply, closure is the ways in which a literary
work achieves a sense of completeness that allows us to think of and
examine a text as a whole. I have loosely called the text as a complete
whole an eternalist view of a work. Closure is what Aristotle means
when he famously states that all works require a satisfactory (and
satisfying) beginning, middle, and end, and how this structure forms a
works entelechy. Closure is also, of course, the result of working-
through trauma as a way to move-beyond its stultifying effects.

Endings, on the other hand, are the ways in which an author or

poet out of sheer necessity brings narration or lyric to the point at
which signification stops. The ending is the actual point in time when
no more linguistic marks follow. It is the event when sequential order
ceases. Endings are the way in which an author or poet finishes the
sequence she began in order to create closure. An ending is also the
way an author or poet interrupts narrative or lyric to give the end of
sequence the appearance of completion.
Finally, an ending is something we automatically associate with
death, the final point, the terminating event. Our anatomy of ending as
a trope, however, will provide other ways of understanding its meaning
as something that is not a terminal event, but a continual mode of
becoming in the context of telos, or the purposive ends of things. The
telos of things in life expands into eschatology, the belief that life
begins anew after the end, which is ultimately bound to apocalypse,
the disclosure of truth that coincides with or results from catastrophe.
But literary endings also draw from the inherent nature of closure
and endings in our own experience with time. Another often seemingly
irreconcilable contradiction is the relationship between literature and
life: the imaginative, hypothetical construction of fiction compared to
actual lived experience. It is a prevalent argument that fiction offers a
model for life, a notion that life often vexes. Chapter 4 will focus on the
ways in which media and digitization refigure our self-consciousness of
time, particularly in its compression and the deepening of the present.
After examining the experience of 9/11, I will explore the
development of time- consciousness in the nineteenth and twentieth-
century in Chapter 5 and the apocalyptic mindset it leads to in Chapter
6. My main argument is that our contemporary perception of time that
has evolved since the renaissance and that shapes our fictions is
structured by, and has the inherent temporal structure of, trauma: we
live always with a perpetual sense of coming-after, or what Freud calls

belatedness. The entrenched sense of belatedness characterizes the

very real feeling that the contemporary world is post-apocalyptic.
Chapters 7 and 8 will examine how endings and closure evolve
since the renaissance when Shakespeare turns apocalypse into
tragedy, and then how tragedy transforms into (and often becomes
one and the same with) trauma, only to return to an emphasis upon
literal apocalypse in contemporary literature. Chapter 9 will explore the
eschatological orientation of particular novels in the twentieth century
that grapple with issues of faith and belief. The relationship between
eschatology and narrative endings, too, transforms into an apocalyptic
and post-apocalyptic mindset for religious writers. Finally, Chapter 9
will *****

Chapter 2: Belatedness

Belatedness and Trauma


The first poem of Anthony Hechts Pulitzer Prize winning

collection The Hard Hours (1967) is the remarkable and strange, A
Hill, about a terrifying vision that, ten years later in the poets life,
triggers a vague childhood memory. The poem is a perfect example of
belatedness at the center of trauma, and is worth quoting in its

In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,

I had a vision once though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dantes, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends,
Picking my way through a warm sunlit piazza
In the early morning. A clear fretwork of shadows
From huge umbrellas littered the pavement and made
A sort of lucent shallows in which was moored
A small navy of cars. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even bargaining
Rose to the ear like voluble godliness.
And then, where it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.

I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,

But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.

And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.

Then the prices came through, and fingers, and I was

To the sunlight and my friends. But for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasnt troubled me since, but at last today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

Although the final lines announce a sort-of ah-ha moment, which

is usually a certain indication of closure, the epiphany the poet
experiences remains irresolute. The hallucinatory flashback in a piazza
in Italy and the memory with which he connects the fugue to his
childhood remains dissociative throughout. The ending of the poem
demands one to reread the poem in order to organize its dense
temporal structure. Over the course of three time shifts in the poem it
is impossible to ascertain the poets source of trauma. Instead, A Hill
explores the dissociative temporal gap between the present and
trauma from a distant past.

The colloquial diction of the poem makes A Hill deceptively

simple. It is a very difficult poem. Hecht conveys his vision in a
matter-of-fact voice, as if we have entered into the middle of a story
the poet recounts. Hechts observations meanderwhere this sort of
thing can occurwhich makes the poem unfold shapelessly. The
casual phrase some friends, combined with Picking my way,
indicates a nonchalant sense of place. The use of prepositional
phrases, like fretwork of shadows and small navy of carts, struggle
to form metaphors, but the casual voice keeps them from forming any
meaningful context. The term, sort of echoes Hechts ambivalent
attitude about the vision toward which he draws us through a series of
loose associations.
Movement and noise in the piazza emphasize the silence that will
ensue once the vision occurs. The selling of ugly religious prints
imbues tourism with religiosity, hands moving in transactions evoking
exultation and godliness in a simile that echoes visions of saints.
But his inability to comprehend vision makes the simile between
devotional activity and busy marketplace ambiguous.
The poet alerts us to the visions precipitous event by using the
phrase, And then to evoke narrative sequence.
And then, when it happened, the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker . . .
Stilling the active marketplace, Hecht draws us to the vision in terms
such as it happened and it got darker that refuse connection to a
concrete event as
. . . pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with the promise of snow.

A surreal temporal distortion occurs. The season clearly changes from

warm sunlit piazza to close to freezing while, the promise of
snow, is a casual statement that suggests familiarity with the
In the changed setting the poet juxtaposes the loose metaphors
established in the previous setting in the piazza: umbrellas cast a
fretwork of shadows in the piazza, the trees are like old ironwork.
Whereas the shadows of umbrellas littered the pavement, the trees,
too, convey waste, gathered for scrap. The industrial connotations
discord with the bleak natural setting where, like in the piazza, he is
picking my way nimbly through the woodsy terrain as the little
click / Of ice broke in the mud under my feet.
Repeating the term And then to denote narrative sequence, the
poet heard/What seemed the crack of a rifle that climaxes his
vision as the final lines of the stanza suggest falling action.
But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
Whereas the poet feels odd comfort at the sound of gunfire in that At
least I was not alone, the sound of something falling unseen
indicates that he is indeed alone in a desolate way.
A short two-line stanza finally breaks the long and meandering
first stanza.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
The poet teases us into a trick ending where instead of drawing the
poem to a close, the short stanza serves as a transitional moment in
the poem. The earlier promise of snow repeats with the cold and
silence/That promised to last forever. The first promise indicates
something anticipatory and familiar whereas the second suggests an
encroaching existential mood that grew darker.

Like a dissolve in a film, the final stanza restored the poet to

his original setting To the sunlight and my friends. The sound of the
piazza came through followed by the sight of fingers buying and
selling in the marketplace: the poet returns to reality like he is
gradually awakening from a dream.
Although the experience haunts him for more than a week with
the plain bitterness of what I had seen, he seems to dispense with
his attempts to bring meaning to the vision since All this happened
about ten years ago. A decade has passed when suddenly, at last
today, something startles him into a flurry of cognition.
I remembered that hill, it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
We do not know what alerts the poet to his memory of the hill. The
biggest gap in the poem is the absent experience that at last today
leads him to connect the hill of childhood to his vision. There is no
dramatic irony here. We assume that if he does not know, we do not
know either.
The swift time shifts condense into confused memory. Ten years
after the poet undergoes a visionary fugue-state, a sudden recollection
at last, today allows him to connect it to his childhood in
Poughkeepsie. In a frenzy of recognition the poet attempts to arrange a
period of at least thirty years at the center of which rests the vision in
Italy. The most important phrase, but at last, today, suggests that
the poet today has undergone a startling moment of recognition that
compels him to hurry the poem together.
The diction of the poem resembles a person recounting a story in
a rush because the experience is immediate and exciting, like events
one might scribble into a journal or a dream-book. Meaning remains
wrapped up in associative impressions. The force of sublimation
becomes stronger than the drive for cogent expression. Although A

Hill does not labor to mean, but obliquely intimates a sense of

meaning, the temporal structure gives the poem a sense of closure
nonetheless because the poet has made a connection. The poem
describes an epiphany the poet experiences concerning the nature of a
flashback in which, years after the flashback, he is able to recall
traumatic childhood experience. The poem recounts two unbidden
experiences: the flashback and the epiphany, the nature of which he
leaves blank, ten years later. This leaves three unsolvable mysteries at
the heart of the poem: What did the poet experience in Italy? What
happened in his childhood that makes the hill both haunting and
traumatic? What made the poet suddenly connect the vision in Italy to
the hill of his childhood ten years afterwards? That is enough ambiguity
to make any reader give up on a poem! But since the poem organizes
its own temporal structure that we can interpret as a whole from after
its end, we have a sense that the poem is as complete as it needs to
In fact, the poem is about the temporal structure of
overwhelming experience, the delay inherent in understanding any
event that we will call belatedness. Even though the poem has three
glaring gaps, it achieves a sense of closure because it is not about
meaning but delay, the belatedness involved in any understanding of
the temporal experience of life.
One way in which the poem achieves closure is risky because it
verges on the clichd ending, It was all a dream, a convention no
longer used except in soap operas or parody. Instead of resorting to
convention, however, Hecht intimates the experience of recounting a
dream and the initial stage of interpreting a dream by trying to form
coherence between repressed experience and its manifestation. The
work of interpretation will only approximate the original dream but
never recuperate it.

Interpreting the poem psychoanalytically is unavoidable: Hecht

invites us to do so. In "Anthony Hecht: Anatomies of Melancholy," J. D.
McLatchy, a fellow poet, offers his psychoanalytic reading.
[A Hill] seems more of a private poem than a personal
one. Its juxtaposition of images piazza and hill is
evidently charged with private associations and meant to
operate both within the poem and on the reader as dream-
work will. The images are not superimposed, but displaced,
the one by the other, the later by the earlier and both
recalled, as if by an analysand, a decade later. The poem
cannot be read as any simple alternation of manifest and
latent meanings. The action here is the emergence of a
suppressed memory.
McClatchy intimates the relationship between metaphor and
metonymy that Jacques Lacan draws from Freuds The Interpretation of
Dreams. The metonymic associations of Hechts memories function as
displacement in Freuds dream-work, whereas the hill becomes the
condensation of metaphor that neither the poet nor the reader can
quite make out. The poem reflects the unconscious structured as
language. McClatchy concludes his interpretation:
The speaker reverts to childhood, and stands as, in a
sense, the reader does too before the hill in winter, blank
as a page. The clarification and connections we might
expect to follow are omitted. But the point of the poem,
what the reader is invited to contemplate, is not really the
explication of personal experience, but an understanding of
the forces of experience itself . . . The poem ends with an
image, not a moral . . . to underscore the fact that he is
describing a condition rather than an occurrence.
The poem emphasizes forces of experience as opposed to explication
of experience, which is how the poem remains irresolute but creates a

sense of closure nonetheless. In his battle to transform condensation

and displacement into figuration, the poet discovers that the sublime is
unavailable for interpretation until its effects, always delayed or
belated, allow for conscious articulation.
Hecht himself is as uncertain why he stood transfixed by this hill
when he was a child as he is about why it took so long to make the
connection to his flashback. It remains a visual enigma more
associated to the latent content of a dream. The experience of
flashback is as sudden as it is inexplicable. The poem describes a
condition, but it also describes an occurrence. The occurrence itself
eschews interpretation, but its effects upon Hecht allow him to form a
sense of meaning that gives the poem, no matter how provisional, a
form of closure. The condition Hecht describes is,


A poet always writes after experience that is too overwhelming

to dictate as a direct account. Poems that claim to be a direct account
forge an appearance of immediacy. For instance, Coleridge cleverly
prefaces Kubla Khan with a little story about the poems origin. It is
supposedly a record of an opium-induced dream he scribbled down as
soon as he woke up, when, alas, a debt collector who came knocking at
the door caused him to forget the rest of the dream. Hence, Coleridge
calls Kubla Kahn a fragment to compel us to believe it is the
unfinished result of automatic writing. In a lovely reading of the poem,
Marjorie Garber argues that Coleridges poem is ultimately about the
delayed response to a life-interrupted. The debt collector, the man
from Porlock, symbolizes how all of life itself is constituted by a series
of interruptions. We live in the aftermath of a Platonic division from a
whole that we are always attempting to reconcile in our fragmented
state. So the life of mankind, Garber writes, is an attempt, a plot, to

restore what has been interrupted. Or, rather, to acknowledge that that
myth of interruption is life itself (122).
Living through time insures that events will always interrupt any
order we believe we have established to give it meaning, particularly if
an event is traumatic. Coleridge conveys how the unexpected or
unbidden visitation from the man from Porlock fragments his drive to
provide his poem with a form of closure. It is not what we would
necessarily call traumatic, but the interruption of thought is
traumatic enough for a poet! More importantly, the poem shows that
there are many experiences that result in belatedness. His dream, if we
are to believe the noisy detail of the poem, is certainly a sublime
experience in the sense that Edmund Burke defines it in terms of
terror. In many ways, Anthony Hechts poem is a contemporary
revision of Coleridges.
It is impossible to capture unbidden experience in its moment,
inevitably making delay both necessary in actual life and an ironic
trope in literature. Delay is encoded in all acts of writing. We are
always writing after the fact. There is no writing that occurs
simultaneously with the experience represented. Trauma widens and
complicates this delay since the experience that needs recounting was
too overwhelming to understand when it occurred.
Freud economizes the temporality of trauma in his paradoxical
term, Nachtrglichkeit, which is roughly translated as afterwardness.
The original event requires a deferred and secondary future event in
order to provide it with meaning. The arche of trauma is always
inextricably linked to its telos. A flashback, in other words, depends
upon a future event, a flash-forward, as one struggles to reconcile the
mysterious past and the unexpected flashbacks that evoke its sense of
meaning. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud explores the drive for
continuity in life that psychodynamic forcesthe life and death instinct

always frustrate. Experience becomes the tortuous movement we

associate with plot.
They are the true life instincts. They operate against the
purpose of the other instincts, which leads, by reason of
their function, to death . . . It is as though the life of the
organism moved with a vacillating rhythm. One group of
instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life
as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the
advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a
certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the
This psychodynamic and vacillating rhythm Freud describes has
immense influence on literary criticism that we will explore in more
depth in Part II. For now, trauma (or the unbidden interruption) as an
isolated phenomenon itself has no meaningful context. Freuds notion
of Nachtrglichkeit encompasses an original trauma whose
reverberating traces summon events yet to occur. We imagine a
possible future based upon the trauma or catastrophe of the past,
which accounts for our trenchantly anticipatory nature. After the 9/11
terrorist attacks, we imagined the next one and prepared in various
ways for it to occur.
Freud derived his astounding theory of Nachtraglichkeit from a
paradoxical situation he frequently encountered in his case studies.
The event that causes neurosis in a patient is never present as an
event, but manifests as uncontrolled unconscious activity at a later
time, such as nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, hallucinations. Further,
these traumatic symptoms of the original trauma are triggered by a
secondary event. The traumatic event, which cannot be known at the
time of its occurrence, returns to haunt a victim in the future. Billy
Pilgrim could not experience the trauma of Dresden as a witness. This
horribly interruptive experience requires the secondary event, another

interruption, of surviving the plane crash to trigger the prior trauma. In

this paradoxical temporal structure, the effect of trauma precedes its
cause. The symptoms force one to work-through the crisis (the telos of
getting closure) by working back to the original event(s) (the arche of
experience) what Cathy Caruth refers to as the temporal paradox of
Trauma, therefore, is structured around a doubling of events in a
temporal distortion that can only be articulated or represented in a
literary mode. In Unclaimed Experience, Caruth focuses on the
temporal structure of belatedness in trauma as a way to theorize about
literary representation. Trauma is not necessarily caused by a breach
in the mind of stimulation too overwhelming for consciousness, but by
the lack of preparedness to take in stimulation that comes too
quickly. Therefore, trauma consists solely in the structure of its
experience or recognition: the event is not assimilated or experienced
fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the
one who experiences it (4-5). Therefore, the incomprehensibility of
history can only be represented on a literary level.
Since the experience is too overwhelming when it happens,
trauma delays its effects so that its articulation forms an afterwardness
for future memory. Freuds dual structure of trauma implores
anticipating a future by forming the anxiety that was missing in the
past. Anticipation is paradoxical in that we must be anxious in order to
work-through trauma. Anxiety defensively guards against experience in
the future that one was not prepared for in the past.
Freud makes a crucial distinction between anxiety, fear and
Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting danger
or preparing for it, even though it ma be an unknown one.
Fear requires a definite object of which to be afraid.
Fright, however, is the name we give to the state a person

gets into when he has run into danger without being

prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise. I do
not believe that anxiety can produce a traumatic neurosis.
There is something about anxiety that protects its subject
against fright and so against fright neurosis. (11).
Trauma is the result of the inability to receive an event caused by fright
(Schreck) because it exceeds comprehension. Traumatic neurosis,
claims Freud, is created by the lack of any preparedness for anxiety
(emphasis mine 31). Repetition compulsion in the form of dreams or
verbal representation prepares for the delayed over-excitation of
trauma. Trauma entails endeavoring to master the stimulus
retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the
cause of the traumatic neurosis (emphasis mine 609). This temporal
delay in registering trauma accounts for its peculiar double structure in
which a subsequent event triggers the initial one into cognition, forcing
us to confront it.
Belatedness poses a lot of problems for interpretation. How does
narrative and poetry configure the temporality of belatedness or
afterwardness? How does literature inform us about our own sense of
coming-after? What can be salvaged from the traumatic sense of
entropy that follows the serial catastrophes of the past century? What
survives in the ruins of trauma or catastrophe? What remains of value
in our inherent rage for order, our drive to make sense even when
meaninglessness achieves a privileged position in our reading and
understanding of the world in ways it never had before?
The most valuable aspect of literature, I argue, is how narrative
or lyric embodies a retrograde future. The double structure of trauma
is the temporal structure of literature. Trauma itself is not sui generis. A
great deal of confusion concerning the application of trauma in literary
interpretation arises from the word trauma, which means a wound.

There is a vast array of experience that informs the temporal

structure of literature that is non-traumatic, but which confounds
immediate comprehension.

Since no study of trauma understates its temporal experience, I

believe that it is crucial to examine the nature of time in its
relationship to the ways in which we temporalize life. We never
experience time; we only experience how we temporalize experience
that is propelled by times ruthless movement forward. In a way, time
itself is traumatic, an experience that we cannot confront in its
happening but can only respond to belatedly. The biggest trauma
about time is that its sole function is to bring things to an end. It is also
a brute reality we expend a great deal of energy to deny. So I will turn
to the abstract notion of time itself that, despite its abstraction, is a
brute force in every aspect of life.

The Arrow of Time

Meaning and Time

The British astronomer Arthur Eddington coined the term the

arrow of time in 1927 to describe times irreversible forward motion.
Time moves in only one direction, which means the flow of time is
asymmetrical. When the actions of time are examined on a
microscopic level, however, the processes are symmetrical: if you
reverse times direction, like running a video of two people playing
catch backwards, the theoretical statements about physical processes
remain true. The laws of physics apply to both the universe and its
mirror image. On the macroscopic level, however, such as our daily
experience of living in and through time, we see only one direction. We
do not go through life self-conscious of how physical laws remain the
same when things go in reverse.
Even though we do not read in reverse, we understand a text
interpretively by working our way backwards from the end intuitively
all the time, right down to the level of a sentence. The last words of a
sentence provide meaning to the sentence as a whole by relating them
to the first words. In other words, a sentence has a beginning, middle,
and end that, like a text or a poem, can be divided up into causes and
effects made meaningful by subject, objects, and actions. Unless you
have an incredibly eidetic memory, however, words read in reverse
make no sense. The physical laws of the mirror image of a text might
still apply, but most of us would find it impossible to read in reverse.
This is why Leonardo da Vinci wrote some of his works in reverse, as a
mirror image, to evade scrutiny of his more heretical ideas by the same
type of authorities that put Galileo under house arrest. The fact that we

can configure the words in a sentence and sentences in their order

from a beginning to an end in a text is a remarkable facet of human
Irreversible processes are at the heart of the arrow of time. It is
the brute fact of the universe that things happen in one order and
never in reverse order. This reality is deeply ingrained in how we live in
the world in the terms of causality. The forward motion of time insures
that cause always precedes effect. Again, you can see this at the level
of the sentence. Words are always in a causal relationship with each
other, a sequence of actions and consequences made possible by that
incredible device, the verb. **

The arrow of time toward an end means, alas, its target is death.
This is why eschatology, the belief in an afterlife that redeems time
after death, is so central to faith (which will be a focus of Part II). In
some versions of Christian eschatology, time not only becomes
renewed or redeemed, but we return to the original state of paradise, a
primordial beginning before finitude became such a brute issue. Some
eschatology describes paradise returning to earth as a New Jerusalem
descends from heaven. (In some passages of Revelation, angels, like
celestial real estate developers, literally measure out portions of the
earth for heavenly habitation!) This is a cyclical belief in time, which is
prevalent in the circular narrative, such as Joyces Finnegans Wake, in
which one returns to the beginning, but with a difference. As T.S. Eliot
says in a passage that could serve as the epitaph to this book: What
we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make
a beginning. The end is where we start from.
Religious cosmologies are akin to the fantasies of time travel in
which one can return to the past to mend a catastrophic mistake or
travel to the future to stop the effects of a catastrophic mistake from
occurring. Such tropes tap into the powerful desire to transgress

finitude. We never tire of the trope of time travel in fiction, as in

Vonneguts very successful application of it in Slaughterhouse Five. We
do not like to believe that the past becomes waste and the future leads
to an ultimate ending. More importantly, the finality of death terrifies
us. In an eternalist universe, as in Slaughterhouse Five, the past still
exists and loved ones remain alive. As Billy says,
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was
that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still
very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to
cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future,
always have existed, always will exist.
Time travel is ultimately a fantasy of immortality.
As far as we know, time travel is impossible, and for a very good
reason! One would not want to experience a world in which people are
capable of tampering with causality. Science fiction comes up with all
kinds of loopholes to make time travel seamless. For instance, in a
seemingly irreversible forward movement of time in an eternalist
universe, we would never really know if everything that happens is the
result of time travellers tampering with causality. Look at many
episodes of the highly underrated television show Fringe. Some science
fiction has as its subject the fragile causality of time, like Ray
Bradburys The Sound of Thunder, or the Back to the Future
franchise. Other science fiction, like Star Trek IV, dispenses with any
temporal concerns: humans from the future make whales temporally
swap in order to save the earth. The fact that the good guys save the
planet in the end trumps logical closure.
Time as we know and experience it is rather determined. There is
no reason to believe that the past can be changed or that future
mortality can be evaded. This is why Greek tragedy is so
claustrophobically wrapped up in fate and why the consequences of

trying to circumvent fate are so dire. The irreversible direction of time

means that death is everyones destiny.
Self-consciousness about mortality is the most vexingly human
trait. We are the only beings that know we will die, which makes self-
consciousness about death the single most important aspect about
what it means to be human. A philosophical inquiry about time
confronts us right away with a somewhat ghastly paradox that Freud
famously states in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: The aim of all life is
death. All of the energy we put into making sense of the world and
our quests for what it means to be human results in death. Death is the
ultimate ending that must be accounted for in any meaningful
understanding of life.
But death is also the most traumatic experience each of us has
yet to experience. It is the controlling pole of all figurations of future
tense; but death annihilates meaning because there is no way we can
anticipate our own death. It is always my death, but I can never know
my own death. It is impossible to experience ones own annihilation.
This is the central interpretive knot of Heideggers Being and Time. I
can never know the most important event of my life.
Death is the biggest threat to meaning because it remains an
irreducible mystery, but it is where all our quests for meaning lead.
Therefore, the question, what does it mean to be human? is one and
the same as the question, what does it mean to die? All of life is a
process of anticipating and coming to terms with death. And so is all of
The quandary of mortality is at the center of the most famous
passage in literature when Hamlet claims that death is
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns . . .
Hamlet recognizes that the impossibility to know death is the only
thing that makes meaning possible because it

Puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
In other words, the inaccessibility of deaththe impossibility for me to
experience my own annihilationforces me to remain in the world I am
familiar with because death has no meaning. In his De rerum natura,
Lucretius urges us not to bother about death since we will never
experience it.
Another reason that Hamlet races away from death is because,
like all of us, he is a scaredy-cat, or pigeon liverd, as he calls it, a
fear that is inextricably bound to trepidation over the unknown. The
more I allow the unknown to terrify me, the more I fear and loathe life,
like Hamlet for whom the world is an unweeded garden that is gross
and rank in nature. The paradox is I must live my life by living with
my death, the one experience that is impossible to know and futile to
try. Adumbrations of death as nothingnessthe impossibility to know
ones own annihilationresonate in all of our actions. This is, I believe,
the central message of Hamlets famous soliloquy. Death vibrates in all
endings, literary or actual. Therefore, anything that brings closure, like
making a decision or acting on either thought or instinct, resonates
with the most personal relationship to death.
Death is the impossible possibility of meaning. The search for
meaning and self-knowledge is predicated upon this impossibility of
death. If we were immortalif living were to go on into infinitylife
would be meaningless because it would be impossible to know that this
is life. Life in comparison to what? Knowing is possible not in opposition
to ignorance, but in opposition to nothingness. We will see this is the
reason why Wallace Stevens embraces the change and finitude self-
consciousness of mortality brings in which death is the mother of all
beauty in opposition to the infinite and immutable realm of heaven.

Since an eternalist view of the universe is not available to us, we

can never envisage with absolute certainty the effects of our actions.
To reiterate, adumbrations of death as nothingness, the impossibility to
know ones own annihilation, resonate in all of our actions. And this is
because all actions are predicated upon consequences just as all
sentences depend upon a verb in order to make sense. We distinguish
the past from the future because of ordered causal relationships. A
cause in the present produces effects that form the future. We can only
say that something happened afterwards, as a result of a cause, by
looking back at the past, not by looking forward into the future.
For example, when I throw a baseball to my son, I assume that
he will catch the ball. When my son catches the ball, I see it as an
effect that comes after the action. Effects, therefore, are always bound
up in afterwardness. Unlike physics in which nature runs equally
forward and backward in timethe view of the universe in a rearview
mirrorfor us the past is fixed and the future is malleable. To put it
another way, whereas nature does not have free will, we believe in our
will to make choices that can change or cause effects in the future.
The term free will is bound up with our ability to form the future
tense, which I think is the most miraculous aspect of the English
language. As Stephen Pinker says in his remarkable The Stuff of
Rather than being a form of the verb, it is expressed by the
modal auxiliary will. Its no accident that the future shares
its syntax with words for necessity (must), possibility (can,
may, might), and moral obligation (should, ought to),
because what will happen is conceptually related to what
must happen, what can happen, and what should happen,
and what we intend to happen. The word will itself is
ambiguous between future tense and an expression of
determination . . . and its homonyms show up in free will,

strong-willed, and to will something to happen . . .

language is affirming the ethos that people have the power
to make their own futures (196).
The notion of free willwhich is on of the most difficult issues in
Christian theologyderives from my belief that my intentions can will
something to happen, like making a future. I will throw the ball to my
son. My freedom leaves the results of my actions up to the
malleability of the future. Will my son catch the ball?
Most effects in the world are predictable. If effects were not fairly
predictable and if we did not have some control over the consequences
of our actions, all of us would be paralyzed, second-guessing every
choice and move we make in an infinite regress. Most effects follow
action with a certain amount of predictability. But we act in an
indeterminate field nonetheless. Although I am pretty sure the sun will
come up tomorrow, I can never know what comes next with absolute
certainty. Just as easily as I have intention and will, I might throw a wild
pitch to my son and the ball ends up in the neighbors yard; or my son
drops the ball; or he throws his glove down in the middle of the balls
flight toward him to call it quits; or the ball smacks him in the nose and
I have to rush him to the hospital. And so on and so on. It is the series
of possibilities of causation that makes the future look free and the
past frozen. But it is also this indeterminate field of future possibility
that makes me, and Hamlet, terrified of making the next move. (The
endless series of possible outcomes resulting from an endless series of
possible actions is also the basis for a great deal of multiverse
The openness and malleability of the future terrifies us. The
humans seeming stalemate in the middle, caught between the
beginning and the end, past and the future, which Frank Kermode calls
the middest, is the crux of Hamlets soliloquy.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied oer with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
After reflecting on the impossibility to know death, Hamlet
universalizes the self-consciousness of mortality. The fear of death, its
radical mystery, suffuses life with the fear of doing. Any action, any
choice, no matter how small, actualizes an unknowable future. Hamlet,
as we all learn in high school, suffers from chronic indecisiveness, his
ability to act smothered by his far more powerful ability to think
(although after Act II, he seems to kill with a great deal of alacrity).
The consequences of action, therefore, terrify us nearly as much
as death, making cause and effect bound up with the same
apprehension as the mystery of death. Doing always entails the loss of
something in the process of gaining what we desire. Life, like narrative,
is driven by desire. Whenever we make a choice, some other possibility
gets left behind. There is always a road not taken. Making a decision
and acting on it annuls another possible future. The human, therefore,
recoils from action because the irreversible arrow of time drives choice
and, ultimately, drives life to its end. So we return to the pale cast of
It is fitting that near the end of the play, Hamlet seems to
dispense with free will, telling Horatio,
Theres a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will.
It could easily be Billy Pilgrims epitaph.

Meaning and Entropy


In 1850, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the engineer,

Rudolph Clausius, came up with a formal statement of a physical
phenomenon concerning combustion. The principle, which we call the
Second Law of Thermodynamics, states that no process is possible
whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a body of lower
temperature to a body of higher temperature.
It sounds ridiculously simple. We know that a pot of water does
not heat itself up but that it does cool itself down. The heat has been
conserved, redistributed to form equilibrium with the uniform
temperature in its space. From this principle, engineers developed
formulas for entropy, which is the measure of the uselessness of a
certain amount of energy resulting from increased activity. Left to its
own devices, any system, including the entire universe, will eventually
run down by equilibrating into a uniform temperature. The prevailing
theory is that the universe will end in a state of absolute entropy, a
process that has the scary name, heat death. According to the laws
of physics, the universe will not end with some heavenly celestial
event or a catastrophic apocalypse, but a slow, billions of years long
anticlimactic cooling off of all energy into one flat and uniform plane of
inactivity. The universe wont disappear; instead, it will become
infinitely uniform. Since entropy is the general tendency for things to
lose their original properties and grow more disordered, the principle
is at the center of pretty much everything concerning times arrow.
Everything in of itself has one forward movement toward entropy.
The ice cubes you put into your soda will move from a state of order to
disorder as it melts and equilibrates into uniform temperature. You
cannot reverse the process and return the melted ice to its original
cubes. In the example physicists like to use, you cannot turn an omelet
back into an egg. A system cannot turn itself back into a state of order.
Something that is cold cannot make itself hot. A car cannot un-rust
itself. These principles of thermodynamics were important for

engineers in the Industrial Revolution because it put to rest any

possibility for creating a perpetual motion machine. In order for a
system to do work, to produce energy, it must be disturbed. Energy
from a system must be conserved and its source replenished.
(Someone has to always shovel coal into the furnace to keep the
locomotive moving.) A system cannot run itself. Again, even the
universe will eventually run down.
The metaphors of entropy as decadence, disintegration, and
dissipation abound, which is why it has become adopted by literature
and literary studies by misreading the word disorder. Most physicists
regret that the word disorder entered into the scientific lexicon
concerning the measure of wasted energy. We who study the
humanities appropriate the term disorder to relate entropy to literary
representation in a very different sense from its use in
thermodynamics to describe the movement of a systems singularity to
uniformity. In 1910, for instance, Henry Adams proposed a method for
teaching history based upon the Second Law of Thermodynamics (it
never took off) by arguing that one can interpret the eventual
disintegration of any civilization in terms of entropy. The increasing
energy of history as we reach the peak of modernity becomes riddled
with waste, which accounts for the decline of civilizations.
But Adams vision of entropy in the chapter, The Virgin and the
Dynamo, that nears the end of his famous, The Education of Henry
Adams, has staying power. It represents a perspective of speed leading
to collapse that most modernist authors in the early twentieth century
shared. With awe and horror, Adams witnessed the exhibition of
gigantic dynamos (what we now call generators) at the 1900 Worlds
Fair in Chicago. These dynamos that powered the fairs machinery and
nearly one thousand incandescent light bulbs must have been
overpowering for people who had never seen machines of such
magnitude. The vision led him to predict that the energy of modernism

would dissipate cultural permanence; the dynamo, in all of its speed,

will magnetize people with a similar sense of religion. Adams himself
began to feel the forty-foot dynamo as a moral force, much
as the early Christians felt the cross. The planet itself
seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate,
annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving
within arms-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely
In fact, he wondered if he should pray to it.
Whereas we once worshipped objects that signify eternity
because they provoke the stillness of contemplation (the Virgin), we
now worship the flux of the machine, (the Dynamo). The machine will
replace God with devastating consequences for civilization. (Looking at
our technological age today, Adams prophecy is not particularly off the
mark. As I ask my students, how much time do you spend essentially
venerating your smart phone?)
Critics often cite the phrase things fall apart, from Yeats poem,
The Second Coming, as a description of entropy. The massive scale
of decimation in World War I made possible by technological
advancements permeates Yeats poem he wrote in 1919, but the poem
also exhibits a delayed response to world catastrophe. Most of the
major poets had written their poetic statements about the war in the
preceding few years. Since Yeats was the poet of the time, The
Second Coming became the most anticipated poem of modernism.
(Yes, there was a time when a poem was anticipated with the same
excitement as the next iPhone.)
Reading the terrifying poem in terms of entropy is
understandable; it resonates with the sense of imminent apocalypse
that any era has in the wake of catastrophe (which will be the subject
of Part II). It is why The Second Coming is one of the poems most
evoked in times of crisis, like 9/11. It captures the terrifying feeling of

history careening out of our control foregrounded by Yeats symbol of

the gyre, an image that bears a striking resemblance to a dynamo.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
The world and its familiar categories of meaning spiral apart as
the falcon circles further away from its master, mimicking the spinning
gyre; once the center of the world like the falconer mastering his bird,
the human loses grip. If one imagines any system that spirals out of
control, one can visualize Yeats image. His vision is a bit like a pottery
wheel turning faster and faster so that the centrifugal force flays the
top of the clay to pieces (an image seared into our contemporary
consciousness, unfortunately, because of the movie Ghost). It is a
crafty image of a world spinning into catastrophe.
Identifying with the abandoned falconer, the speaker witnesses
the brink of destruction and tallies the signs of imminent Armageddon.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
At first the speaker believes that historical catastrophe fits into a
providential pattern of divine revelation. Relying on traditional biblical
prophecy, he imagines that all signs point to Christs triumphant
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Just as he predicts Christs return, the vision of the beast defies his
expectations. The gyre that widens to its event horizon does not
generate the apocalyptic unveiling that the speaker anticipates.
Instead, like a dream, the terrifying beast crawls into the speakers

sight and ends the poem by undoing Christian assumptions of benign

Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The stupefied speaker represents the human awakening to the
modern world bereft of coherent mythologies of providence. World War
I shocks the West out from the millenarian spirit that led them to a
sense of divine mandate. Whatever it is that Slouches towards
Bethlehem to be born does not prefigure the evolution of a messianic
West. Instead it suggests progression toward further dystopia that
civilization conjures unconsciously in its nightmares. The poem,
therefore, shares the modernist skepticism over the Progress of Man,
the optimistic narrative of the arrow of time born in the Enlightenment.
Yeats explained his philosophical system two years later in A
Vision (1921), arguing that history moves in 2,000-year cycles in which
the gyre is the central symbol. It is not an easy read. The Second
Coming illustrates his prophecy in A Vision that a new world
hegemony will rise out of the centrifugal collapse of Christianity that
had reached its peak one thousand years earlier. History is like a
dynamo that generates energy into millennial movements that are

born during the height of the previous period. The next movement of
history widens out of the ruins of the previous one, forming a series of
gyres or vortices of history. Look up Yeats A Vision or his system of
gyres online, and you will find incredibly complex graphics, some of
them animated, that illustrate the geometry of his historical system. I
cannot begin to do justice to the intricacy and weirdness of it.
In physics, entropy is a lot simpler: everything, including the
universe, eventually equilibrates, moving from the singularity of heat
to the uniformity of cold. In literary criticism, however, entropy
describes how modern dynamism and speed will lead to chaos and
collapse: everything moves from a state of order to disorder. Things fall
apart. An immense amount of modern literature focuses on the
dichotomy of order and chaos. It is the theme of modernist literature.
Not all modernists depict historical entropy with violence,
however. One of the most haunting passages in literature is the Time
Passes section that comes in the middle of Virginia Woolfs To The
Lighthouse. From a seemingly inhuman, godlike perspective, we
witness the Ramsays summerhouse, abandoned during the several
years surrounding World War I, gradually decline into a state of
disorder. The interior that Mrs. Ramsay so artfully arranges, climaxing
with her beautiful dinner party, falls prey to the vicissitudes of time.
Leaks form. Wallpaper curls. Books become waterlogged. Shelving
collapses. Weeds choke the walls. The garden grows unruly. The
dissipation all happens intransitively, without human action.
Time Passes focuses on the abandoned house falling into
disrepair in order to emphasize death. Many of the characters with
whom we have identified throughout the novel die off-stage, so to
speak. In curt parenthetical moments we learn of the various deaths of
family members, including Mrs. Ramsay. They serve as laconic
reminders that death hangs over every moment of order in life,
represented by Mrs. Ramsays dinner party that serves as the climax to

the first part of the novel, The Window. There are very convincing
arguments that the parenthetical deaths in Time Passes are meant to
reflect the perfunctory telegrams that would announce the death of a
loved one in a battle, these telegrams arriving at English homes
thousands of times a day. The speed by which news travelled, thanks
to the new networks of cable rapidly crossing Europe since the late
1800s, made World War I the first war people could follow on a daily
basis. The modern speed of information also resulted in the rapid
development of propaganda. The powers that be needed everyone in
England to believe in the ideals of a war that was, in reality, pure
The effects of death and war, like the delayed effects of trauma,
waits for the final section of Woolfs novel, The Lighthouse, which
shows times survivors reconvening at the summer house. The war is
never mentioned, but it haunts The Lighthouse with reminders of
how much was lost in the context of what remains.
T.S. Eliots poetry, probably more than any other poets, depicts
disorder. In his famous poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,
Prufrock reflects entropy when he exclaims, Do I dare disturb the
universe! As he passes his middle age, Prufrock grows dreadfully
aware of his wasted youth, the measure of his increasingly useless
Time is the most prevalent word in the poem. Prufrock tries to
comfort himself that There will be time, there will be time, but
recognizes how its passage leads to waste. I have measured out my
life with coffee spoons. Instead of asking his overwhelming
question, he expends a great deal of energy mentally convincing
himself that confrontation, asking the question, only leads to disorder
and misunderstanding. In one of the most remarkable stanzas in the
poem, Prufrock anticipates his own decline. THE STAIRCASE

The irony in the poem is that Prufrock spends his life trying not
to disturb the universe, but all of the effort he puts into preserving his
timidity has led him to age prematurely. He has, in the end, wasted
time, a unique metaphor that only becomes possible in our modern
ability to personalize time with timepieces. His vacillations concerning
desire and action throughout his life makes time a useless expenditure.
In the end he imagines himself expiring When human voices wake us
and we drown, a common ending to a work in the past hundred years
in which everything succumbs to annihilation.
Like so many modernists in the early twentieth century, Eliot
perceives civilization declining into a state of entropy. The Love Song
of J. Alfred Prufrock is a study of a mind alienated by the rapid
changes of modernism in which the increased energy in mechanized
industrialism fragments consciousness. In The Waste Land, which we
will examine more later, a literary culture, like the dystopia of Adams
dynamo, becomes swallowed and fragmented by mechanization
incapable of fostering permanence. The benefits of speed will be offset
by the more intense production of disorder.
Finally, and most importantly, thermodynamics is at the heart of
Freuds entropic view of trauma that becomes particularly pertinent
after World War I. As we will see, Freuds economy of psychic forces
was directly influenced by thermodynamics. Psychoanalysis, for Freud,
is build upon a complex conservation and distribution of conflicting
psychic forces he calls psychodynamics. Emotion (in which the word
motion is integral) flows through pipes and channels that store
(cathexis) and release (catharsis) psychic energy. Freud considered
emotion a constant that eventually comes to rest once it is discharged,
or catharsis. In the end, the human is designed not only to reach a
state of entropy, which Freud calls stasis, but desires it.
On a structural level, a literary work is a psychodynamic system
that introduces and develops conflict that an ending discharges (a

phenomenon that has a slippery relationship to Aristotles term,

catharsis) and is brought to a certain amount of resolution through
closure. The conflict between life and death instincts in their formation
of a masterplot of a human life in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is the
paradigm by which Peter Brooks bases his psychoanalytic reading of
the structure of narrative in his famous Reading for the Plot. The ways
in which a work ends and the level of resolution it provides is integral
to the ways in which we understand and interpret it.
The implications of entropy as a trope in literature are at the
heart of this book. The chaos, fragmentation, and contraction of an
increasingly connected world preoccupy modernist and contemporary
authors. The brute fact of entropy challenges the Enlightenment belief
in human progress, particularly after the trenches of World War I.

Retrospection and Time

Entropy might measure disorder (or, in technical terms, the

amount of useless energy a system produces), but disorder is
meaningless only to the extent that one allows the vanishing present
to make it so. Eliot is prescient on this point in his very time-conscious
masterpiece, Four Quartets.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
The forward movement of time makes existence possible since
life would be unlivable if effect preceded cause! But the backward
glance over times movement to the present of history rearranges the
effects of events in order to arrive at the cause. As David Hume
argues, no one lives self-consciously aware of the arrow of time and
causality. It is hard enough, he claims, to define what cause and effect
actually means. Instead we recognize that time moves in a manner of

sequence that we constantly arrange and rearrange into the unique

sequences of time through which we live. Without making
arrangements out of the past, a time of pure sequence makes its
experience meaningless.
We do not understand history as a chronicle, a bare sequence of
events moving forward linearly. Historians up until a couple centuries
ago believed in a history of pure consecution that accommodates the
human as a singular being in Gods providential plan of progress. Today
we recognize history more in terms of what Nietzsche refers to as
genealogy. Instead of returning to the past and examining sequence
linearly, we examine some present point or condition, and work our
way toward the past in order to interpret how the effects of history
were caused, or how we got here. In many ways, the television show,
Mad Men, is a genealogy.
You can see the genealogical effects on fiction. The novel and
short story increasingly dispenses with the beginning, Once upon a
time, placing the reader instead in the middle of things. In the 18th
and 19th centuries, most novels began with background to the
protagonist or a rundown of the history that leads up to the beginning.
The long family history that begins Dostoyevskys The Brothers
Karamazov is a perfect example. By the 20thC, most novelists show
the background to character and action through flashback, dialogue, or
by leaving the past itself as a gap that the reader must educe.
Background becomes more of an issue of foregrounding; ellipsis takes
the place of delineation. Further, many novels begin at the end or
provide the consequences before the action like Slaughterhouse Five or
the movie Memento, in which the protagonist must move backwards
from the end in order to figure out how he got to the terrible position
he finds himself in at the beginning.

The irreversible forward movement of time allows fictions and

poetry to form meaning because literature arranges causality within an
isolated and hypothetical teleological structure. Literature produces
visions in which the effects of causes continually impress new
arrangements that serve as models for how we make sense of a
seemingly meaningless existence. As many philosophers like to argue,
narrative is a model for life, which, as we will see, poses great
problems for interpretation.
The little world a poem embodies discloses a life invested with a
sense of meaning, which is implicated in and problematized by the
irreversible arrow of time. A circumference, a frame, a boundary that
provides a place where you can dwell within all possibilities of
experience can open up life to a sense of meaning bestowed by its
various forms of an ending. At the same time, language is embedded
in time. The words we read are just as implicated in times forward
movement that relegates experience to the vanishing present. The fact
that language exists within time makes meaning, like the attempt to
grasp a present moment as it vanishes, very tricky business indeed, if
not impossible.
Death is the ineluctable fact that gives life meaning, but life only
makes sense by looking back over the duration that leads to the end.
The teleology of life is, paradoxically, orchestrated by ever-lengthening
retrospection. The pursuit of meaning is always retrospective, which
further exacerbates the tricky business of interpretation. We are always
in the middle of things! Since it is impossible to examine life from the
point of death, one must occupy provisional endpoints from where to
look back retrospectively.
There is never a moment, however, when the future will not
change the perception of the past in our backward gaze. If only one
could stop time in order to make sense of experience, to turn chaos
into order, to configure everything with the structure of a coherent

narrative! The impossibility to turn life into a whole, Augustine realized,

is the agony of finitude. The presentist that he was, Augustine dwells
on the impossibility to freeze time in order to grab hold of its meaning.
Time stands still only in eternity, which is unavailable to us in finitude.
It is impossible to stand outside of time to examine the self as a whole.
When writing Confessions Augustine knew that he could only
offer a fragment of his story that would never see completion. Once
the writing of his narration reaches the present of his life, the
mergence of two disparate but urgent points of timewhich we define
as crisisleaves nothing left to reflect on but the act of reflecting itself.
He ends his autobiography, fittingly, by seeking union with God in the
act of writing theology. USE THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO DISCUSS

Fragmentation and Time

Because of finitude we never feel whole. Within our own lifetime

there will always be more experience than we can be conscious of:
neither our birth nor death are events we remember. Paul Ricoeur calls
the fact that our life will never be available to us as a whole, the
pathetique of misery. There is always more existence than
consciousness can enclose: the self is not only a part of the whole, but
also a fragment of its self. This is why we tirelessly search for
ourselves, a quest that always remains elusive. If you think youve
found yourself, think again.
As I have argued, time is not meaningful unless we provide
grammar to its passage that gives value to the events that measure
and plot its passage. But since we are always in the middle of things, it
is impossible to see any experience as one complete whole. To speak
of an individual life as a whole, one would have to speak in terms of a

future tense that envisages things yet to be. Further, we do not see
simultaneity. Instead we see one configuration and another in a
sequence again and again in varieties of configurations. Each is
somehow distinct. Sequence puts different instances in an order that
allows for a degree of continuity through time.
But configuration and sequence also insures that the experience
of life remains fragmented. A way to define a world or a universe is a
set of all events, every point in space at every moment in time. It is a
whole that is impossible to see since we are within it. We are a part of
its constantly shifting configurations and sequences just as we are
apart from any temporal configuration as a whole. A way to define a
work is a world verbally or visually constructed that makes its presence
as an artistic construction evident. A work can exist as an ontological
whole, but it is always a fragment of the whole in which it exists.
In Essay on Man, Alexander Pope expounds upon the tension
between the parts and the whole of experience.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns;
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
The aphoristic couplets illustrate fragments that go into making the
whole of the poem. Throughout Epistle I Pope expounds Deism, in
which God sets everything in motion and then otherwise remains aloof.
The poem derives from Leibnitzs optimistic theory of sufficient cause
in which everything, no matter how discordant, results from the
perfection of Gods creation. An increased awareness of lifes disasters,

such as the Lisbon earthquake, tended to turn his optimism into folly
by the late 18thcentury, particularly Voltaires satirical attack on him in
Candide. (Leibnitzs mathematics had a big influence on Einstein. In
fact, Deism adopts the new technologies of time keeping of the era by
describing God as the watchmaker. )
For Deism, it is epistemological folly to begin with God or the
supernatural as a means to understand the world. Instead, as Pope
claims, The proper study of mankind is man. Reason involves
avoiding the Pride that results in thinking we can understand the whole
of the universe, and blaming its imperfection when we undergo
personal misfortune. We simply cannot see the greater design. Popes
famous conclusion hints at something similar to an eternalist universe:
Whatever is is right. The equivalent in religious clich is God moves
in mysterious ways, or, It is all part of Gods will.
The process Pope pontificates concerning the part versus the
whole is known in philosophy as the hermeneutic circle. You can only
understand the parts of something by understanding the whole. But
you can only understand the whole by understanding its parts. The
continual back and forth movement between the parts and the whole
entailed of interpretation can make it seem like a vicious circle. It is
impossible to break out of the circle, although later I will argue that the
enclosed nature of the circle (the ontological world within our world it
forms) can provide disclosure that allows us provisional ways to stand
outside or about the circle. The closure of the circle discloses its
secrets of meaning. Literature can occupy a pocket in time that,
paradoxically, circumscribes the whole. FIND CURRIES EXPLANATION
In literature the hermeneutic circle reflects the relationship
between form and content. You can only interpret the content of a work
by recognizing its form. But you can only recognize its form by
interpreting its content. I identify that a poem is a sonnet because its
parts are comprised of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter verse. My

recognition of its form allows me to return to its parts in order to

interpret how the sonnet structure informs the contents meaning . . .
and then I return to examine how the contents meaning informs the
sonnets structure. And so on.
Another way of describing the hermeneutic circle in literature is
that the necessary back and forth examination of form and content is
possible only because a work offers itself as a form of closure. The
poems form, for instance, is available because it comes to an end,
while its content is all the verbal material that reaches that end and
defines its contours.
It is apparent that the hermeneutic circle is more vicious in its
application to life in the middest and relegated to a state of
alienation. The whole of a life only makes sense by examining its parts,
but the parts of life only make sense in light of its whole. It is
impossible to stand outside of time to see life in its entirety, so
retrospection forces us to return to the parts of life from a particular
temporal vantage point, a provisional ending that allows tentative
moments of closure. While events in the past remain fixedwe cannot
travel back into the past to rearrange themthe future arrives, and
keeps arriving, providing new events with a measure of predictability
and surprise. One can anticipate and project visions of the future, but
one cannot know the future. Fortunately the human is not an oracle.
We draw anticipation and visions of the future into the act of
configuring wholes out of present duration that continually vanishes,
but for the most part we are relegated to making sense out of the parts
of an entire experience.
The basic necessity by which we divide time into tense allows us
to see some semblance of a temporal whole, but we remain temporally
fragmented. As Allen Grossman says,
We do not remember the future. Hence the part-whole
perception in the analysis of the literary work is an anticipation of

the mind in contemplationper impossibleof the whole career

of consciousness as a completed system. In the work of art
meaning is complete in a version of being, thus fulfilling by
anticipation the state of affairs in immortalitythe accord of
meaning with being as a whole (425).
Since the future is unknown, we must balance the known with the
unknown in our efforts to make sense of things while at the same time
we accommodate the surprises the future brings. The past and the
future combine to give the present meaning that can only be
provisional. The unexpected can easily vex whatever sense we make of
life. Something always comes along to disturb the order we think we
have created.
Popes adage, Whatever is is right might be soothing in a Zen
sort of wayalthough it is unlikely that Pope was thinking about
anything Eastern in his Deist didacticismbut we are more likely,
particularly in our contemporary world, to feel like the time is out of
joint, as Hamlet says. There is always the greater possibility that
something comes along to disturb or traumatize order. The more that
experience defies expectations of reliable order, the more our
responses to experience become belated. We need, in other words,
more time.

Chapter Four
The Rage for Order

Aboutness and Afterwardness

A literary a work is a frozen entity. A text does not rewrite itself. A

text does not move. An alternate ending or translation only creates
another frozen world. The book you are reading is not going to change
the next time you open it. It is not going to magically rewrite itself
overnight. Whatever movement or change to the text results from your
process of reading and the acts of ordering and making sense you
impose on a text. To that extent, the text itself, the literary object, is
like a block-universe in relationship to the readers time-consciousness.
It takes a lot of strenuous cognitive work to make the frozen text come
The reason we enjoy film and television is the exhilaration of flux
we can experience passively. Whereas we have to engage in the
difficult (and time consuming) activity of reading to understand a novel
or a poem, we do not have to do anything when we watch television or
a movie. It remains an unexamined phenomenon that moving images
do not render the printed word obsolete. Fixed type plods on against all
odds. We are still drawn to print. Even though visual media provides
the movement and sensation that fiction and poetry work hard to

embody and describe, we continue to put in the effort required to read.

The mind still hankers for fixed forms.
Keats depicts the paradox of art as frozen vitality in Ode on a
Grecian Urn in which he both celebrates and laments the fixedness of
artistic form. The poem is in the tradition of ekphrasis, a poem about a
work of art. The urn is adorned with images of a man chasing a woman
around a tree accompanied by flutes in a frenetic, Dionysian
movement. At the same time the urn is dead, frozen, timeless. One of
the functions of an urn, ironically, is to carry the ashes of the dead,
which accounts for the other image on the urn in the background of the
romantic chase: villagers proceeding to make a sacrifice. This is a lot of
activity gyrating around the urn! But the central paradox is that
nothing actually moves or makes sound. It is as a complete work of art
that Keats can examine that the urn creates the semblance of vitality.
In the final stanza of the poem, Keats addresses the urn as he
might address a poem,
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours . . .
The work of art, however, depicts a full and permanent world
suspended in time. The poem ends with Keats reflection on the urn
that seems to analogize it to a poem,
a friend to man, to whom thou sayst
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
What alters the perception of any given text and that makes the
images on Keats urn move is the power of the imagination to impose
patterns of meaning on the parts of the artistic whole that an author

constructs. And this magical ability to transform a text that does not in
reality change is possible because we stand outside of its temporal
structure. When we ask, What is a poem about? about means from
the outside.
Keats enacts the aboutness of the reader to a poem. The urn is
at arms length from Keats as an object for inspection like a book
before us. There is literal, physical distance between a reader and a
book that impacts the interpretive dynamic of reading. Everything we
perceive, including books, is at a remove. If one factors in the speed of
light, a book is also a millionth of a second in the past! Everything in
our field of vision, actually, is in the past, no matter how infinitesimally
so. We all learn in childhood that one can time travel by looking up into
the night sky: the stars we see are anywhere from several years to
millions of years old.
Not only is there a physical distance between a reader and a
text, but also there is an historical distance. A text is something written
in the past. A gap opens between the time of a reader and her present
and the time that a text was composed in its past that compounds the
ontological alienation one experiences between language and the
world. Phenomenologists call this historical distance, distantiation. The
urn Keats examines is not only physically separate from the poet, but
an object created in an ancient past that distantiates us from it. Just as
we are physically separate from Keats poem, we are separated by the
poem by nearly two hundred years.
Like a reader, Keats imaginatively enters into the world of the urn
and engages its story, but he still remains outside of the object, lurking
about it. Entering the work of art is purely phenomenological since you
cannot physically inhabit a work. (Woody Allens short story, The
Kuglemas Episode, wonderfully depicts the horror that ensues if one
actually does inhabit a work of literature.) You are always outside or
about what you examine or read. Situating oneself within a work

historically is also challenging. One can imagine the time when a work
is written, but one cannot inhabit that time just as one cannot return to
the past.
The aboutness of Keats poem expresses its conflicted
belatedness. The work of art precedes Keats by over two thousand
years, emphasizing our place both outside the text and after its end.
Reading is temporally and spatially alienating in that we come after the
text and stand outside or about the space it occupies, which means
that the aboutness of text is always wrapped up in its afterness. A
reader is always a latecomer to a text that came before her. We come
from outside of and beyond the texts time. This means that the
retrospective activity of interpretation also allows us to dwell after the
It is the ability to inhabit the afterness of text, to dwell after the
end, that bestows a literary work with its magical structure that is not
replicable in life: you can exist after the future that the temporal self-
sufficiency and closure of a work provide. In other words, a work of
literature does allow you to remember the future.
Modern poetry becomes far more interested in delineating the
process by which belatedness plays into the making of a poem. Poets
become much more interested in the making of poems themselves, an
activity that is in itself good. This is Wallace Stevens project that
climaxes in his notion of the supreme fiction. His famous poem, The
Idea of Order at Key West is, in many ways, a contemporary revision
of Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn.

The Poet as Maker


In The Idea of Order at Key West, the speaker witnesses a

woman singing at the edge of the ocean, her song imaginatively
reconfiguring the setting. Her song does nothing to alter the natural
world. The water never formed to mind or voice,/Like a body wholly
body, fluttering/Its empty sleeves. But her singing does change the
poets perception of the setting nonetheless. The speaker calls the
woman a maker, the Greek definition for a poet, in order to make her
activity distinct from the natural world.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we soght and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
Her song can shape perception, but it cannot alter nature.
Although the sound of her song and the sound of the ocean remain two
separate realms, something about the woman singing makes the
speaker think of spirit. It is what unifies the disparate realms of
human and nature, but its indefinable presence becomes the speakers
cognitive conflict, something he needs to think through. If it was only
the dark voice of the sea, he speculates, If it was only the outer voice
of the sky the setting would express merely The heaving speech of
air . . . And sound alone. Her song, More even than her voice
amongst The meaningless plungings of water and wind fills the
setting she inhabits with an excess of experience we associate with
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single articifer of the world
In which she sang.

In fact the speaker claims that the woman singing has, like a poem,
come to embody a world complete in itself.
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except for the one she sang, and singing, made.
If the poem ended here, the experience would be marooned in
abstraction, leaving the speakers aesthetic ruminations didactic. As if
to emphasize human connection, however, the poet addresses another
witness to the song in the penultimate stanza (the poem up until this
point is in the third person plural).
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
The description certainly sounds transcendent! Something has
transformed as a result of the womans aria despite the poems
distinction between nature as creation and human as maker;
something about the womans song has altered the setting and infused
it with beauty. It is indeed enchanting. It has created something new
and unique out of the natural world by casting the streetlights, the
boats, and the lights glowing from the masts into a spiritual glow that
remains, at the same time, firmly rooted in the ordinary world. It has
brought these objects to life by arranging them in a world that had
been previously inchoate. The boats turn the ocean into a map and the
lights atop masts turn the harbor into a sidereal landscape. By
portioning and arranging reality, the poem turns the lights into
emblazoned zones, the imaginary lines traced between stars that

demarcate constellations, a beautiful image of the way in which we

provide the world with a plot. The memory of the song transfigures the
setting into a picture of experience that the speaker frames to make
available for artistic reflection.
Although it is not as directly apparent that this poem is about an
art object as Ode on a Grecian Urn, The Idea of Order at Key West
is also written in the tradition of ekphrasis. The work of art is the
womans song; but it is also the rearranged setting that the poet
witnesses as a side effect of her music. In this case the poem is doubly
ekphratic. The poet describes the woman singing, and then he
describes the reimagined setting after the song has poetically
transformed it into a picture. The womans song has inspired the poet
to envision the harbor as a work of art. Perhaps this climactic moment
of charged vision inspires the speaker to write the very poem we read.
The word inspiration, of course, derives directly from the word spirit, a
wind that breathes life into inanimate matter. All of Stevens poems
are, in some ways, about the poet breathing life into the ordinariness
of things.
It would seem the penultimate stanza would be a fitting end. But
the final stanza serves as falling action to the poetic narrative at the
same time as it breaks the suspension of disbelief.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The makers rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
The poem moves with the temporal structure of drama: the woman
enters, sings her aria unaware of her audience, and exits, after which
the speaker allows us to exit the drama. In fact, the final lines sound
somewhat hyperbolic and pedantic, like an epilogue to a play.

It is easy to miss that the penultimate stanza is a question.

Nature is no longer innatenature is no longer naturalbut staged for
evaluation. It has become a still life. In a tone of aesthetic
disinterestedness, the speaker answers his own question in a way that
subtly disenchants the fullness of experience. He attributes the
transformation to the poets rage for order, his desire for keener
sounds to clarify the noise of nature. But the compulsion for order
threatens to drain beauty from the experience. It is easy not to notice
the subtle shift in which reality is suspended at the end.
Stevens explores belatedness. His vision of the setting
transformed by the womans song occurs afterwards. During the
sublime experience of the music cognition is not fully operative. The
sensations are too overwhelming. Once the woman finishes her song
the little setting of the harbor arranges itself for the poets perception.
And yet, there is a sense in which the rage for order has a tendency
to intellectualize the experience. Has the enchanting experience that
has been infused by spirit become falsified by the poet in the
necessary process of forging it into the form of the poem itself?


In literature, ontology is concerned with a works mode of being,

asking questions such as, what is a literary work? What makes a work
unique? What are the different categories of literature? Although
ontology remained relegated to formal attributes and classifications of
literature (Aristotles Poetics being the most famous), the questions of
a works ontological status have become much more complex.
Traditionally ontology viewed a work as an abstract entity with no
spatio-temporal location. A poet, for instance, abstracts from reality
what she represents in the poem. The poem is an isolated entity that
achieves its own status as a world in itself. As T.S. Eliot says, a poem is

autotelic, which means that the poem is self-sufficient. The poem has
its own purpose. It exists for its own sake, and must be interpreted as a
unique being. The poem is.
The notion of the autotelic poem means that it occupies and
creates its own space and time. This is, of course, the aesthetic
philosophy behind the New Criticism, which emphasizes close reading
of the elements integral and unique only to the poem itself. In its
extremealthough New Criticism is never quite this austerethe
interpretation of a poem eschews the poets intention (the author is
dead), the readers response (the Affective Fallacy), and the socio-
historical context (no historicism). After such a reduction, which
philosophy calls bracketing off, what you have left is the
phenomenon of the poem itself. The poem becomes an object for
inspection or an artifact that achieves a timeless status as a uniquely
formed linguistic utterance.
Although New Criticism compels the critic to conduct
complicated and nuanced analyses of language, form, and figuration
a new critical essay always reveals how the poem works, as if
meaning magically arises from the poem like the secrets locked in a
sacred vesselthe downside is that the poem becomes a fetishized
object of reverence. The sort of quasi-science of New Critical analysis
that treats the poem as an object for inspection, like Keats urn, turns
the poem, interestingly, into a sacred object. Like the divine, meaning
is hidden within the poem that the critic must unveil. Despite the
strenuous work of unveiling, the meaning the poem yields is the
integrity of its own being. Like a tautology, the poem, in the end,
simply exists. It has ontology.
In the pursuit of immutability, writers and artists going back to
the ancient Greeks desire the word or the image to transcend time and
become the symbolic moment of eternity. The Romantics desire the
poem to rise above finitude. (In Chapter ** well see that this desire for

poetic transcendence is partly born from the increasingly disposable

and instant experience of industrialism.) In Ode to the West Wind,
Shelly desires to become one of the leaves that swirl in the autumn
wind that strips the trees bare in order to be reborn in the spring. It is
not possible to become natureI fall upon the thorns of life! I
bleed!so the leaves become a metaphor for the pages of his poetry
blowing across the world in the eternity of seasons.
In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats inherits the Romantic dream in
his desire to transform into a work of art by becoming a permanent
fixture in his own poem, the golden bird perched forever in a great hall
Shakespeare expresses the terror of mortality in his sonnets. He
perpetuates the trope by which the mortal poet can insure posterity
through the poems themselves: the poems become their own eternity.
This also means, as Eliot says, Every poem is an epitaph. Unlike
monuments that can crumble in the future, like Shellys Ozymandias,
poems are progeny. So long as men can breath and eyes can see,
Shakespeares sonnets continue his bloodline figuratively.
The romantic tradition attempts to reconcile the human and
nature, the immutability of spirit and death. Romantic poets begin to
recognize how modernity alienates the self from the world while the
modern world grows increasingly indifferent to poetry. Poets start to
treat language itself as a conflict. (Wordsworth on words) In his
prologue to Songs of Innocence, Blakes speaker describes writing as
stained. There is something both necessary but defiling about
turning experience into words, a similar sense of trespass that writers
experience when expressing inviolably traumatic events.
A works being, however, complicates the notion of its status as
an abstraction. The limits and dangers of twisting language to suit
figural purposes testify to a fissure between the self and the world:
words serve as surrogates to the thing itself while imposing the

personal vision of the poet on his or her material. But words are
temporally bound, their meanings destabilized by the slide of time into
the vanishing present. As language becomes problematized by the
mutability of time, and as the poet strives for self-understanding in an
increasingly alienating world, romantic and modernist poets yearn for
poetry to inhabit a timeless status. The desire for artistic freedom from
the vicissitudes of life conflicts with the poets desire to elevate
language to a more substantial level than the ephemeral material
world. Poets, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, raise the poem to the
status of a living entity. The tension is pronounced in Keats Ode on a
Grecian Urn, in which the Grecian urn represents the stillness of an
eternal object of art while the poem struggles to activate the Cold
Pastoral into living form.
Language both unites and divides the human from the world;
words both obfuscate and clarify experience. It is the duplicitous
nature of language that makes Plato suspicions of poetry in The
Republic when he famously banishes the poets from the ideal state.
The rift language forms between the self and the world creates
ontological alienation. The self drifts apart from the world. The poem
seeks to reconcile this rift and to redeem time from entropy. If literary
language obfuscates truth, what kind of reality does a work signify?
Does a poem refer to any reality at all, or is a poem purely self-

Lets look at another poem by Stevens, The Emperor of Ice
Cream. Stevens claimed it was one of his favorite poems. No doubt
the poems two stanzas, its cadence, and the refrain that provides it
with lyricism, gives the otherwise surreal language a sense of closure.
The poem, as Stevens claims, is complete in itself.

The Emperor of Ice Cream is a clever carpe diem poem that

reveals a playful relationship between the poet as maker and
heterocosm. The speaker serves as a sort of master of ceremonies who
summons activity. The declarative statements mimic the Genesis God
who both decrees and requires cooperation connoted by the word
let. Let the wenches dawdle, Let the boys bring flowers, let the
lamp affix its beam. The speaker directs us to arrange a celebration in
a kitchen in the first stanza and a makeshift wake in the second where
the old woman lies in bed with her sheet over her face cold and
dumb. Structured around two stanzas of equal lines, the poem would
seem to suggest dichotomous experience. The two stanzas do not
contrast life and death, however. Instead they juxtapose two rooms
the word stanza means little roomdwellings within dwellings where
differing ontological spaces become the juxtaposition of poetic
appearances of the world.
The carpe diem message suggests that we must celebrate life
not because eventually we will be cold and dumb but because we
arent. We must celebrate life because it is here and we can make it
appear good. Stevens heterocosm is not concerned with origins but
the aesthetic arrangement of appearances. Creation for Stevens
suggests a world that began not with divine decree but a trope.
Arranging not just places but ideas, the speaker compels us to accept
the old womans death as an ultimate end to being and to celebrate
our ability to go on seeming. The repeated refrain at the end of the
poem gives it a cozy sense of closure. We might not know what the
poem means, but it sounds meaningful because the repetition provides
a sense of completion emphasized by the phrase Let be (which is the
equivalent of amen), and finale.
Let be be finale of seem,
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

So, how might this odd little surreal poem inform closure and the
belatedness involved in the temporal structure of literary experience?
Death is at the center of all of Stevens poems because endings
are infused in the endless mutability of reality. That the womans song
comes to an end in Idea of Order at Key West that is a good in itself
allows the poets vision to begin. The dead woman in The Emperor of
Ice Cream allows those who are alive to revel in a life that one can
arrange into an appearance, or a seeming of vitality, which is a fiction
that is a good in itself.
For Stevens, a belief in the ultimate ending of death compels us
perpetually to reimagine the world. Heaven is inert, a dead place
compared to the endless means by which we can reimagine the
richness of reality around us. Beauty and vitality is contingent upon
death, a mutability heaven eschews in the frequently quoted lines from
Sunday Morning.
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams.
A disembodied voice offers running commentary upon a woman who
feels conflicted about enjoying the lazy beauty of her morning instead
of attending church. Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
the voice asks. Is it necessary, he wonders, for the
dark/Encroachment of that old catastrophe to turn the beauty she
luxuriates in to become things in some procession of the dead?
Stevens exhorts the woman to rely upon her own religious vision, to
find something divine in the natural world.
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Divinity must live within herself:

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
The frozen idea of heaven is a far less desirable fiction. And in his
omniscience, the speaker in the poem seems to serve as the poet
standing behind the scenes, luxuriating in the same beauty as the
woman, and lording over the poem as its creator. He espies on the
woman like a voyeur to his own creation.
For Stevens, the poet can find a disinterested joy in the rage for
order that becomes something more than a final good. God might be
dead in the context of Stevens quest for a supreme fiction, but
something of Matthew Arnolds argument that the study of poetry
replaces the attenuation of religion lingers in the background. In Opus
Posthumous, Stevens writes: After one has abandoned a belief in god,
poetry is that essence which takes its place as lifes redemption. The
loss of eschatological belief allows Stevens to revel in the beauty
bestowed by the finality of death that directs people to turn their eyes
from heaven to earth, from earth to poem. Unlike Sartre, Stevens does
not seem particularly troubled by the burden that the loss of God
places upon moral choice and freedom. Stevens is an atheist but he is
not an existentialist. He believes in the radical finality of death yet he
avoids the despair that results from Heideggers being-toward-death.
Yet the loss of eschatology makes Stevens vision of the
imagination slippery. Reality becomes an indeterminate category. In
the attempt to find a fiction to replace the abandoned god, however,
the poet encounters a great problem. Direct knowledge of reality is not

possible. In his essay Imagination as Value, Stevens argues, The

truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before
the reason has established them. We generally consider the
imagination to be a realm in which unconscious instincts and
impressions undergo sublimation whereas reality correlates to an
external world outside of ourselves that is static and available to
consciousness. Imagination, in other words, is an effect of reality. For
Stevens, however, reality is the effect of the imagination in its act of
shaping the world. Reality is contingent on the power of the
imagination to give it shape. Since we always search for more
satisfying ways in which to shape reality, it is not static, like a
metaphysical truth. Reality is always in a process, like poetic creation,
alive and organic because of our will to make it so. The worlds
mutability is not just the result of change that death brings about, but
the ways in which our perceptions continually reconceive the world.
Making sense of the world, therefore, is a process without end, and the
relationship between art and the world never settles.


Frank Kermode argues early on in The Sense of an Ending that
Stevens, like other modernists, must struggle to reimagine outmoded
paradigms in order to create a fiction that contends with shifting
perceptions of reality.
The pressure of reality on us is always varying, as Stevens
might have said: the fictions must change, or if they are
fixed, the interpretations must change. Since we continue
to prescribe laws to natureKants phrase, and we do
we shall continue to have a relation with the paradigms,
but we shall change them to make them go on working. If
we cannot break free of them, we must make sense of
them. (24)

Stevens likes to call his poetry from around the point of The Snow
Man a search for the First Idea. But the First Idea always becomes
reconfigured into a new appearance that must be broken by another
If we think first of modern fictions, it can hardly be an
accident that ever since Nietzsche generalized and
developed Kantian insights, literature has increasingly
asserted its right to an arbitrary and private choice of
fictional norms, just as historiography has become a
discipline more devious and dubious because of our
recognition that its methods depend on an unsuspected
degree of myths and fictions. After Nietzsche it was
possible to say, as Stevens did, that the final belief must
be in a fiction. This poet, to whom the whole question was
of perpetual interest, saw that to think in this way was to
postpone the Endwhen the fiction might be said to
coincide with realityfor ever; to make of it a fiction, an
imaginary moment what at last the world of fact and the
mundo of fiction shall be one. Such a fictionthe last
section of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction is,
appropriately, the place where Stevens gives it his fullest
attentionsuch a fiction of the end is like infinity plus one
and imaginary numbers in mathematics, something we
know does not exist, but which helps us to make sense of
and to move in the world. (Emphasis mine 36 37)
Reality takes on shape and pattern that results from the
imaginations rage for order. Accepting in the final estimate that, in the
crisis of arriving at the end, the only fact is ultimately and
fundamentally fiction, Stevens imposes order over reality to the extent
that reality becomes defined by that order as opposed to something
available for objective study.

Chapter Five
Remembering the Future

Deconstructing Causality

Of course we cannot literally remember the future. The past
future tense is also a trope. You can only make effect precede cause by
playing language games, by seeing the world figuratively, by making
fictions. But these fictions have consequences. As Pinker says, words
are not just about facts about the world stored in a persons head but
are woven into the causal fabric of the world itself (9).
There are many aspects to Deconstruction that allow us to
reimagine literature, but a great deal of its interpretive approach, to
me, at least, involves playing games with language and time that are
already inherently part of the complexity of speech and writing. Since
words are embedded in the vanishing present, language and meaning
is a very slippery business indeed. A poem might be linguistically
frozen, but the meaning of words are always ambiguous, an
indeterminacy that deconstruction loosens text with much more fervor
than New Critics would dare. Deconstruction, therefore, has forced us
not to treat literary discourse as if its words are etched into temporal
stone, showing how meaning is always a floating target.
At the same time, deconstruction can also empty language of
human spirit and make interpretation impossibly skeptical business.
Derridas notion of trace means that the meaning we accord to

language becomes, like experience in the vanishing present, the ghost

image of the truth and reality it attempts to signify. Language is the
only means we have to describe the world, but the temporal
slipperiness of words can only leave behind traces of meaning. It is
impossible to know anything with certainty. In other words, there is no
such thing as Truth or Reality (with the scare capitals included), only a
chaotic network of truths and realities that shifts and changes with
every verbal inscription. Everything is always already the product of
writing, which means that Reality and Truth are constituted by tropes.
As Nietzsche says in the frequently quoted passage from, On Truth
and Lying in the Non-Moral Sense,
Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms,
anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations
which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical
intensification, translation and decoration []; truths are
illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions,
metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and
have lost all sensuous vigour []. Yet we still do not know
where the drive to truth comes from, for so far we have
only heard about the obligation to be truthful which society
imposes in order to exist
The danger of suspicion is extremism. The impossibility to
determine an absolute truth does not mean that it is futile to speak of
truths. Certainly language is just as slippery to grasp as the experience
of the vanishing present, but temporality does not mean that it is futile
to make value judgments. As much as I think that deconstruction has
opened up interpretation that traditional forms of close reading or
aesthetic evaluation keep closed, I also believe that its practitioners
have a tendency of bringing interpretation to a dead end. Is there
really that much difference between a New Critical reading of Ode on
a Grecian Urn that examines the integrity of the poem structured

around paradox and irony to prove it inherently means, and a

deconstructive reading that uses the same devices of literary analysis
to prove that it is impossible for the poem to inherently mean anything
at all? Both approaches do justice to the strenuous analysis that Keats
demands of a reader while leaving the poem in a state of inertia, a pile
of ashes.
In On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler illustrates how language
can subvert sequential order by using Nietzsches pin / pain example
of indeterminate causality. When you sit down in a chair you feel a
sharp pain in your ass, so you jump off the seat and look down only to
discover a pin sticking up from the cushion. Which came first, the pin
or the pain?
You experience the situation as a temporal structure that makes
the pain precede the pin: effect precedes cause. In the moment that
the present vanishes, you turn your experience of the pin into a
miniature but coherent narrative. For all intents and purposes, the
mental construction you make out of sitting on the pin is a true,
mimetic representation. But it is a fiction nonetheless. Therefore, Culler
implies, language deconstructs itself because perception already
subverts temporal causality. Supposedly, this temporal indeterminacy
proves that all foundations of signification in the Western world are
encoded by the same illusions of causality. Meaning is propped over an
Nietzsches game with causality, however, shows that nothing
has really been deconstructed about time at all. Instead, reality
results from the metaphors we use to describe it. The pin does not
become the future cause of an effect. The pain may lead to your
discovery of the pin, but the pin still causes the pain. The conscious
experience of events out of causal order does not mean that time
suddenly runs in reverse. The reversal of causality occurs in time-
consciousness: it is simply the order in which you experience time that

unfolds in spite of you. Additionally, it does not mean that language

undermines its ability to refer to the world. In fact, the pin-pain
illustration shows how meaningful and necessary language is. Think
how poetic it is that we can convince ourselves that our pain produced
the pin. At the same time, we know that such experience is fiction. It is
an amazing aspect of human self-consciousness that we can willingly
suspend disbelief while we have the ability to stop suspending disbelief
when we want or need to.
Part of my argument concerning the importance of literary
closure is that language can explain experience. TRANSITION
How we use language to describe the world and to persuade
others of that vision can, and certainly does, become inevitably
wrapped up in politics. The linguistic relationship between fiction and
reality can be deleteriously abused, but the abuse of language does
not mean that words inadequately signify experience. It means that a
healthy culture requires critical scrutiny of how language is used and
for what purpose. (There is no doubt that a great deal of
deconstruction in a critical response to the traumatic violence fascism
wrecked on language, and the ways in which rhetoric continues to be
used to falsify truth.)
We should never take language for granted. Suspicion of the
meaningful effectiveness of language, and the way we use language, is
vital. But hyper-suspicious modernity also drains a belief that language
can do things that are not solely materialistic.
One reason, I believe, that the Harry Potter novels are so
incredibly popular is that they recuperate a belief in the magical
properties of language lost since the late Middle Ages. The students at
Hogwarths can conjure spells by uttering magic words: language
creates reality. Rowlings novels depict the magical function of
language that looks like a fairytale to us today, but which was very real
up until the Reformation. The Harry Potter series evokes a religious

nostalgia for Medievalism when words were the cause of effects in

rituals, like the sacraments. Today words have become merely signs
that refer to effects. The only people who seem to retain the belief in
the magical ability of language to create reality are politicians. The
poet is no longer consulted. No wonder we are preoccupied with
linguistic nihilism!

The little pin / pain example points to the ways in which we do

use language to rearrange the order of events all the time to make
sense of the world. Time does not rearrange itself to make sense for
us. Widen the scope from pin/pain, and you discover that fiction is
entirely built around perversions of time and tense.
Anachrony, a term I have used several times now, was coined by
the famous narrative theorist, Gerard Gennette, to define any devise
an author employs to play with or deviate from the arrow of time. He
divides anachrony into many classifications as a way to bring more
nuance and complexity to the simplistic and traditional notion of
flashback and foreshadowing. I will be adopting the two most common
forms of anachrony, analepsis (retrospection) and prolepsis (the future-
present or anticipation) throughout this book for the convenience of
discussing narrative convention. The pin/pain example intimates the
past future tense (or the prolepsis) of fiction. In prolepsis, the pin is the
realized future that must be reached by interpreting the pain.

Making Memories: Causal Paradoxes

It is impossible to remember the future, but we make the present

available for future memory all the time and at an accelerating rate in
this age of what Walter Benjamin calls mechanical reproduction. Our
contemporary culture is preoccupied with making memories, a
phrase that is wrapped up in prolepsis.

Ponder for a moment the grammatical brain-twister of the

phrase, making memories.
Memories result from the mental recollection of past experience
that are bidden, as in Wallace Stevens artistic retrospection in The
Idea of Order at Key West, or triggered, as in the flashbacks Anthony
Hecht recounts in A Hill. But to make a memory entails consciously
turning the present into something that we envisage ourselves
recollecting in the future. To make memories means to actively treat
moments in the vanishing present as something we save away for
future recall. It is an activity that puts afterwardness into action. It
shares, therefore, the doubled time structure of belatedness, except
that, by consciously deferring present experience for future memory,
we attempt to control the future by anticipating it. THE EXAMPLE OF
Photography and videographyour cellphones that allow us to
record any experience at any momentaccelerates our drive to make
memories. Digital technologies allow us to archive representations of
the present that we can access in the future. Photography or video
records something in the present as though it is already a future event.
They insure memories for the future, which makes them inherently
proleptic forms, artifacts of afterwardness.
The activity of crafting likenesses that transgress mortality goes
back to prehistoric times. The status of images as sacred objects and
spaces envisaged as inhabiting a post-apocalyptic world persists today.
The drawing, photograph, or video of loved ones substitutes their loss.
They occupy the same gap as language between the self and the world
that grows increasingly wide since birth.
For a moment, think of someone photographing you at an
important event: when you become self-conscious of how you look
noware my eyes closed? is my hair out of my eyes? should I smile

with teeth or not?your mind is actually anticipating how you will look
for future inspection.
We all pose for the future when we are photographed or video
recorded. We do not necessarily create a record of the moment but an
archive that anticipates our desire for recollection in the future. In the
temporal structure of an archive, the present is an activity that
anticipates future memory.
The future envisaged by an archived present creates complicated
inversions of causality. For instance, Derrida argues that the media
records an event not because it happens; the event happens because
the news records it. Websites like Facebook turn the image into the
event; the event does not inspire the image. Consequently,
postmodern thinkers in the context of a world surrounded by digital
reproduction are pestered by the question, what is real? The original
moment that is the object of representation, or the reproduction?
In Simulacrum, Baudrillard argues that mechanical reproduction
replaces reality. The world, therefore, has no depth; there is no hidden
meaning that is the usual impetus for interpretation because the
image itself is the meaning. The surface is reality. Marshall McLuan
famously claims, The medium is the message. Therefore, archiving,
for deconstructionists like Derrida, rejects original and present
meaning. Instead, meaning is forever deferred by a chain of signifiers
that ride along a slippery surface of reproductions, like language or
image, which supplements an ever-vanishing present. The result is
that we live in an increasingly deepened and perpetuated present.
The proleptic, anticipatory mode of reproduction throws the
whole structure of literary closure into question. This suspicion of the
efficacy of language, as we will see in Chapter ***, have real
consequences: all of reality is a linguistic house of cards; meaning
becomes as provisional in the now of a vanishing present.

In Archive Fever, Derrida deconstructs the priority of the notion

of authenticity and originality in historical records, or the archives we
keep of the past. We have an inherent belief that there is an original
source to ****
My feeling throughout this book is that Derrida and other
deconstructionists are not necessarily wrong. At the same time their
reliance on modernist phenomenology forecloses other possibilities.
The future-past dynamic of archive fever has a lot to teach us about
the unique temporal value of narration and lyric. How does fiction and
poetry create the future? To what extent does literature make
memories for the future?

Chapter 6
Clearing Places

Endings and the Still Life

A work of fiction or a poem reaches an end out of necessity.

Endings are the indispensible fact of fiction. The challenge for authors
and poets is how to manage surplus: there is always more to say and
an endless chain of possibilities by which one can envisage a future.
Fictions must narrow endless possibility down to a finite form.
Augustine encounters this crisis when self-narration cannot move
beyond his current moment in time in Confessions, which he resolves

by turning time itself into an object for self-reflection. The universal

theme of finding yourself, or the search for self-knowledge, runs in
literature since Homer. We can never be completely present with the
self because we are always temporally torn between the future and a
present that constantly vanishes. The capacity for words to mean and
the capacity for self-knowledge is limited and destabilized by finitude.
In Michael Chabons Wonder Boys, for instance, the novelist,
professor Tripp, is writing a novel that he cannot figure out how to end.
It approaches an unwieldy 2,600 pages long. As his lover says to him
after she reads the monster-manuscript, you do not make any
The form of an ending requires an author to be ruthlessly
selective. The necessity of an ending conflicts with contingency. The
haphazardness of life always frustrates narrative coherence. Professor
Tripp cannot end his monstrously long novel because he cannot make
the tough choices of what not to include.
We like to think the novel is such a wonderful form because of its
inclusiveness: like James Joyce, the novelist can absorb all
circumstances of the world in a network of different voices. But this is a
terrible misunderstanding of a novels narrative form. A novel that tries
to represent the summa of life would be unreadable.
When Virginia Woolf depicts the nuances of every hour during a
single day in Mrs. Dalloway, she makes the narrative come alive
through her selectivenessparticular moments, places, and events.
Stream of consciousness follows a network of people, all in some way
entangled with Mrs. Dalloway and converging on her dinner party. It is
Woolfs ability to select a particular vision of her characters from within
the indeterminate passage of time that makes it so successful. The
stream of consciousness technique allows her to record the
impressions of characters memories throughout the day, but Woolf
does not reject consecution. The leaden weight of clock-time

reverberates through the bells of Big Ben right from the beginning, as
if to entrench times forward movement. The sequence of hours serves
as a temporal roadmap for the reader, but it also emphasizes the
haphazardness of human consciousness in contrast to clock-time. Big
Ben functions like a metronome counting out the time around which
Woolf must organize her material.
Even though the ending does not conclude anything for Mrs.
Dalloway (there is still a party to attend and many more in the future),
we feel a sense of closure because we witness a moment of
heightened time when she tries to confront her own fear of death when
Dr. Bradshaw comments perfunctorily on Septimus Smiths suicide.
Dispensing with the pat Victorian ending that resolves in resolution to
action, Woolf allows the novel to achieve a climax of consciousness, or
what Joyce designed into the literary device of epiphany. Her
protagonists experience a sort of provisional epiphany, remaining open
to the malleability of the future. The closure she creates allows us to
dwell in these spaces of temporal suspension, whether it is the
moment when Mrs. Dalloway descends the stairs, or the memories
during the day influenced by Peter Walshs return that interrupt her
present happiness. Critics like to speak of such endings as open or
irresolute; however, there is a firm sense of closure in which, at this
moment of all moments in a sequence of hours and days, each
character has achieved, no matter how provisional, a sense of self.
The same type of triumph of consciousness as opposed to action
occurs at the end of To the Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe completes her
painting while Mr. Ramsay, James, and Pru finally reach the lighthouse.
Everyone experiences a personal reckoning rather then a final action
that resolves the suspense at the novels close. Lilys vision remains as
open and impressionistic as the shape she tries to fit into the
composition of her painting. Like Stevens The Idea of Order at Key
West, the final section of To the Lighthouse turns Lily into a sort-of

novelist in the novel; the novel is about the process of turning flux into
order available as an object for inspection.
Even when Joyce attempts to depict the entire unconscious of
the West within the mind of a single person in Finnegans Wake, he
achieves closure craftily (and rather traditionally) through its circular
structure that provides the text with a frame. Finnegans Wake is
probably the furthest a novel can take inclusiveness. As remarkable as
the work is, not many people desire to read it. The same difficulty to
get through narrative occurs with postmodern fiction. The openness to
all experience creates both wonders and pitfalls for the postmodern
tome. The form of the postmodern epic in its encyclopedic
representation of experience poses great challenges for a reader.
Pynchons Gravitys Rainbow (which has one the best beginnings and
endings in literary history) clocks in at over 800 pages, making it the
most famous novel that few people finish reading. (Spoiler Alert: even
though the novel forgoes traditional narrative linearity, the ending
cannot be anymore conclusive: the V2 rocket Slothrop rides is about to
destroy the very movie theater in which we supposedly sit, watching
the novel we read.) It is not the distance between the beginning and
the end that makes it difficult. There are plenty of gigantic Victorian
works, including multi-volume works, that people read through with
ease. It is the disorienting means by which Pynchon gets us to the
ending that is difficult. Nineteenth-century novels bring you to the
ending; postmodern novels make you work for it. (James Woods)
Nothing betrays the fictiveness of a text more than an ending.
Life does not round off like a story! Endings in fiction are artificial. An
author makes crucial choices about how to balance an ending with the
open-endedness of life. Even modern and postmodern authors who
express the meaninglessness of life or hyperrealists who want to depict
plain quotidian experience with exactitude are constrained by the
architecture of a story that determines meaning and compels a reader

to make sense out of the most muddled representation. The artificial

pose of definitive endings, like they lived happily ever after, can
leave a readers innate sense of reality unsatisfied. Harlequin
romances might satisfy but they are never persuasive. They offer
formulas of closure that amount to cheap conflict resolution. Likewise,
the overly pat endings of melodramatic Victorian novels with all of
their coincidences appear nave to the contemporary reader. By the
late nineteenth century their conventions come under satirical scrutiny.
Oscar Wildes The Importance of Being Earnest ends by lampooning
the wild familial coincidences that resolve the plot of typical
Authors increasingly defy expectations of an ending in a more
complex world in which visions of an ultimate end are ambiguous. Our
modern sense of spatial disorientation in a vast and relativistic
universe no longer allows for the entrenched beliefs in a definitive,
literal end of the world that a cozy Ptolemic cosmology accommodates.
Today a reader must feel compelled to divine patterns of meaning from
the text. This is because we are in a rare phase in history when
meaning and interpretation are important.
The priority of hermeneutics has everything to do with closure
and endings. We often forget that interpreting a text and figuring out
its meaning have not been particularly important activities in a
majority of literary history. Most literature up until the end of the 19thC
comes with assumptions about cosmology and the biblical truth of
endings already baked into an author and readers expectations. A
majority of literary history, therefore, is dominated by evaluative
criticism, preoccupied with questions such as: is it aesthetically
pleasing? Is it morally acceptable? Does it make sense in the context of
the world that we live in?
The single most important shift that led to our current interest in
literary analysis was the availability of the Bible in print during the

Reformation in the early sixteenth century. Interpreting the Bible rather

than orally accepting the Word became integral as a result of print. A
print culture turns reading into a far more personal activity. Therefore,
the shift from and oral to a print tradition is not just integral to the
growth of literary analysis, but also for the growth of human self-
consciousness of individuality. Literacy and the dissemination of text
made the American Revolution possible.
As Paul Fry argues, interpretation and meaning only become
important when texts grow difficult and the disparity between
assumptions and reality increases. For instance, the interpretation of
law becomes very important for the first time in the 18thC because, as
democracy and nationalism rises, laws not only become more complex,
but since law matters to people on a personal level they want to find
ways to figure out how to utilize it.
The fictions of concordance, as Frank Kermode calls them, no
longer jibe with a more complicated sense of an ending today.
Disparity arises in the past one hundred or so years between the world
and an authors personal perception, including disparity between the
author and his/her own perceptions that characterizes the divided self
that preoccupies Freud. It becomes impossible to read a work of
literature with assumptions about meaning and order that determine a
text, particularly if the author (always considered the authority) is in a
state of unknowingness. As we will see, the unknowing voice is
prevalent in twentieth century literature, which poses difficulties for
interpretation (and, hence, makes determining the meaning of a text a
priority). We have already seen how Anthony Hechts unknowingness in
A Hill places a great deal of interpretive onus on the reader. If the
narrator does not know, we have to ignite our own interpretive energy.
The emphasis upon hermeneutics forms a new causal
relationship in which meaning becomes the effect of interpretation.
When we assume that meaning is stable, like the Truth upon which it is

predicated, there is nothing to cause that meaning but the absolute

Truth itself. Today a text is no longer a tautological object. A poems
meaning no longer precedes and precludes its interpretation. In fact,
evaluation looks like a nave, conventional form of closure today in
contrast to what Ricoeur calls hermeneutics of suspicion. Reader
response criticism, which focuses on the readers subjective
experience in producing value in a text, would have made absolutely
no sense in the 18thcentury that assumes eternal and universal value
that exists regardless of the self!
The result of this shift from what is called Absolute Truth to
suspicion and subjectivity means that if an ending does not force us to
question and interpret a text as a wholeif an ending does not deliver
some level of ironythe work becomes inert. We dispense with the
text, or judge it beneath interpretation, because it does not ignite our
increasingly inherent drive for meaning. Today has inherited the grand
suspicions of absolute truth in the previous two centuries so that when
we read we no longer assume meaning. We interpret meaning.
We still want plots to satisfy, and numerous vehicles of
entertainment provide a plethora of quick and easy endings. But we
are also highly self-conscious of how closure is a literary convention
and not a natural condition. UMBERTO ECOS ANALOGY TO
CONVENTION. If postmodernism is partly defined as a period when
readers and writers become hyperaware of convention, then the
biggest victim of our disbelief has been the biblical end of the world.
Although Shakespeare, as we will see, challenges the models of
time that insure a promised end and turns apocalypse into tragedy,
the eighteenth and nineteenth-century novel maintains a tragic
mentality that draws from an older, biblical apocalyptic tradition.
Authors become much more self-conscious about the nature of endings
and closure at the advent of modernism and the challenges that

European, British, and American literary artists pose to the

predominantly Christian-humanistic notion of the progress of man.

Endings and the Imitation of Life

TRANSITION So an ending is more than just the place where a

text stops. It is, as Henry James calls it, a highly charged and
indeterminate stopping place.
The prime effect of so sustained a system, so prepared a
surface, is to lead on and on; while the fascination of
following resides, by the same token, in the presumability
somewhere of a convenient, of a visibly appointed stopping
Forming a stopping place, James recognizes, is arbitrary and requires
great labor. The writer must struggle to find and forge one. We have,
as the case stands, to invent and establish them, to arrive at them by a
difficult, dire process of selection and comparison, of surrender and
sacrifice. Forming closure out of the mass of material that goes into
the narrative mix is laborious, a dire process that entails a great deal
of losswhat do you leave out?in order to gain the shape of a novel.
As Marianna Torgovnic says, an ending defines a works geometry.
As I said earlier, there is also nothing more artificial in literature
than the ending of a work. When an author creates a stopping place,
she forms an illusion that life poses for inspection. An ending provides
retrospection that compels the reader to return to the beginning and
middle in an activity that complicates causality.
In its ancient definition, fiction imitates reality in a process
known as mimesis. Mimetic representation (from where we get the
word mime) should not be confused with copying or replicating. It is
not photographic representation, but a process by which art and
writing represents reality to create a form that says something more

about the world than a mere replication. The development of

photography in the mid-1800s poses the greatest challenge to mimetic
representation in both literature and art. It is no coincidence that the
radical experimentation indicative of Modern Art explodes at the same
time as the camera becomes ubiquitous. It is not so much that modern
artists were trying to compete with mechanical forms of reproduction
(although certainly they were), but that the ways in which they
reimagine visual space emphasizes the vast difference between
representation and replication. Concurrently, modernist writing
develops fragmentation, impressionism, and stream of consciousness
in order to differentiate replication from representation.
Mimesis represents an aspect of action in the real world, inviting
the reader or the viewers aesthetic or ethical response. Mimetic
criticism, dominant throughout most of literary history, examines this
locked and transparent relationship between the word (or image) and
the world that reaches a height with literary realism and neo-classical
art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The major question for
mimetic criticism tends to be, how well and in what way does a work
describe or depict reality?
In other words, until fairly recently in literary history, a reader
has no reason to question the efficacy of language to describe the
world. Nor does the reader have reason to question the authority of an
author to implement that language. The usual prerogative of literary
criticism, then, boils down to whether or not a work is aesthetically and
morally successful, not necessarily what the work means. This causes
big problems for Shakespeares plays, which, despite their incredible
popularity when they were performed, did not fare moral scrutiny well
in the 17th and 18th centuries: his works are, no doubt, aesthetically
remarkable but morally questionable.
Even in the most mimetic work, however, an ending reverses the
causality of representation. It forces us to reexamine a text to question

how we reached this particular endpoint, this singular moment when

the words end followed by blank space. Such reconfiguration of
meaning an ending poses is nowhere more explicit than in shocking
endings (which will be the subject of Chapter **), such as the ending of
King Lear, which forces us, even when we reread it, to reexamine
everything that precedes it; or in pretty much all of the violent endings
of Flannery OConnors short stories that force us to ask, Yikes! What
caused that? and then we go searching for the pin that caused the
But the ending of a work does not just make us examine the
text. In mimesis, a text always refers to the world, which means it has
something to say about the world and the way we know it. If an author
has a viewpoint, or a moral vision, he or she obviously wants us to
entertain the possibility that the world in some way conforms to that
aspect. The plot of a narrative organizes the potentially endless
haphazardness of contingent experience into a structure, but the
sopping place and the frame that an ending provides that gives a work
closure reciprocates such literary emplotment by turning the world into
an arrangement. (RICOEURS MIMESIS 3) Life becomes a work of art in
of itself that the author represents. Mimesis means that art imitates
life. But reading a work also means that life can imitate art.

The world as a realm outside of a work becomes layered with

structures of language or visual composition that we associate with the
inside of a work. The poet might say that the poem makes a beautiful
landscape speak, but the beautiful landscape in turn speaks to the
poet. In other words, the closure of a work refigures the way in which
we see the world. Reality becomes reimagined. We see the world as
artists and writers imagine it.
We can see this shift toward foregrounded artifice by examining
visual arts. As landscape painting becomes much more prevalent after

religious patronage wanes, the phenomenon grows in the nineteenth

century by which an artist does not necessarily represent nature, but
nature offers itself up as the subject of a work of art. It is as if nature
starts to pose for the scenes depicted in landscape paintings. One can
see this phenomenon clearly in subject matter that becomes
hackneyed, such as beautiful sunsets. By the twentieth century, it
becomes impossible to paint a sunset without carrying the baggage of
all of the other beautiful sunsets that have been painted before. A
painting of a sunset must contend with its own clich. Literary or
artistic convention makes reality look increasingly conventional!
This peculiar reversal of reality is prevalent in nature poetry
during Romanticism. The poet not only frames the natural world in the
same way as an artist selects a scene for composition; nature seems to
compose itself for the poets eye. As Angus Fletcher argues in A New
Theory of American Poetry, the lyrical poems of William Wordsworth or
John Clare exude the uncanny sense that the landscape poses for the
poet. Nature intransitively arranges itself into a still life. The poet looks
to the natural world for inspiration and the natural world busily
conforms to the poets desire. Wallace Stevens turns this phenomenon
into cerebral games with nature and reality in such poems as
Anecdote on a Jar. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, or The
Rage for Order in Key West. Endings emphasize the dialectic between
reality and artifice: the ending places a frame over nature while nature
itself remains essentially independent of the poets verbal imposition.
Nature does not exist in frames.
When stopping places make reality pose for our attention, the
readers interpretation becomes retrospective. Reality freezes into a
still life that we can walk through. By moving backward into the text,
the reader can examine how a poem or narrative moves forward
toward its ending. We examine how the text composes the very frame
that gives it closure. The temporal order teleology provides stands out

almost compositionally in the same way that the traditional rectangular

shape organizes the visual world of a painting, forcing the eye to move
from border to horizon, from horizon to border. In this respect, two-
dimensional art is very conventional: it visually offers up the trick of its
own artifice.
In actuality, we do not see the world framed by a square or
rectangle. The eye must search and select places of orientation in
reality; in art the pictures frame keeps the experience regulated and
guides the eye to examine the artists composition. The artifice of
poetry and visual art is part of the reason why Plato and the ancients
prefer mathematics. Transcendent ideas for which the philosopher
must reach always descend into the world to become mere shadows of
higher truth. Even nature is the corrupted shadow of transcendent
ideas. The forms are buried within the haphazardness of our perception
and natures own inherent unruliness that merely shadows the perfect
mathematical shapes transcendent to our sensible world. This is why
ancient Greek architecture is so rectilinear and austere. Their buildings
are designed to represent a geometric perfection of transcendent
forms freed from the obfuscation of nature.
There is, in fact, much more of a temporal relationship between
visual arts and literature than we think. A general assumption is that
paintings provide a non-temporal form of representationeverything is
there, instantly available to us, all in one spacewhereas narratives
can only be understood by moving through a sequence of action and a
consecution of space. This is, for the most part, true. A book requires
time; a painting is immediate. Narrative and poetry require much more
work from a reader than a painting requires from a viewer. But this
does not take into account the intricate ways in which space provides
movement for the viewer that is temporal in paintings, such as
Caravaggios Abraham and Isaac, where the composition compels the
eye to scan from the angels future interruption into Abrahams current

distraction from the knife as Isaacs horror recedes into the past. In
Picassos Guernica, the classical pyramidal composition that brings
everything to one instant viewpoint competes with the horizontal
movement of the bombing from outdoors to indoors to outdoors again.
The fragmented horizontal movement of female figures from right to
left breaks the frozen moment of atrocity, emphasized by the bulls
terrified stare. By reversing the left to right movement of reading, the
painting prioritizes the effects of the bombing over its causes. This
allows for immediacy. Picasso wants to foreground the suffering and
Forms of closure, the limitations an author or artist must place
on a work, creates a sense of meaning for the reader. Therefore, the
circumference and the end frame an abstraction of life, a part drawn
from the whole, that refers to an entire experience nonetheless.
Closure allows one the ability to temporally suspend life in order to
engage interpretation.
Arrested time, however, is an illusion. But the reader suspends
disbelief and treats a work as if it were a stilled moment, like the
painting of a still life or a portrait. As the subject matter of both
literature and art becomes more intimate, we become more attuned to
the ways in which life imitates art. For instance, we understand human
personality because of its characterizations in our fictions, like the
distilled and frozen essence of the person posing for the artist.
Character types in life arise because of the arranged contexts and
settings we live through. We all know how a group involved in a project
or sequestered together for a period of time, like a dormitory or a
tightknit workplace, produces discernible personalities. It is as if the
setting arranges a cast of characters in advance: the leader; the clown;
the geek; the ditz; the straight and narrow one; the villain. The
television show Gilligans Island repeats such stereotypes with great
popular success that could not be duplicated today in our more ironic

stance toward convention. The movie, The Breakfast Club, looks silly
today with its Gilligans Island stereotypes cast in the context of
serious cultural commentary.
Abstraction from life for representation enhances personalization.
You can see this shift in the creative relationship toward reality in
Chaucers Canterbury Tales. The catalog of characters the narrator
introduces in the General Prologue is not realistic. It is a novices
mistake to presume that Chaucer is a kind of realist novelist before his
time. The unassuming and trenchantly ironic first-person narrator is
himself one of the pilgrims, and, therefore, a type of figure amongst
many others Chaucer represents. Instead, Chaucer provides verbal
portraits of each pilgrim that verge on cartoon.
How Chaucer frames the description of each pilgrim allows
their personalities to rise above temporal contingency. They are not
individuals but what we have come to call stereotypes. The closure
he provides to figures in his work turns the usual personification of
abstract concepts of medieval literature into what we recognize today
as character, each one unique because he gives them a particular
frame of reference, a world vision made possible because of their
teleology. It is Chaucers genius that each pilgrim he catalogs in the
General Prologue offers a picture of their character, but that the
ends, or the telos of each personality comes to fruition through the
stories each one tells. In other words, the pictures come to life because
each pilgrim performs his or her personality by storytelling. Chaucer
makes the portraits speak. Narrative provides a more complete picture
than portraiture. In the end, identity is narratively bound. We know who
we are because of the story we can tell about ourselves.
The revolution of character based on portraiture inaugurated by
Chaucer has a powerful influence on Shakespeare, who knows more
than any other author how much artifice goes into the development of
character. For Shakespeare, personality is performance. Instead of the

conventional depiction of characterVice, Virtue, the Ancient, the

braggadocio, the crumudgeon, etc.Shakespearean characters
construct their identities through the roles they play and their self-
consciousness about performance. They become self-creators or what
Hegel called free artists of the self. For Shakespeare, we all form
portraits of ourselves so that it becomes impossible to know which
comes first: the person or the personality.
Such play with the mimetic commerce between the artist and
reality is exactly what contributes to the sense everyone has of
Shakespeares universalism. His characters exist, as Samuel Johnson
claims, for all times. It is not so much that Shakespeare is brilliant at
representing actual human personality. Instead, Shakespeare invents,
as Johnson claims, species because each of his characters develop
by the same force of artifice as the teleological drive of narrative
closure. It is from Shakespeare that we begin to derive the notion of
the self as a narrative construction that we see taking shape with
Chaucers pilgrims performing stories about themselves. And if the self
is a narrative construction, one of the most important issues at stake in
life is the end. TRANSITION ON TELOS

Chapter 6
Forms of Teleology

Ending and Being

An ending is one of the few elements integral for turning

narrative into story. Endings, however, like beginnings, are arbitrary. As
Ive said, a work of fiction makes itself no more explicitly fictive than
when it ends because it forces a writer to balance contingency and
form. This balance foists order over a work, a form of closure, which
makes literature most unlike life. Life does not present itself to us with
the constructed selectivity by which literature offers something akin to
a still life. This disparity problematizes the notion that narratives are
models for life.
Quite simply, endings falsify life. But the falsifications of fiction
are as true to the world of the story or poem as they are dissonant to
actual experience. The falsification of fiction has been the center of
Platonic arguments against poetry throughout history going back to
Aristotles retort to Plato in Poetics. As a result, poetry (a term used to
encompass all literary genres) has always been on the defensive, even
today when its utility, what it can deliver of quantifiable value to
students, is called into question in higher education. Perhaps the
greatest defense of poetry, and one of the earliest pieces of literary
criticism, was Sir Philip Sidneys A Defense of Poesy. At the center of

his rhetorical acrobats designed to counter-argue the prevailing Puritan

indictment of theaterhe treats the issue as though poetry is on trial
is the accusation that poets are liars. Brilliantly, Sidney turns the
argument upside down based on logic: a poet does not purport to tell
the truth, so a poet cannot lie. Therefore, the poet has the freedom to
explore truths that other thinkers cannot share because they must deal
with the demands of their specialty. This notion becomes the basis of
Coleridges famous argument over two hundred years later that
readers willingly suspend disbelief when they read poetry. They know it
is not truth, but they allow themselves the freedom to believe in the
world that fiction purports to express.
The greatest falsification literature embodies is its form of
closure that gives a work temporal autonomy. Since an author or poet
can abstract and frame her representation of life, a work embodies its
own unique temporality: a fully formed future that the reader can
presentify. The beginning of a story promises an ending that we can
read first if we want. We can jump to the already formed future of a
book. Not that a book would make much sense, but we can enter the
plot at any point.
The simple fact that a work has to begin is disruptive. The
beginning sets a plot or the lines of a lyric into motion from a singular
starting point. Beginnings, particularly in modernist literature, might
simulate the sense of a story set in an ongoing continuum of life
many modern stories begin in the middle of dialogue to fabricate this
sense of entering in the middle of thingsbut it is still a selected
origin. In contrast, lived experience is always ongoing. We cannot
consciously know a singular starting point to our experience. And we
cannot select our origin, which is why Heidegger argues that we are
thrown into the world. The forward motion of plot that begins by
forging an arbitrary origin, however, and draws a reader to an end,
makes fiction organic, whether the plot is linear, circular, or temporally

fragmented. Stories breath, poetry has a heartbeat, because closure

motivates the frozen marks of language.
A poem is complete in itself. It has being, or what Ive called
ontology. But it has being in ways that distinguish it from other inert
objects in the world. Most of us can agree that a literary work exists in
ways that are different from, say, a table or a chair. A poem or a story
can be in ways that are distinct from how a table or a chair can be.
Certainly a poem is; but if no one reads and wrestles with a poem, it
remains inert. Again, a poem is frozen. As we have it in whatever form,
it is not going to change. But when we read, we turn the poems being
into a state of becoming, a classic dichotomy made somewhat
hackneyed by existential philosophy. Most of Emily Dickinsons poems
were merely a secret stash of the scraps of paper until her family
discovered the treasure trove (thank God!) and archived the poems for
readers. All writing becomes literature because of the active ways in
which we make a work become literature. A poem never is literary just
as a poem never means. Meaning is always a product of active
interpretation that allows a poem to become literary.
A poems existence depends upon its active relationship between
the poet, reader, and world. A poem, therefore, is always in a state of
becoming. It grows and changes because it compels us toward
thought. We are drawn toward thought as Plato and Aristotle would
argue that the human is drawn to the Good. Although a work is frozen,
the mere activity of reading, a process that occurs in time, creates
motion. A work, therefore, always becomes something more in its
relationship with readers, with other works, with the world in which the
text exists and we inhabit.
A works state of becoming, therefore, poses another question of
ontology: does a poem know?
It might be an unusual question to ask. A work of art or a piece of
literature has as much sentience as a table or a chair. It does not know

anything. But as entities on to which we project vitality, a work of

literature reciprocates consciousness. A book or a poem has an
uncanny sense of consciousness in a way that a chair is not. Georges
Poulet, a famous literary phenomenologist, argues that a readers
consciousness shares the consciousness of a piece of literature. A book
itself, Poulet argues, waits for us to open its secrets, as if it has
knowledge that it awaits to share. The experience of reading revolves
around this inhabitation or indwelling of consciousness. POULET
The compulsion to interpret a text for meaning is bound to the
seemingly illogical question, what does a text know? This is because
we are compelled by the belief that a work contains something
unknowable to us, a secret we need to pry open. When we interpret a
text, we are trying to unveil the knowledge that a work seems to keep
under wraps.
This belief in the consciousness of a text that hides its true
meaning beneath a surface develops as a result of Freud. So much of
our inherent understanding of interpretation assumes that meaning is
a texts unconscious. For Freud, all experienceaction, behavior,
thoughtmasks a deeper cause. Dreams, daydreams, jokes, neuroses,
are all tropes, a screen, that distort a deeper unconscious that informs
the self. Psychoanalysis is the process of discovering the origins or the
authentic crux of the problem that produces such distortions. We are
all, then, walking texts that keep its secrets under lock and key.
Today interpretation is ineluctably bound to the belief that a text,
written by an author with a distinct viewpoint and personality, has an
unconscious that serves as a repository for hidden or repressed
meaning. The goal of interpretation is to compel the text to disclose its
secrets. Literary analysis, therefore, is a form of psychoanalysis.
The psychoanalytic process of literary interpretation has
developed from (and has reacted against) a religious belief in the
sacramental power of words. Language once had a divine relationship

with the world to which it refers. As George Steiner claims in Real

Presences, up until fairly recently in history there existed a covenant
between word and world. Authors and poets believed a real presence
underwrites and insures meaning analogous to the belief in the divine
power of words in the Eucharist. The divine is the Absolute Truth from
which language transubstantiates into meaning.
Going back to the ancient Greeks, Logos is not only the power by
which words describe reality, but the metaphysical permanence or
force that makes the world coherent. Logos is the divine ether that
permeates everything with its hidden but essential Truth. The opening
of the Gospel of John transports the ideals of logos into a divine
context. John emphasizes that the Word is incarnate in the figure of
Christ. It is not just God who becomes flesh, but the Word of God that
is present in the beginning and promises an everlasting commune
between human and divine. As a result, particularly in the
development of hermeneuticsthe interpretation of the Biblewords
become sacramental objects that point to and participate in the reality
they describe.
Derrida deconstructs the Word by arguing that this belief in the
consummate coherence of language is logocentric, or fallaciously
dependent upon the arbitrary nature of language to refer to reality. The
dominance of logocentricism in the West has, essentially, hidden a
truth too traumatic to confront: the coherence language makes of the
world is an illusion. Language is a screen, a system of tropes that
distort truth. Unlike Freud, however, who believes that analysis can
recover an original or authentic origin to the distortions that make us
ill, deconstruction argues that there is nothing original or authentic
beneath the tissue of language we use to prop up consoling terms of
metaphysical permanence. Every utterance, even the Word of God, is a
trace of a previous meaning left behind in the detritus of language. Not
only is closure impossible, but those who foist a sense of closure over

meaning as a way to freeze experience into an absolute truth violently

elide the more traumatic realities of a contingent existence.
As we will see in Chapter ***, the broken covenant between Word
and World, born out of catastrophic changes and events in recent
history, is bound to our contemporary and psychoanalytic sense of the
divided self, a self that is fragmented and alienated from itself. The
recognition that language alienates us from the world and from
ourselves is in of itself traumatic. It is a wound that haunts all
literature. The broken covenant wounds literature.
But literature is resilient. It always takes on the challenge of its
own deconstructive properties. Instead of falling into the ashes of its
own tissue of reality, literature stirs the ashes to bring forth new forms
of closure.
One aspect of writing that alienation affects the most is
teleology, the purpose or ends of processes, which is bound to and
impacts ethical consciousness. Since closure is an illusion, even a
violent one that elides traumatic realities, we can speak of ethics,
which are bound to a transparent causality and the ends, or telos, of
effects made possible by language.


Endings presume purpose. The act of reading itself, as we have

seen, is bound to the forward motion of time. And like an action,
reading is a future oriented activity. We work toward a realized future
that we presentify, and then we reread and reimagine that realized
future as an entire temporal structure. Closure turns a text into a block-
universe that frames a world vision, a theme, a viewpoint constructed
from an abstracted aspect of the world. The vision that the enclosed
block-universe a work expresses does not necessarily have to be one
the author shares. (It is often just plain practical to bracket-off the

author when you examine a work, particularly for students. So much

frustration happens when you try to factor in the authors intention.
The work itself is the intent. Sorry to be austere on this touchy issue.
But I just do not think that it yields much beneficial interpretation to go
about speculating what goes on in the authors mind when he or she
writes a work.)
It is the active relationship between a text and a reader, and the
ways in which a text produces thought (as if a text knows something)
that makes a work more akin to a living entity than a chair. But we
have to be clear concerning the resemblance between a poem and an
organism. Too often critics employ nature in ontological terms that tend
to emphasize, ironically, a poems inertia more than its vitality. In his
aesthetic examinations of poetry, for instance, Coleridge often
compares poems to plants. The problem with comparisons of poetry to
nature is that it tends to turn the poem into an intransitive object, or it
makes the poem something that is created with the same sort of divine
spark of Creation in the Book of Genesis.
For instance, the Romantics use of the Aeolian harp as a symbol
for inspiration by Shelly, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, is beautiful
but flawed. The Aeolian harp looks like a lyre, but instead of human
hands, the wind strums the strings. The metaphor emphasizes the poet
as a medium for nature. The problem is that it turns the poet, like the
analogies of poems to botany, into a passive, intransitive vessel played
upon by natural, inspirational, or divine forces. It makes the poet and
the poem both creative and determined at the same time.

The organic vitality of literature makes it a worthy study for

Aristotle, whose ontological classifications of genres is ultimately tied
to his ethical concerns. Verbal representation has the potential to
become a form like wood has the potential to become a table. The poet
crafts words in order to produce the ideal product of its intended kind.

The ancient Greeks, therefore, provide a way to understand the

end as a goal that is different from a termination: telos. The telos of
something entails the ideal form that an entity is designed to take.
Aristotle was particularly firm about telos in the teleological notion of
final cause. Whether something acts on itself for its own purpose (I
want to do something that makes me happy) or acts on something else
(I want to do something to make you happy), all activities have a final
cause or the end result, the goal or purpose for its endeavor. Whether
or not that end result is satisfactory is a matter of the means utilized to
achieve it. Either way, things end with a final cause.
Poetics is completely structured around the telos of literature.
Aristotles attention to form is why he separates and classifies writing
into different genres. He does not see literature like we do, as text that
weaves and counter-weaves language in an errant and orphaned state
of writing that, for Plato, divorces words from the stable presence of
speech. Writing for Aristotle conforms to and fulfills different forms.
Today we call forms, genres. In its representation of complete and
coherent human action, a literary genre grows toward its own unique
and particular end, its form. The content of a work is less important
than the plot since plotting is the activity by which an author provides
coherence to a work so that it realizes as clearly as possible its ideal
form, a process of completion Aristotle calls entelechy.
The entelechy of an entity, including written forms, is the almost
self-governing force that compels something to form a whole. In fact,
Aristotle subordinates character to plot, arguing that a good play does
not necessarily need fully developed characters as long as character
fulfills the role ideally warranted by genre and plot. The notion of round
or complex characters is fairly recent in literary history. Character for
Aristotle is an agent or function that allows the plot to achieve the
representation of a complete human action, which is why so many
characters in Greek tragedy are already always wrapped up in a

predetermined plot toward which they inexorably fulfill to the end out
of their control. Plot is the equivalent of fate.
The self-creating character, the character with agency, does not
begin until Shakespeare and the early modern period as individuality
and self-consciousness grows rapidly from roughly 1500. Whereas
freedom for the modern human comes to mean the agency of the
individual to form ones own destiny, for the Greeks freedom entails
the confrontation and acceptance of necessity. Ancient Greek tragedy
is so powerful because it forces an audience to confront the illusion of
freedom in the face of determining forces in the world, a confrontation,
paradoxically, that frees the human in the acceptance of limitation.
What is more important for Aristotle is how character conforms to the
necessity of the plot to fulfill its ideal form, a process which appears to
us, the audience, as the characters fate despite his or her tragic effort
to overcome it. We will see later in Chapter ** how the dizzying
freedom of modernity in the emphasis on individualism and self-
consciousness that we associate with modernity leads Freud to return
to an ancient Greek and primitive notion of determinism beneath the
illusions humans create to affirm human progress, but with dire

Teleology is at the center of almost all of Hegel and Marxs

philosophical systems. History moves toward a final cause. For Hegel
history drives toward an inevitable equilibrium of human conflict to
achieve a state of absolute spirit; for Marx history drives toward an
inevitable equilibrium of material circumstances, which means that
history will evaporate because class struggle will disappear. Notice how
both of these teleological theories of history also evoke entropy?
One of the huge shifts in the 19thC is sciences rejection of
teleology and final cause. When science, philosophy, and Church had
been partners, the assumption was that everything in the universe

evolves providentially. The universe is in the hands of Gods plan. He

has foreknowledge: as the First Cause He can see a block-universe in
its entirety. Like a poets poem, the universe is Gods creation. A
providential, teleological universe means that the human is singular
and special, and that the arrow of time is bound to human progress.
Everything in time brings the human closer to the Messianic time.
Although not all, certainly, but most scientists, even the brightest
among them, formed theories and created cosmologies in ways that
tried (sometimes with tortured and hilarious results) to conform to a
human-centric universe in which Man is Gods singular creation.
Darwin, almost singlehandedly, does away with teleological
paradigms in science, the notion that the human is destined toward a
great or Utopian final cause. Natural selection proves that human
evolution is the result of accident and pure contingency. There are
some critics who argue that Darwin, more than any other thinker,
transformed the ways in which we understand what it means to be
human. There are very few scientists today who assert that the natural
world is guided by a teleological force, or try to prove theories based
upon the ideal ends or final causes of things. It is perhaps one of the
most salient features that divide Church and science. It makes sense
that proof of the Big Bang through microwave static in the 1950s was
applauded by the Vatican as proof of a divine spark that ignited the
universe In the beginning You do not hear too many voices from
the Church, however, applauding the fairly certain final cause of the
universe as absolute entropy, a slow, empty heat death.

It is easy to see how ethics are wrapped up in ends. The purpose

and the means to achieve your ends, and the nature of the ends you
desire, are all a matter of ethics.
With John Stuart Mill in the 19thC, teleology becomes a practical
or utilitarian issue of achieving pleasure while maintaining individuality

in the face of a world that demands soul-crushing conformity. The

purpose of things should entail the best and most effective (and
efficient) ways in which to reach the most optimal results. Mill is
concerned with what will achieve the most pleasure as opposed to pain
while maintaining individual autonomy. It is because of utilitarianism
that we evoke the awful sounding adage that always gets associated
with fascism, The ends justify the means. In other words, the ethical
implications of action matter less than the goal, which is to achieve the
best results for the most people. Most modern ethics have been an
attempt in some way to come to terms with Kants belief that action is
a matter of duty, that one has the obligation to act ethically even if
such action might conflict with ones belief or the best outcome.
Endings are immanently anticipatory and, therefore, always
ongoing. A human life has teleology. Each life has its own end that
constitutes the ideal form it can take. The ends of human life are to
fulfill the best elements of what one is destined to be. The telos of a
life is not the same as the satisfaction of desires. It means becoming
the ideal of ones potential being.
The Greek emphasis on teleology has important influence on
Christianity. The ultimate tragedy of the Fall of Man is the result of
hubris. For Christianity, however, the telos of a life is morally bound in
a manner foreign to the Greeks, who did not see teleological form as
contingent upon monotheistic morality. The Christian is driven to
flourish as the beings that God creates one to be in the desire for life to
bear witness to Gods grace. In Christian teleology, the end is not the
last chapter, but a possibility of ongoing fulfillment that breaks into
experience everyday, providing the ordinary world with vision and
enchantment, epiphanies that contribute to the formation of a
beautiful life. The Christian is exhorted to remain open to Gods
summons toward revelation everyday. Each human, therefore, is a

unique eschatological being, according to Hans Urs von Balthasar, that

begins with Adam, the incomplete man, and resolves with Christs
perfection. Culture reflects the cultivation of creation in the effort to
shape the world toward redeeming ends in preparation for the final
end. It is an end that keeps fulfilling itself to reach another end.

Ethics derive from conscious and unconscious purposes that

motivate actions. Every action, no matter how small, has consequence.
Ethical sensitivity depends on self-consciousness about the purpose of
actions and the ability to envisage a future that results from them.
Therefore, ethics is inextricably bound to teleology. All actions have an
end toward which they are directed. Whether one believes that the
ends of actions derive from an intrinsic good, as in Aristotle, or that
they are conducted in the light of duty, as in Kant, or that they serve
utilitarian ends, as in Mills, all action has purpose. This means that our
ethical concerns are tied to the future and its relation to the past.
Teleology is our continual preoccupation.
Narrative shares the same concerns with actions and events that
occur in time as ethics, which is why every age is concerned about the
influence of literature and human behavior. Plato, of course, famously
banishes the poets from his Republic because he believes that poems
and poets, particularly rhapsodizing, malignantly intoxicate an
audience. Poetry falsifies because it produces a mere imitation of a
world that is already a shadow of higher forms.
Most of us are not particularly grateful for Platos verdict on
poetry. But if you consider it from his point of view for a moment you
can at least appreciate his perspective. It is not just that poetry
falsifies truth. Fiction, by definition, is the opposite of truth. Since
fiction does not need to tell the truth, poets have a dizzying freedom
from the particulars of science, history or politics. This freedom allows
a poet to say anything, and in a far more entertaining way, than the

philosopher. For Plato, if the subject of poetry remained a conservative

representation of ideal human behavior, serving as a model for good
conduct, so to speak, it would be harmless enough. But for Plato, most
people who are crafty with language and freely use its power to
persuade do so for selfish purposes. Replace poet with politician,
and I think you get an understanding of the type of power of rhetoric
Plato fears.
No doubt Plato betrays a certain amount of jealousy toward
poets. People are more inclined to watch a play or listen to a rhapsodic
performance than they are driven to listen to philosophy. There is a
certain amount of the scholars resentment of the attention placed
upon athletics in the university in Platos fears. About a thousand years
later, the Puritans would use similar Platonic invectives to rail against
the sinful dangers of the theater in London that draw the public toward
performances instead of church. During the dozen or so years of the
English Republic, they succeeded in shutting the theaters down!
We are more comfortable with Aristotles ethical anatomy of
fiction than Platos invective because we are all inheritors of the
Romantic elevation of poetry to a divine and visionary status. Poetics
examines how good poets do not just revel in a rhapsodic freedom.
Good poets create form out of an endless set of possibilities. It is the
perfection of a crafted form that is both plausible and appropriate to
the subject matter and the goal of the poet that makes for a product
that is ethically effective. Since a story is not a set of noetic
propositions but a hypothetical account of actions and events,
literature has the freedom to depict how people act in an endless
variety of situations. As Paul Ricoeur says, fiction is an immense
laboratory for thought experiments in which this connection is
submitted to an endless number of imaginative variations. To say
nothing of the fact that people know the difference between reality and
fiction, poetry, for Aristotle, offers people a possible way to see aspects

of human action in the world. As a hypothetical construction, the poem

or the play does not obfuscate truth. Poetry is not in competition with
reality. Instead, the fictional form becomes its own reality, to be treated
with as much dignity as a teleological object like any other in the
Since ethics focuses on action, not necessarily truth, fiction
offers endless scenarios of causality and satisfies human curiosity
about how people respond to and resolve conflict. Because fiction is a
hypothetical construction, it can serve as a model to guide our own
actions. More importantly, the ethical interest in literature derives from
the myriad ways by which an author can draw conflict to a resolution.
Since actions are teleological, stories reflect our concern over purpose:
the goal of plot is to resolve conflict by reaching an end.
Aesthetically, the completion of a story provides pleasure from a
sense of fulfillment. Ethically, however, fiction offers the complete
shape of human action and its possible consequences for our
reflection. How an author shapes action and provides resolution to
narrative reveals her view of the world, a shape that we understand as
theme. We can discern similar patterns of conflict in the actual world,
which allows us to question different frames by which to understand
ethical behavior. Further, fiction allows us to reimagine the themes that
inform our understanding of the world.
Since an author controls the resolution of conflict in a story, a
narrative creates what one might call a moral point of view. The
transparently moral voice dominates the novel in the nineteenth
century, such as the God-like point of view that concludes George
Eliots Middlemarch or the epilogue Tolstoy offers at the end of Anna
Karinina. The novel orchestrates an array of conflicting voices from
different social worlds, a plural aspect of fictional narrative that
Michael Bahktin famously calls heteroglossia. But the many diverse
elements of the narrative are controlled by an authorial presence. It is

a presence that can be close and transparent, as in nineteenth-century

novels, or distant and oblique, as in modernist works, depending upon
the distance an author creates between her and the enunciating
The reader interprets the world vision that the author implies in a
narrative. The reader makes judgments based upon the distance
between his vision and the authors, to assess the extent to which he
shares the authors perspective or if the author challenges his stance.
One of the reasons I recommend avoiding an authors intent is that we
have no certainty about an authors own stance toward the moral
ambiguity in a work. I think it is better to think of the author, like
Gerald Prince, as an implied voice as opposed to the actual voice.
The author, then, becomes intertwined within the fabric of voices in a
story, the heteroglossia, compelling the reader to negotiate responses
between plural perspectives that might conflict with the implied
authorial voice in a work.
Such a conflict of perspective is particularly difficult if a central
character occupies an ironic position that might be antithetical to the
authors, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five.
Pilgrims surrender to his belief that deterministic forces render all
moral action useless might conflict with Vonneguts moral vision that
emphasizes the necessity of human action. According to Vonnegut in
one of his moments of intrusive narration, the only character who
becomes a human being, albeit briefly, is Edgar Derby when he stands
up to the American Nazi recruiter, Howard Campbell. Otherwise,
everyone in the novel is a plaything to the force of history.
For most people the ethical implications of stories grip more
deeply than noetic implications. The former generally accounts for the
goal of fiction to entertain while the latter accounts for the grunt-work
of interpretation that I have to do for my job as a professor, (and which
most people imagine turns the joys of reading into drudgery).

Reading does not just allow us to learn from models of time

posturing for our inspection. Reading is far from a purely heuristic
activity. The attention reading requires and the time it demands from
us provides a clearing space where we can dwell in the fragmentary
middle of life that allows us to envision an experience of closure to
events. Between the covers of a book (or the beginning and end of the
scroll to a digital text) exists an imitation of a complete life. The fact
that a literary work creates a semblance of meaning in its highly
constructed pose of completeness makes reading the most vital
activity in the human desire to interpret things. At the same time
reading satisfies the human desire to get closure, which we will turn
to next. I have been calling the ways in which literature aids us in
interpretation that produces a sense of meaning, forms of closure.
Since we are temporally fragmented beings trying to make a
whole out of the passage of time, we are driven to gain a sense of
closure. The drive for closure inspires us to turn lifes haphazardness
into form. To draw a story out of life requires one to pause the
quotidian duration of the present, a sort of suspension of time that I
have been calling clearing spaces. But the creation of story also
requires models of narrative configuration. Stories and poems are as
much about other stories and poems as they are configurations of life
that pose for our reflection. Interpretive reading and rereading is the
most powerful activity that allows us to form clearing spaces.
Now, however, we need to examine the very recent
psychological phenomenon of getting closure in a literary context
and, at the same time, to differentiate this psycho-talk from the goals
of literary interpretation.

Getting Closure


The term closure has become lingo in pop-psychology to mean

the end of mourning. In order to move on from loss, whether from the
break up of a relationship or to move on from experience that violently
robs one of a sense of meaning, life requires getting closure. The
phrase often comes in the form of a future imperative: You need to
get closure!
Most people suffering from trauma or melancholy, however,
cannot imagine getting closure. In fact, trauma keeps one from moving
on. It is pretty rare for a person suffering from trauma or melancholy to
pressure him or herself into getting closure. There is a sense, then,
that getting closure is a societal imperative. After a certain period of
mourning or trauma, when a friend or family member suggests you
need to get closure, they are usually implying that it is about time you
get closure.
Typing the term getting closure into a Google search yields
over 150,000,000 hits in .32 seconds. The entries that receive the most
hits involve getting closure over a breakup or a divorce. A majority of
them fall into the genre of do-it-yourself therapy with titles preceded

by, How to, such as How to get closure after a breakup. Most of
them offer enumerated steps to achieve closure, like recipes for
recovering from trauma. The final mix promises the resolution of
conflict or the acceptance of loss.
Getting closure is a uniquely American phenomenon in its
promise of a quick fix. Self-reliance can lead to success. There is an
element of character reinvention in the notion of closure. One can shed
emotional pain like losing weight. Mourning is not attractive. Achieving
closure promises you will be a new person ready for success.
Capitalism does not allow one to dwell over loss for too long.
Melancholy is not an industrious value. Work does not get done when
one dwells in emotional pain. We do not offer a leave of absence for
people in mourning or suffering from trauma. Therefore, the need for
closure is ingrained in the legal process. Suits for restitution are
predicated upon the loss of work and the emotional time required for
the victim to get closure. Money becomes the final deliverance. Closure
is a valuable investment.
Closure, therefore, signifies abstract concepts: freedom,
autonomy, and self-fulfillment. At the same time closure is a
commodity, something that has market value. If one does not pay to
get the treatment required to get closure, it might be costlier down the
road. Emotional wellbeing is not just incumbent upon getting closure,
but also getting back to work.
Although our awareness of trauma has increased exponentially
over the past few decades, the time we allow ourselves to mourn has
grown shorter. The rapidly growing industry that caters to trauma
makes it possible to recover with more fine-tuned treatment and
pharmacology. As the treatment of trauma grows more advanced, the
prognosis for the time of recovery shortens. An industrious society
exhorts one to expedite mourning. You need to get closure.

I argue that getting closure as it is understood in the past decade

bypasses a necessary confrontation with trauma. The energy we invest
in moving on puts us out of touch with emotional darkness valuable in
understanding what it means to be human. The necessity for
normalization estranges us from the melancholy that is an essential
part of our experience. Moving on usually amounts to resisting the
difficult wisdom psychic wounds can impart and keeps us out of tune
with the contingent nature of life itself. It has made melancholy vile,
other, foreign, odious. As Julia Kristeva has argued, melancholy turns
one into an abject figure that society shuns. Contemporary society that
values and rewards kinetic activity, production, and mental hygiene,
punishes the reflective time one dwells in when one is suffering from

The route through darkness, negative capability. Dwelling


Getting Closure in the Digital Age

The computer does not allow one much opportunity to dwell

thoughtfully. It also does not allow for the kind of temporal suspension
that fosters an aesthetic consciousness. But the Information Age is, no
doubt, developing a different kind of consciousness, the nature of
which should demand our attention. It makes no sense to resist the
advances of technology and its encroachment into our personal lives
since there is a sort of inevitability to virtualization. Although the
computer dominates life and distracts from the type of attention
required for literature, this does not mean that a different, perhaps
equally rich relationship with fiction wont develop as a result.
Our dependence upon digital information and its encroachment
in our life is evidenced in the unusual phenomenon by which, every

now and then, one feels incumbent to take time off from the digital
network we are all hooked up to. One needs to take the occasional
mental health day from the Internet. Conversely, it is increasingly
apparent how helpless we are disconnected from digital sources of
information. The Internet, email, Facebook, Twitter all demand our
attention. Depending upon your job or your function in life, losing
access to the virtual social world can be, even in a brief span of time,
People speak of feeling symptoms of withdrawals if they lose
their cellphone or access to the Internet for an extended period of
time. I have felt withdrawals myself if my Internet goes down or on the
few occasions I have lost my cellphone. It is a distinct feeling of
itchiness, discomfort, disconnection, impatience. Forms of digitization
seem to connect us up socially so that we feel, ironically, disconnected
from human contact when their virtual presence disappears.
Digitization has also oriented us temporally and spatially. The time and
the space we inhabit now in a life informed and regulated by
hyperactive information create a much thicker, extended, and
instantaneous present, a sort of perpetual now in contrast to the
recent past.
What provokes me is the nature, both aesthetically and
psychologically, of this thickened, extended, and frenetic experience of
now and how literature responds to it. Is the future any more or less
important today than in the past? Are we better off today with such
immediate access to immense quantities of information? What effects
does it have on self-reflection and, in particular, our relationship to the
past into which we allocated the repository for our mourning?
In the second section of this book I will argue that as the past
becomes much more obliterated by the congested and extended
present today, mourning gets paid forward, so to speak. It is not so
much that we get over things more quickly now, although that is the

semblance digitization provides of working-through mourning or

trauma. Instead mourning and trauma become archived, paradoxically,
in the future. In order to work our way back to the aesthetic interests of
literature and the closure it provides today, we need to anatomize, at
least cursorily, the digital world that most of us inhabit whether we
want to or not. I am not a digital humanities scholar, thank God. I still
do not quite understand what this new discipline is. So pardon me if
my interpretation comes across as both tolerant and resistant. You
could say I am still catching up to a technological learning curve.

* * *

The surplus of information available makes the current

experience of the world rich with a seemingly infinite amount of
instantaneous options. But online and hyperlinked networks of media
sources also drowns out thought and makes information disposable.
Like the step-by-step methods the Internet provides for getting closure,
the contemporary world compels one to move on from events or
experiences with an increasing amount of thoughtlessness. In fact,
there is so much available right now in the present moment to draw
attention and entertain that it results in the inability to adopt a stable
viewpoint or to own a position on a topic or issue. To put it another
way, digital media makes it easy to relinquish moral perspective and
choice. Although we have access to and control over information at our
fingertips, information also accesses and controls us.
News media in particular has grown into an industry that owns
and dominates every second of life, which means various outlets can
use their information to control viewers into docility. This does not
conduce reflection. Digital distraction threatens to impede the
attentiveness required for interpretive reading.

We are never free from reminders of lifes calamities, and this

cuts two ways. We can remain alert and informed about the current
condition in the worldat any given moment we can be students of
current eventsbut the continual digital delivery of information also
creates noise and clutter. In the 1960s, Nathan Scott, Jr., one of the
great and underrated literary critics, argues that the media creates a
feeling in which you are being flicked at. Today he would more than
likely describe media in terms of being subsumed.
At home and at work we can access streams of information about
world activities dissected by the second. For instance, the online news
outlet, The Huffington Post, maintains a running chronicle of news
stories. It features a front page with a headline, like a newspaper,
followed by a vertical series of stories scrolling in descending order of
importance through the center of the page. Unlike newsprint, however,
the headlines always shift. You can watch one headline replace another
in a blink. A fresh story or one that was less important bumps the prior
headline to a secondary position. World events move in and out of
priority as more news filters in. The most current and urgent story of
one moment becomes a palimpsest beneath the next. Walter
Cronkites famous wrap-up, And thats the way it is, no longer makes
sense today. The news does not stop after the end of the evening
broadcast and the next mornings newspaper.
Electronic digitization of information might make the world
smaller and more familiar, but it does not allow for stilled moments in
time. It does not give one a break.
The continually shifting stories on The Huffington Post would
seem to epitomize non-closure. The site resembles the fragmentary
simulacra characteristic of postmodernism where nothing achieves
wholeness because information moves infinitely on a surface without
depth. At the same time it reflects Derridas archive fever, in which
media does not report on the event, but the report itself becomes the

event. The news provides the future with its retrospective archive to
the extent that it prefigures the future. In fact there is nothing more
apparently in-the-middle-of-things than todays twenty-four hour
digitized news cycle. Stories do not originate from any particular point
nor do they reach any particular end. Whereas world events were
something that occurred for thirty minutes to an hour a few decades
ago, today events in the world stretch out in a so-called real-time. The
live updates from blogs, news wires, and Twitter can keep stories
deeply embedded in a thick present. The present tense of news keeps
the current running in current events by turning each moment into a
nanosecond dissection of crisis. Since there is always information to
replace what had moments before demanded attention, sites like The
Huffington Post provide constant opportunities to move on from the
Media serialization feeds impulse symptomatic of digital
stimulation. The rapid movement of news maintains a constant state of
arousal; expectations are fulfilled within the instant of an image. Like
video games that keep the gamer charged by ever increasing speed,
the constantly shifting stream of news provided by websites and
television deny the possibility to dwell reflectively. Digital speed even
controls the attention paid to catastrophes that afflict national trauma.
The urgent dialogue concerning gun control instigated by the Sandy
Hook massacre petered out as the nation moved on to other conflict.
Those who continue to mourn the horrible event must also mourn the
loss of national attention while the rest, according to Baudrillard and
Zizek, hunger for another disaster to satisfy the need for digital
To dwell hinders virtual speed that comes to replace our
perception of reality. The brain, as neuroscientists have shown, cannot
cope with the staid movement of life outside of the screen. The gamer
or the newshound requires more digital kinetics. The world detached

from a screen moves too slowly. In an irony born out of digital speed,
one cannot keep up with the slow pace of the non-virtual world. A
conversation demands more attention than a text or a tweet. The
non-virtual world becomes a world in slow motion. Realitys
consecution makes one impatient for the speed of digitization.
News in a digital age provides rapid closure, closure on the
cheap. As much as a site like The Huffington Post insures a steady
stream of conflict to keep one unsettled in a world filled with
unresolved events, the same chronicle of calamity stores the past in
the invisible but ever widening digital archive that has become a sort
of online unconscious. The design of The Huffington Post visually
depicts repression. The eye draws to the headline driving other news
downward and beneath the bottom of the screen, representing how
closure requires forgetfulness. There is always fresh conflict ready to
become conscious so that we can forget a previous event. The past can
remain conveniently retrievable in the cloud. But like the image
conjured by cloud, the past can also be forgotten. Digital archives,
permanent as they are, ironically threaten historical obliteration. The
pain of loss evanesces from the margins of the screen into the clouds
digital unconscious. The cloud into which the archive for future
retrospection has lodged becomes the repository for our mourning. In a
sense, as I will examine in more depth in the next section, we no
longer leave mourning and trauma in the past, but project conflict
forward as something to confront in the future, like the unveiling of
apocalypse, an endpoint when closure can be achieved.
The digital chronicle that neutralizes loss is also integral to the
social network. Facebook connects us to our social world with a design
similar to The Huffington Post with its vertical series of posts
surrounded by material in the margins. Facebook provides momentary
closure in schizophrenic linearity. You can post the announcement that
a loved one has died within a clutter of ephemeral informationreports

of a good dinner, catching a cold, a picture of kittens, an upcoming

television program. Matters of grave importance and little
consequence flatten out into one plane of discourse. Your statement of
personal anguish can appear in between an advertisement for penis
enlargement and a picture of kittens. The information does not
compete except for the strange popularity contest involved in liking
a post. It is ironic that one can like your announcement of a loved
ones death or losing a job. When your post accumulates likes it
twists the word into different connotations. Instead of mere approval,
like also connotes kinship, a community of like souls helping each
other to achieve closure. It is the fantasy of Baudrillards simulacrum
where the virtual replication of image replaces actuality. Experience
has no depth because reality is a consummate surface. There is no
beneath the surface in this virtual world. The community on Facebook
is bodiless. One could virtually cultivate an entire nation of friends who
do not bodily exist.
It strikes me that posting personal anguish on Facebook not only
levels and defuses conflict, but also makes conflict familiar. If ones
pain becomes part of the same chronicle of experience that includes
kittens, fart jokes, political venting, or the innocuous indication of how
one is feeling at any given moment, then pain finds a home in banality.
Bad news on Facebook can never achieve pathos, but it can certainly
make one feel like they have gained closure. If you feel compelled to
express despair on Facebook, it is equally possible that, as your pain
accumulates likes, it can reach the same consoling status as a
picture of kittens in a basket. As getting closure becomes a national
pastime, trauma can also become banal. Trauma becomes digitized.

Tense, Aspect, and Fragmentation


Cronkites famous sign-off, And thats the way it is, expresses

vague grammar that makes time slippery. At the same time we could
always intuit what he means. Although his statement looks like the
simple present tense, the way it is, the aspect of the sentencehow
the viewpoint gives the sentence temporal shapesuggests that is
indicates an ongoing state unfolding in time. Therefore, his sign-off,
particularly with the word, And, feels like the present progressive
tense. Unfortunately, this is not satisfactory either. Given that he
repeats his statement every evening combined with the fact that he
refers to the news he has delivered (and we know that events do not
end just because we turn off the television), his statement could
indicate the unfolding of states and events between the past, present,
and the future.
Indicating the tense, in other words, does not necessarily clarify
the temporality of grammar. We intuit that, since they are the final
words of his news program, the sign-off says something like, And
thats the news or And thats what happened, to suggest a complete
action. Each of these implied statements imparts the possibility that
the events Cronkite reports are finished or that they are ongoing. It
could be both! Further, it is difficult to determine whether he means,
That is what happened, or something more complex, like, That is
the news as I have reported it. The first is an action indicated
objectively, as though it occurs in the past and as a whole. The second
indicates action seen from within its ongoing unfolding in time, which
establishes a viewpoint.
A way to boil this down is in the form of two different questions
one might pose about current events: What happened in the news
today? or What is happening in the news today? I can guarantee
you that the former was the question one might ask over three
decades ago when the news was something that occurs in the past and

is reported in a distinct present location: the morning papers, the

evening news. The latter, however, is the question more frequently
asked today when the news perpetuates an ongoing and thick present
progressive tense on cable or online digitized news. In many ways this
suggests that in the past we could put the news behind us. Today we
are always in the thick of it.
The conflicted ways in which we can inhabit language with ease
we generally know what people are telling usand the mental work
involved to temporally situate ourselves in the language that describes
events and states in the world makes the byzantine ways we
grammatically structure our words to form thoughts and statements
somewhat schizophrenic. Language is intuitive, habitual, easy to use;
at the same time, language is opaque, complex, difficult, if not, at
times, impossible to grasp. Frequently history proves that language
can be dangerous.
We always speak of the tense of language, but rarely do we think
of or examine the aspect. Aspect is as essential as tense for us to
understand writing and speech. In fact, it could be more important
since particular cases and nuances of aspect, as in the future tense,
are unique to English. Aspect is an element to language that can make
learning English an almost impossible endeavor for certain non-English
speakers who must discriminate between subtleties of speech, such as
how it is improper to say of a victim of a traffic accident, she is having
a car accident.
Both tense and aspect are the ways in which we encode time in
grammar. The most familiar code is tense. It is the easiest to detect
because it indicates the temporal place or the location of an event,
action, or state language refers to. He goes to the store; he went to
the store; he will go to the store, or present, past, future.
Aspect, however, is more difficult because it indicates the shape
of an event in time. Grammar can indicate an event or action

completed instantaneously, or in what linguists call the specious

present because the action does not usually coincide with its
narration, unless speech records events in real-time, like an announcer
crying out, He hit the ball! Its a homerun! The temporality of
grammar also indicates an action or an event that is open-ended. For
instance, He hit the ball is an instant and complete action whereas
he is kicking the ball indicates an open-ended timeframe. Unless the
enunciator tells us for how long he kicks the ball, his action could go on
Further, the temporal encoding of aspect manifests a grammars
viewpoint of an event. An event can be described as if seen from the
inside as it unfolds in time, or it can be described from the outside,
seen as a whole. He was driving the car recklessly, smashing into each
mailbox on the block has a very different viewpoint from He drove the
car recklessly and smashed each mailbox on the block. In the former
we accompany the he in the ongoing and incomplete action; in the
latter we see the event after it occurred as a whole or as an action
completed in the past.
What makes aspect so complex and often confusing is how
distinct it is from tense, but aspect and tense are wrapped up with
each other nonetheless. An action or event unfolds in time in a distinct
way and from a viewpoint. But this temporal unfolding can occur in any
tense, past, present, or future.
What we witness in any sentence is how slippery and often
disconnected language can be from time. In fact, the local level of any
utterance evidences the speaker and the events relative position to
time and place. Language expresses time so imprecisely because it
relates to the imprecision of the way we experience and recollect time.
Although Einsteins theory postulates that time is relative to the inertial
spatial frame in which it is measured, he does not mean time is
subjective. But the relationship between time and space for Einstein

does somewhat relate to our psychological experience of time as we

express it in language.

* * *

In our post-9/11 era in which we not only fear but also desire the
next disaster, the prerogative of most people who suffer from personal
or national trauma is to move on. Media does not generally exhort us
to confront the antinomies of the self. The drive to get closure does not
interpret the vicissitudes of mourning but catharsis without
interpretation. Digitization, therefore, threatens to leave trauma
Getting closure is a fiction that we live by, and it is most fully
experienced in fiction. Literature recuperates presence in the face of
loss, and continues to draw us to read because of the ways in which its
different forms offer life the shape of closure. As Shelly claims in
Defense of Poesy, literature is a difficult pleasure.

It is difficult to define pleasure in its highest sense; the definition

involving a number of apparent paradoxes. For, from an
inexplicable defect of harmony in the constitution of human
nature, the pain of the inferior is frequently connected with the
pleasures of the superior portions of our being. Sorrow, terror,
anguish, despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an
approximation to the highest good. Our sympathy in tragic fiction
depends on this principle; tragedy delights by affording a shadow
of the pleasure which exists in pain. This is the source also of the
melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The
pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of
pleasure itself. And hence the saying, It is better to go to the

house of mourning than to the house of mirth. Not that this

highest species of pleasure is necessarily linked with pain. The
delight of love and friendship, the ecstasy of the admiration of
nature, the joy of the perception and still more of the creation of
poetry, is often wholly unalloyed.

The extreme emotions poetry can expresssorrow, terror, anguish,

despairelicit pleasure which exists in pain, an issue concerning the
tragic effects of catharsis that we will explore fully in Chapter **
Literature disturbs. It leaves marks. We like to think of literature
as comforting. Certainly it can be. But, like pleasure, it is a difficult
comfort. We can get comfort from a lot of other sources that are much
easier than a poem or a novel. In fact there are numerous activities
that are far more comforting than reading literature. The literature that
endures and continues to inform who we are makes demands of us.
I am wary of escapist notions that reading transports us out of
our weary life and offers us different worlds to experience. Certainly
literature does this. But the literature that grows in us and defines who
we are forces us to confront the self in different contexts. We discover
the self by entering into another imaginative space. Despite reading
for academic reasons or for book clubs, reading remains a solitary
endeavor. It is one of a few activities that sanction selfishness. You give
yourself the right to read. As I often tell my students, it is a gift that
you give yourself to set aside serious time to read.
The poem, the story, the play allows for clearing spaces of
reflection upon the self and the world by breaking what it represents.
Literature is most urgent and affirming when it enters into and
interacts with our ruins, when it disturbs. Literature wounds before it
heals. A literary text, I argue, serves as a traumatic moment, a little
catastrophe resolved that puts our own disjointed existence into
refigured contexts. As its own virtual apocalypse, a literary work

creates a clearing space for reflection where we confront experience

incomprehensible in life.
I am not arguing that literature cannot console, nor am I arguing
that people do not seek and find consolation in literature. Literature
might force one to think on psychological levels, but the therapeutic
value of reading literary texts is dubious. There is no inherent
relationship between reading a poem and mental health just as there is
no inherent relationship between reading literature and being a moral
person. Oscar Wilde deflates the equivalence of morality and writing:
There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well
written or badly written. That is all. We must look more squarely at
this entrenched belief in the consolatory power of literature juxtaposed
to literatures more powerful ability to break forms, a destructive
process that we do not necessarily like to acknowledge.
The pleasure of reading derives from the consolation of closure.
But it is a conflicted pleasure. Naysayers of critical theory argue that
interpretation sucks the pleasure out of reading. Frequently protecting
the pleasure of the text is the prerogative behind anti-interpretation,
and I do have a lot of sympathy for arguments against hermeneutics.
But we need to look more squarely at this notion of the pleasure.
Obviously the pleasure we gain from a P.G. Wodehouse novel is
different from the pleasure we experience reading Ernest Hemingway.
Where does this pleasure come from? What does it depend on? What
does it mean that we gain pleasure from literature that is demanding
or disturbing, which most literature is? What does it mean, for
instance, to gain pleasure from King Lear or Blood Meridian or Miss
Lonelyhearts? Why do we like to revel in brokenness?



How does the belief that the critical moment of crisis is now,
prevalent in any era, transform into apocalyptic anxiety and our
contemporary addiction to post-apocalyptic scenarios? Between the
late nineteenth-century and today there is a distinct development in
the way that literature treats apocalypse that moves in four stages.
1) Modernism reimagines an eschatological notion of origin and
apocalypse. The modernist novel or poem ends at the edge of a limit-
situation, the threshold of knowledge or revelation coupled with a
powerful, often subsuming sense of unknowingness at the same time.
Closure becomes markedly contested and irresolute, breaking the tight
concordance of nineteenth century plot or lyric to reflect the self in a
struggle with ambivalence over hope and hopelessness, belief and
unbelief, memory and desire. The Romantics replace belief in the literal
biblical apocalypse with the apocalypse as an individual conflict, which
continues to shape the modernist imagination. Further, fiction and
poetry seek to redeem time from the ravages of finitude as writers
become intensely time-conscious, seeking new ways in which to
reimagine the past and the future in their preoccupation with the
relationship between finitude (the haphazard contingency of everyday
life) and eternity (an aesthetic realm that takes on an often spiritual
quality to occupy a space deserted by religion). Despite the

assumption that modernism arrives by departing from the past,

romanticism remains a powerful influence.
2) A religious tenor continues to shape the modernist
imagination up until and just beyond World War II until the hope
inherent in eschatology rapidly wanes in the 1960s and 70s. Instead
postmodern literature dispenses with the hermeneutic nature of
endings to emphasize apocalyptic catastrophe that destroys the
possibility for disclosure. Postmodernism also rejects the tragic vision
of modernism (or at least the more religious tones of tragedy),
substituting it with absurdity, as in Vonneguts gallows humor or
Becketts nothingness. It is an absurdity that R.W.B. Lewis argues
vacillates between the wrath and laughter. The literature divorces
the word from the world that language can no longer describe, and
foregrounds the consummate artifice of fiction or poetry, including the
conventions that construct the literariness of a text.
3) By the 1980s and 90s the absurdity of catastrophic world
destruction transforms into hyper-philosophical arguments that the
world has already ended. The apocalypse already happened and we
missed it. We live in the ruins after the end where life moves on
nonetheless. The apocalypse is no longer imminent, about to happen
at any moment, but immanent, thoroughly within the world.
Disenchantment over reality and literature reaches a peak as literary
and cultural studies confirm that late capitalist culture desacralizes,
recycles, and empties everything of value. At the same time as the
Internet and other virtual realms congest the imaginative space of
literary reflection, millennial anxiety creates a new foreboding over
omens of total annihilation, such as Y2K, religious fundamentalism,
terrorism, and occultism.
4) After 9/11, the sense of coming after the end transforms into
post-apocalyptic trauma. Trauma theory, which begins in the 1990s in
the field of Holocaust studies, widens its scope to include all realms of

life past and present. It attempts to interpret the effects of catastrophe

already manifest in the disasters of the past century and which invades
our home on 9/11. The development of trauma theory (although there
are specific reasons why it took shape in English departments) reflects
the broader concern with personal anxieties. The shift from apocalypse
to trauma discloses not the end of the world that has already
happened, but the trauma of disenchantment from which the world has
never recovered. Currently we exist in what feels like a period of serial
crises without teleology.

Forms of Apocalypse

Trauma and Closure

Frank Kermodes The Sense of an Ending remains the classic

study of endings, but it serves as a departure for my examination of
the psychology of closure in relationship to literary endings, our current
apocalyptic mindset, and the extent to which fiction and poetry can
heal our personal and collective trauma. For Kermode, fiction is central
to life because it is bound up in our compulsion for coherence and the
need for comfort. The human is driven to find patterns in life that make

sense out of contingency. But the paradigms by which fiction ends

must change as the world changes. As knowledge of the world evolves
in its formation of new paradigms of realityfor instance, a heliocentric
universe, evolution, the unconscious, nuclear annihilationwhile
demythologizing old onesthe Ptolemic universe, singular creation,
human progress, the biblical end of the worldthe paradigms of the
end reflected in fiction and poetry also shift to accommodate new ways
of making sense of and representing life. In particular, the novel, which
portrays the muddle of daily experience, must form sense-making
patterns. Narrative represents (or mimics, as Aristotle would say) the
contingency and disorder of life in its movement from one day to the
next. But it must do so by creating coherence, molding its
representation into a form that does not necessarily reflect the
contingent and serial nature of life itself. Even those novelists who
emphasize contingency at the sake of orderBurroughs, Barth,
Pynchon, Wallacemust create their own forms of closure that do not
accord with life as we experience it.
Kermodes argument that endings offer consolation for our
existential terror of mortality shares Aristotles analysis of entelechy,
but it falls short of providing a fuller account of apocalyptic experience,
as we will investigate in further chapters. It has become a
commonplace notion that modernism contests the traditional happy
ending reflected in 18th and 19th-C novels and the metanarrative of
human progress. Given that the plots of many of these novels end far
more complexly than they lived happily ever after, modernism more
accurately exposes and contests the concordance of traditional plot,
particularly how it reflects belief in a total coherence behind the flux of
human experience and affirms the ultimate goodness of humankind in
his or her central role in a providential plot of salvation.
A gap in Kermodes argument is the nature of reality itself, which
is why I will be putting his work into the context of the literary

relationship between trauma and apocalypse. The poet central to his

study, Wallace Stevens, extols the power of poetry to shape reality
with its imaginative patterns. Is the diurnal experience from which the
artist draws material purely contingent? Or does the external world
that the poet examines already contain inherent order? Life offers daily
meaning-making patterns that we live by and that are essential. The
notion that experience is meaningless without the poets power to give
shape to reality always contrasts the power of reality to shape the
Philosophy and literary theory in the past several decades
habitually raise pure contingency to the center of knowledge. This
leads to the divorce between text and reality during the height of
deconstruction that believes that there is nothing outside the text.
Another way to put it is that text is about nothing, or there is no
aboutness to text. Everything that a text means is bound by the text
itself. Meaninglessness, I will argue, has more to do with how
immediate experience, such as trauma, impedes retrospection than it
does the events themselves that we endure. Despite the philosophical
seduction of nihilism, people do not abide meaninglessness. People do
not generally go about their daily life self-consciously aware that
nothing makes sense. In fact, the human survives because she has a
tacit understanding that the cogs and wheels of life work, that despite
the seeming randomness of things, life can make sense.
The abyss of nihilism certainly yawns wide before us, but we are
preternaturally resilient at making meaning. Everyday we form
meaning out of expectations of a future based upon anticipated
endings. We generally know what tomorrow will bring because of what
the future has always brought to us in the past. It is, in fact, the
repetition of experience, Nietzsches return of the same or Freuds
repetition compulsion, that leads to anguish over nihilism.

The calendar, which we rely on everyday to organize the future,

testifies to the human resistance to meaninglessness. An order has
been imposed on the unrealized future; we can imagine a plot for the
future in advance of its realization. And if something comes along to
frustrate the plot, like a canceled date, we reconfigure the pattern. No
matter how meaningless life might seem, the human continues to
partition or plot its daily track, balancing coherence and discordance. It
is a provisional and fragile balance, but one that endures.
Trauma interrupts this fine balance. A traumatic event makes
diurnal experience unfamiliar. It ruptures fragile temporal structure and
defies expectations. In an argument seemingly counterintuitive,
however, I will show how traumatic events ultimately give life meaning
that is more vital than any other experience. It is a deeper and, albeit,
far more painful sense of meaning that overwhelms the interpretive
ability to form patterns from contingency. Trauma certainly challenges
cognition more than any other experience, but it does not defy
meaning. Because certain experience requires more interpretive vigor
from us to educe meaning does not necessarily mean it defies
Characterizing trauma as inexplicable or unsayable risks eliding
personal or collective catastrophe to the sublime category of
unknowingness, a common trope of the abyss in modernist literature.
The abyss is a prevalent motif in the 20thC novel: the Marbar Caves in
Forsters A Passage to India swallows everything, even genesis and
apocalypse, into nothingness; the depths of the Congo in Conrads
Heart of Darkness obliterates the differentiation between civilization
and primitivism, conscious and unconscious, at the same time as it
hopelessly obscures the story Marlow tries to relay. But despite the
abysmal experience of serial catastrophe that characterizes the past
century, the poetic imagination persists in its rage for meaning,
whether it is in the intense energy to reconstruct order during

modernism, to remake new and alternate worlds out of old ones during
postmodernism, or to expand through replication the virtual world
today. Making sense of the world is an activity that continues on,
perhaps with antiquated heroism, but it is all the more heroic when
done in the face of inevitable failure.
Trauma resists closure. We cannot pin trauma with language. Nor
would we want to. Literature offers a shape for traumatic experience
it frames events with plot or lineation to create a semblance of a
complete lifewhile its shape also allows for the necessary stopping
places to cope with trauma. Turning trauma into verbal form
economizes emotion by fictionalizing it. The human would perish
without the power of language to distort direct signification. Tropes
keep the world vitally reimagined, particularly the trope of closure. To
suspend disbelief when reading, to dwell within forms of closure while
knowing that they are tropes nonetheless, allows one to return to the
reality that exists beyond the text, a reality that is reimagined and
perhaps even re-enchanted.


Emily Dickinsons poem, My life closed twice before its close,

expresses the mystery and doubt that surrounds death.

My life closed twice before its close;

It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive

As these that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell.

In the first quatrain the reader expects that the tragedy of death that
Dickinson laments will promise everlasting life. Instead, however, the
anticipation of further death undermines hope, the third event, the
tick before the next tock. The blank space preceding the next quatrain
emphasizes the blankness of the pause before the tock, solidified by
the word hopeless. Instead of resolution in heaven, the word
Parting pairs with hell to form an unsettling conclusion: heaven and
hell are fictions, necessary nonetheless in that we need them.
But Dickinsons poem also explores a deeper notion of endings.
To unveil refers to apocalypse, the Christian belief that the End will
uncover and reveal Gods secrets. The uncovering of secrets that
promises everlasting life that always yet remains. As Dickinson
suggests, it is impossible to affirm heaven or hell, but it is possible to
turn them into fiction, to make sense of mystery by imposing lyrical
order over the blank, un-plotted space between tock and the next tick.
The temporal architecture of a story or a poem organizes the
finitude of life around an origin, duration, and conclusion, Kermodes
tick pause tock pause tick
. . . But a literary work also provides what is unavailable to us in
finitude: an experience that reaches a realized and meaningful whole
offered for retrospective analysis, the ticktock as a complete vision,
even if wholeness, like Dickinsons poem, leaves one wondering what
comes in the gap after tock. We cannot look back from our own death!
To this extent, a poem or a work of fiction fulfills the fantasy of living
after the end. A work enacts its own genesis and apocalypse.

Closure and Apocalypse



Apocalypse is a term organic to religion in the spirit of world-

destruction in the Book of Revelation. When we think of apocalypse, we
conjure up images of Armageddon that disaster movies supply. There is
no end to our hunger for catastrophic endings in the movies. The
representation of Armageddon is not necessarily new. Every age has
indulged in visions of the end. The Book of Revelation evolved out of
the most popular genre of Jewish writing, the apocalyptic. Artists
throughout the middle ages created terrifying and chaotic images of
destruction. World War I that laid waste to most of Europe fostered
literary depictions of civilization in terminal decline, like T.S. Eliots The
Waste Land. World War II, which incepts our current preoccupation with
unimaginable atrocity and annihilation continues to provide material
for representations of post-apocalypse. Samuel Becketts Endgame or
Cormac McCarthys The Road would not be possible without visions of
world destruction supplied by the threat of Mutually Assured
But apocalypse is a far more slippery term. In the doctrine of
eschatology, or the Last Thingsdeath, heaven, hell, resurrectionthe
eschaton is the actual imagined end of the world revealed throughout
Christs proclamations concerning end time and a New Kingdom that
transpires in John of Patmoss prophetic vision. It brings an ultimate
ending to the narrative arc from the Creation of the world in Genesis to
Apocalypse in Revelation. Eschatology, however, promises something
more beyond the ultimate endinga new beginning, a New Kingdom, a
New Jerusalem. Any apocalyptic mode presumes that something
remains beyond the end. Something of the world survives. The ending

is never a total ending. A total end is ultimately unthinkable for it

passes into silence no one can witness.
A second way of understanding apocalypse is in the form of
catastrophes that resemble or prefigure a final end. Catastrophe in our
contemporary world defines the end of something: a way of life, a way
of thinking. It marks a definitive rupture in time that creates a before
and after in history. The Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bombs
on Japan, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 divide history into antecedent
and subsequent time. They are polarizing events out of which emerge
new understandings concerning the world. The crucifixion stands as a
pivotal and catastrophic event in the middle of history. History surges
toward the crucifixion and prefigures its event, and then falls away
from it, progressing toward the apocalyptic promise of eschatological
A final way of understanding apocalypse is its hermeneutic
function. Apocalypse means revealing, unveiling, uncovering. It breaks
apart and destroys as a means to recreate meaning. The apocalypse is
not necessarily the eventful and final end, but the disclosure of truth
that an ending bestows, the clarification of what an end means. One
must survive an end in order to report back on it such that only in its
aftermath do we gain a sense of meaning concerning an event. The
catastrophe never coincides with meaning. Understanding is always
subsequent to an event. The meaning of catastrophe, therefore, like
the meaning behind the event that instigates trauma, is always
belated, coming after the fact, illuminating a truth that comes too late.
The apocalypse is inextricably bound to its own paradoxical
temporality. The end is never the end. Another seal always remains to
be broken. Another layer must be uncovered.
In the apocalyptic mode, a text announces the end of the world
while the text continues as does the world the text represents. The
ultimate ending always remains deferred. Since consummate meaning

becomes manifest only in the ultimate ending, the truth that

apocalypse uncovers remains forever unavailable. Final meaning
arrives beyond death, an experience, as Hamlet informs us, that no
witness returns from to bear testimony. The rest is silence because
death is the ultimate boundary-situation. All accounts of apocalypse
come from after the end. The witness who represents apocalypse must
also be a survivor. One can only recognize the apocalypse after it
Since both involve similar temporal paradoxes, Berger argues
that apocalypse shares the structure of trauma. The initial catastrophic
event causes trauma because it overwhelms comprehension at the
time it happened. Trauma constitutes the aftereffects of something
that cannot be understood in its immediacy. To understand trauma, to
put experience into a context, requires a second event that triggers the
initial trauma and gives it both sense and context, affirming the
traumatic neurosis that had been previously omitted. Similarly, in
apocalypse, an initial disaster serves to distort and disorient, but it
does not reveal. The catastrophe is too close, too sudden, too
surprising. The initial disaster requires a secondary disaster to give it
retrospective status, offering both disasters a hermeneutic function.
This secondary disaster, one that proceeds from the first and gives it
retrospective meaning, becomes apocalyptic on a hermeneutic level.
The interplay between two or more events that rupture
experience makes the apocalyptic and the traumatic congruent ideas.
Both destroy existing structures that make identity and the language
we use to represent experience possible. Both occlude or erase
memory, requiring one to reconstruct the past. Trauma reaches into
the past as a means to understand the present whereas apocalypse
searches the present as a means to understand a future. Trauma and
apocalypse go hand in hand. Working-through the past is a means of

making a future possible whereas imagining a future based upon the

present does pretty much the same.
The post-apocalyptic interprets the world as if it had already
come to an end, a term more paradoxical than postmodern. Whereas
post suggests subsequence, apocalyptic is an event that is never
now, that never arrives, and if it does we would not have any means by
which to experience it. Apocalypse is anterior time, always outside,
about and beyond temporality and that can never be located. It
already occurred, is always occurring and will always occur. We are
already always beyond the apocalypse wondering belatedly what it
meant at the same time as it is always ahead of us, filling us with
dread. In the to be or not to be soliloquy, Hamlet recognizes the
impossibility to annihilate the self and then step back and contemplate
the performance. Since death is not a sensible state, and, further, it is
impossible to imagine an absolute ending, there is something both
ludicrous and alluring about ruminating upon the post-apocalyptic. The
earth shattering effects of trauma that mark an end akin to apocalypse
combined with its temporally belated structure makes trauma theory
focus on ruptures in the referential correspondence between language
and knowledge. Cathy Caruth claims, in trauma the greatest
confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it,
that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of
Psychology and religion contribute to a sense of apocalypse in
two broad senses of the term: the actual imagined end of the world,
and how catastrophe traumatically transforms familiar reality of the
world. Today we equate apocalypse with worldwide destruction, the
end of the world. Such apocalyptic scenarios are plentifully provided
for by Hollywood. These fantasies of the end, ultimately gothic, are
important and serve healthy meaning making functions. However, I
would like to examine the subtler dimension of apocalypse: its original

meaning as unveiling, a revelation that leads to reimagined and

restored meaning. To this extent, it becomes more important to
examine what it means to come after the end of eras as opposed to
the destruction of the world.
In what ways do endings reconfigure what it means to be
human? What does the human salvage from the ruins of an ending?
Despite the seemingly complete annihilation of meaning from the
world such apocalypse entails, all apocalyptic depictions rescue
something of sense and value in a world that continues on. Despite the
nothingness Cormac McCarthy depicts in The Road, the novel ends
with a definableand surprising!Christian theology.
Since apocalypse means uncovering, it is a term germane to
literary interpretation. Interpretation is the process of unveiling
concealed meaning. Further, apocalypse denotes the meaning of
things that are secreted away when the world is dominated by
falsehood and misconception. Therefore, the apocalypse entails
suspicion of assumed truths. As Harold Bloom exhorts, apocalyptic
energy must ruin the sacred truths. An examination of a literary work
as an aesthetic whole does not necessarily elide extrinsic concerns.
Despite a resistance to aesthetics in our thorny political age, a focus on
the organic unity of a text does not have to be apolitical or totalizing.
Interpretation is an activity that casts suspicion on things. From outside
textual integrity interpretation questions the value that the reader and
the world place on a work. A hermeneutics of suspicion can be just as
congenial to formal analysis as it is to political criticism.
The closure that turns a work of literature into an aesthetic whole
does not mean the work is closed. The meaning inherent in a work is
not inert, nor does it function automatically, like a circuit. Meaning
does not just happen. There is no natural sense in which a poem
means anything. On the contrary, meaning entails a struggle with a
text. A story or poems sense of completeness requires the reader to

breath life into language that would otherwise remain dead. In some
ways interpretation commits acts of creative violence to a text. It takes
the text apart in order to recreate meaning. Interpretation is an
apocalyptic activity not only because of our afterness but also because
it destroys in order to create. It pries open the seals that we assume
contain the meaning for which we search, but the seal, as in
Revelation, always leads to another seal. A trope always leads to
another trope. Interpretation is a continually generative process that
never reduces a work to a zero point but keeps a text alive that would
remain inert otherwise. Interpretation opens a reader to a texts
fullness, or pleroma, the plentitude of spirit embodied by form that
always at the same time breaks forms constraints. But to the extent
that reading is sanctioned selfishness, interpretation is also self-
defining. The readers desire for meaning draws a text into her own
interpretive form, her own patterns of understanding she imposes upon
experience. Life takes the form of the aesthetic integrity of the work, or
mathexis, the sense that ones own experience is storied.
To address the many nuanced ways in which we understand
what apocalypse means, and how it is more than often misunderstood,
we need to examine what meaning means. We live in a world in which
making sense of things has become more difficult than at any other
time in history. Interpretation is more challenging than ever. At the
same time we live in a world in which interpretation has become
disposable. Digital technology becomes our all-consuming register for
representation. There is a danger that interpretation no longer entails
work. But people hunger for meaning.

In After the End, James Berger argues that trauma is an

apocalyptic rupture beyond which it is difficult for a victim to conceive
of life. At the center of Bergers study is his exciting argument that
trauma is a psychoanalytic form of apocalypse, whereas apocalypse is

a religious form of trauma. Both trauma and apocalypse share

dynamics conducive to literature. In apocalypse, catastrophe lays
waste to older ways of seeing the world, but out of destruction comes
clarification or an unveiling.

Transition on closure versus visual media

The Apocalyptic Mindset

Every era is obsessed with the end of the world. Search Google
Images and you will find artwork as detailed and horrifying throughout
the medieval era as the digitized phantasmagoria from Hollywood or
the television today. The depictions, whether it is Bosch, Durer, Blake,
Picasso, or the plethora of digitally created graphics online, are busy,
congested, swirling, Dionysian, sublime, exhausting. Once frozen and
anchored in in one place, these doomsday images now move in the
frenzied space of film and digitization. Apocalypse visually surrounds
us. The world has ended numerous times in disaster movies since the
1950s and has recently traversed post-apocalyptic landscapes on
At the height of apocalyptic fever in any period, exhaustion with
end-of-the-world doom also sets in. In Saul Bellows novel, Herzog
complains, We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed
time . . . We love apocalypse too much . . . Excuse me, no. Ive had all
the monstrosity I want (388). Bellow wrote Herzog just before the
Kennedy Assassination. The novel predates the Viet Nam War, 1968,
the oil crisis, terrorism, economic disaster, and 9/11. His words seem
applicable to any period in the past two centuries. His complaint is
apropos today when we suffer from apocalyptic exhaustion, wondering,

what rough beast comes next to emerge from the current apocalyptic
Despite the exhaustion, it is impossible to discern whether or not
the current era is any more apocalyptic than previous generations.
Although Herzog came out just before the upheavals of the 1960s and
70s, we must not forget what preceded the novel: two World Wars
punctuated by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Eichmann trial,
and the rapid build up of nuclear armament that made it possible for
humans to extinguish everything for the first time in history. Serial
catastrophe changed everything in the five decades before 1964 just
as everything changed in the five decades after.
Each generation believes that theirs is the generation living in
the critical moment of history. The apocalyptic imagination turns
contemporary situation into singularity. Everything from the past has
arrived here, now, at this moment. Most apocalyptic fantasies,
therefore, erase human agency. The end of the world is never an
individual issue but the result of giant forces of history drawing
everything to a head. This is paradoxical, given the fact that the
biggest shift in the human relationship to endings has been the
wholesale personalization of death, particularly as a result of the
erosion of literal belief in a biblical end of the world between roughly
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We have separated
apocalypse from our own personal fear of mortality. It is never my
apocalypse but the apocalypse. It is always my death but never my
end of the world. This division between individual death and a
catastrophic end is at the heart of Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five.
The novels explicit message is that ending war is like trying to stop
glaciers. Annihilation is inevitable and free will is a pure fantasy.
Vonneguts implicit message, however, is his furiously moral rejection
of determinism, a resounding No! to the Tralfamadorian philosophy
Billy Pilgrim adopts.

Before fleeing Germany in the wake of the war, Walter Benjamin

argues that an epoch always bears its end within itself, which shares in
W.B. Yeats system of historical gyres. Interpreting Paul Klees Angelus
Novus, which depicts the angel of history facing a catastrophic past
with its back to the future, Benjamin writes,

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single

catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and
hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken
the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm
is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such
violence that the angel can no longer close them.

Catastrophic events of the past always propel the angel backwards into
the future. A large part of an apocalyptic mindset results from the mere
fact that, like Benjamins angel, every generation arrives at the end of
a catastrophic era. The human is always last, coming after all of history
that preceded him. I often introduce my survey course of Western
literature by pointing out to students the incredible reality: each one of
us at all moments constitutes the end of history. Each of us stands at
the very endpoint of historys timeline. We are the result of everyone
and everything that came before. We are not, therefore, just figures in
a linear history, but also the collective histories of an entire past. Each
of us is the repository for all human thought and action preceding us:
Egypt, India, Persia, Africa, Greece, Jerusalem, Rome, Europe, England,
and the United States flow through us like the rivers that flow in
Langston Hughs veins in his magisterial poem, The Negro Speaks of
Each of us is also the repository of genocidal wars, slavery,
economic struggle, and diaspora. Western civilization courses through
Hughs bloodstream because slavery made the monuments of history

we celebrate possible. The splendor of Western civilization, the

semblance of its progress, elides centuries of human sacrifice and
enslavement. We inherit, therefore, the dreams and the nightmares of
everyone who came before us. Living at the end is both awe inspiring
and terrifying, liberating and burdensome. It is the cause for
celebration, like the adage, today is the first day of the rest of my
life! Or it is the cause for terror. As Stephen Daedalus says in Ulysees,
History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. The
apocalyptic imagination oscillates between redemptive and destructive
The simple fact that at any given moment we come after
everything makes one believe that this is the special time, the urgent
time, the generation for which the fate of the world depends. The
future of all existence is contingent upon our crisis. The anxiety of
living at the end is very real. There is nothing more critical than now,
the present of the present in which one must make decisions by
reconciling what one knows of the past and what one imagines and
fears about the future.

Chapter Ten
Modernist and Closure

In The Art of Fiction, Henry James famously exposes the artifice

of Victorian novels by claiming that their endings show the
distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies,
millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks. The frequently
outrageous concordance of these endings aims to console whereas
modernist endings disturb. Victorian writers believe that a major
function of art is to provide happiness and moral clarity. The novel
should serve as a model of something proscriptive, a function for the
greater good, rather than something aesthetic for its own sake.
Adhering to a fairly Platonic notion that fictions cater to and inspire

dangerous delusion, the Victorians are wary of moral ambivalence.

Literary gloom is unhealthy. Middle class moralism views melancholy
as unproductive, which still retains its force until today, as I argued
earlier. In the middle of the Industrial Revolution, the utility of art
becomes more questioned than it ever had before, particularly in
contrast to previous eras when art was generally assumed to establish
the health of a civilization.
Victorian utilitarianism demands that everything have a function,
so art needs to provide one or defend itself from attacks against
dysfunction while promoting its usefulness. The British aesthetes, such
as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, and French Symbolists, such as Valery
and Mallarme, rebel against Victorian moral stricture in the late
nineteenth century by reveling in dysfunction or advertising arts
uselessness, which, we will see, is one of the most powerful forces in
the birth of modernism. The glorification of dysfunction climaxes with
the Dada movement, which seeks out to destroy all semblances of
closure and coherence with joyful nihilism that intimates the
compulsion for apocalypse later in the century. In general, however,
the function of a novel or poem in the 18th and 19thC is quite simply to
uplift while the prerogative of literary criticism is to describe its moral
coherence and to censor departures from accepted form and
standards. A major reason why so many nineteenth-century novels end
on an affirmative note, or at least a conclusive tone, is the political
advantage of providing people with instruments to resist dispirit and
Such a grand trope of coherence cannot withstand the fantasy of
concordance it is built on, however, and, as Kermode argues, its
paradigms of closure wear out when the world becomes more complex,
as it does by the first decades of the twentieth century. Freud claims
that fantasy is a correction of an unsatisfying reality. The human
always accommodates the discrepancy between desire and the reality

of outcomes by projecting the fulfillment of wishes on plain old

consecution and contingency. But we know that the happy distribution
of prizes does not happen in reality. Disenchantment is one of the sad
outcomes of nineteenth-century capitalism, particularly in the
desacralization of society. Because you are a good person on the edge
of financial ruin does not mean that winning the lottery is forthcoming,
although one continues today to believe that good deeds precede
outrageous luck. Marriages do not resolve in a happily ever after,
although many couples persist in the belief that the years that follow
will continue to bring the same joy as the honeymoon. Reality does not
play out like the ending of a Jane Austen novel. Austen herself claimed
she wanted to write an afterword to each of her novels to tell the
readers what happens to her heroes after marriage. Austens slice of
English pastoral life, the few months of idyll, did not really exist, but we
believe in it, and would not want it otherwise.
Further, we fantasize that life provides moral clarity. But actual
experience does not close like George Eliots Middlemarch with an
epilogue on the positive progress of humankind. It is comforting to
believe that a benevolent author composes life and orchestrates its
outcomes to the advantage of the deserving, like the novelist in the
movie Stranger than Fiction. A gnomic narrator, the all-knowing author
directs the nineteenth-century novel to make everything work. One of
the biggest shifts in the early twentieth-century novel is the dominance
of the unknowing narrator who leaves the reader in a dizzying world of
shifting and unreliable perspectives that expose the limitations to
Coincidences do occur in life all the time, and sometimes they
are happy ones. We will often attribute coincidences to fate in order to
comfort ourselves with a life that has the shape of providence. But
coincidence does not happen on the organized and exaggerated level
of a Victorian novel in which everyone who is part of the drama in life

makes the concealed teleology come to light in the end, such as the
incredible familial connections that occur at the end of a novel by
Dickens. It is wonderfully satisfying (and consoling) that the dark
figure, Magwitch, who threatens all possibilities for happiness in Great
Expectations, turns out to be lovingly connected to most of the
characters. It provides for a beautiful deathbed scene while allowing
moral concordance, despite the emotionally ambivalent state with
which Pip ends the novel. Even though ambivalence attends Pip, the
novel ends with the sense that justice has been served. It could be no
other way than that Pip must live out his life with middle class
limitation instead of aristocratic excess. Novels might be one of the few
places where justice is possible, a sad indictment of our current age
that rewards swindlers, which is why Martha Nussbaum argues that
they could serve as models for public and political life. It seems
doubtful, however, that the White House will appoint literary critics as
special counselors in matters of domestic and foreign affairs anytime
In his Notes on Life and Letters, Joseph Conrad extends Henry
James criticism of the Victorian novel by claiming that conventional
endings reflect solution by rewards and punishments, by crowned
love, by fortune, by a broken leg or a sudden death. For Conrad,
These solutions are legitimate inasmuch as they satisfy the desire for
finality, for which our hearts yearn, with a longing greater than a
longing for the loaves and fishes of this earth. Perhaps the only true
desire of mankind, coming thus to light in its hours of leisure, is to be
set at rest. The demand for closure for Conrad compels us to keep
reading. We want to know what happens in the end, and the ending
that a novel provides compels the desire for more. The drive to read for
the ending is a form of Freuds repetition compulsion, which, we will
see in Chapter ** relates to the craving for the finality of the death

The desire for satisfaction also makes us wary of its fulfillment.

When the pleasure of closure is premature it ruins the anticipation of
suspense. Anyone who reads mysteries or thrillers knows the pleasure
of deferred satisfaction. We crave gratification at the same time as we
revel in the anxiety of unknowingness. The solution to the mystery is
more satisfying if the route that winds toward the end delays
gratification more complicatedly. At the same time a narrative that
raises anxieties through complications without allowing for an inkling
of concordanceif the end is terminally irresolutedissatisfies a
reader more than the intellectual curiosity it might draw. A reader
needs to be taken through the labyrinth of plot for a reasonthere
must be some rewardeven if the author makes that reason obscure.
When Marlow ends his story in Heart of Darkness by lying to
Kurtzs Intended that his last words were his name, it does not resolve
the plot any more than Kurtzs actual last words, The horror! The
horror! In fact nothing much is resolved in the novel, but it remains
complete and satisfying nonetheless. Satisfaction is bound to the
irresolution contained nonetheless by the framed narrative that cannot
control the obscurity of knowledge that keeps us returning to the
novel. The pleasure of interpretation supersedes the pleasure of an
adventure story. Conrad is very aware of the easy enjoyment of that
genre. Heart of Darkness, written at the dawn of the twentieth century,
evidences modernisms desire to break forms of closure, reflecting a
new epistemological discomfort. Before the Great War writing already
reveals a dissatisfaction and exhaustion with concordant plots. The
longer a convention endures, the quicker it fails to persuade.
Classic realism inherits the implicit logic of order inherent in
the Bible. Endings provide a restoration of order after it has been
disrupted and lost. Although Original Sin ensues conflict, the fallen
world will be ultimately redeemed in the end. Although the story
begins in perfection that falls into chaos after sin disrupts creation, the

plot rises out of the depths of disorder to end by restoring creation in

the apocalypse. Northrop Frye calls it the U-shaped plot of the Bible.
The human is integrally part of this plot that has a comic outcome in
happiness and integration. The catastrophe of the apocalypse, the
destruction before the falling action, does not precede the tragic waste
of futile death but the restoration of everlasting life. The triumph over
death realized by a Christian eschatology perpetuates the ideology of
human progress integral to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment,
and which we still cling to today in its tattered remnants. Humanity is
moving toward its destiny of perfection, despite bumps in the road,
and the task of the novel is to reveal this movement, to shed light on
its design. The novels telos is to allow the masterplot of the Fall of Man
to displace into a contemporary context.
The world comes in the shape of a story for traditional realism. In
Modernist fiction, however, there is only the order that we perceive or
construct, which makes literature awfully difficult to interpret.
Mythological order becomes more buried, obscured, by an increasingly
subjective frame of reference. It is no coincidence that the
professionalization of literary criticism and eventually the rise of theory
result from modernism. Its texts not only require vigorous
interpretation, but also compel us to reinvestigate the more intricate
layers of other texts in the literary canon that had been only examined
through an evaluative and prescriptive lens. T.S. Eliot rediscovers mid
seventeenth-century poetry that had, up until the early 20thC, been
generally dismissed because the more extended metaphorical conceits
of a poet like John Donne obscured a clear moral teleology. Modernist
perception moves from the magical, outer and transcendent all-
knowing eye to an inner, subjective point of view, turning language
into a far more difficult issue than something that can be addressed by
mere evaluative and appreciative criticism. Since the temporal order of
the world becomes radically subjective, origins and endings no longer

inhere in the actual world. It is the reader and the writer who takes
control of such order.
One might call the twentieth century the era of narrative crisis.
Although we attribute the notion that the middle of the twentieth
century, as it emerges from two world wars, witnesses the destruction
of metanarratives to Francois Lyotard, who claims the rejection of
grand narratives that shape truth characterizes postmodernism, the
epistemological suspicion of narrative is well underway in the
nineteenth century. The genetic fallacy claims that knowing how and
when something began does not mean you will gain the truth about it.
A grand narrative, like the Fall of Man, cannot explain everything,
particularly after Darwin postulates an indeterminate evolution of the
human from lower life forms. Singular creation and apocalyptic
completion no longer provide total coherence. Instead, we understand
Truth (with a capital T) in terms of an always-shifting collection of
miniature narratives that yield many truths. The understanding of the
world loses its wholeness that must be found only provisionally through
the many parts comprised of the web of text, the endless strands of
mini-narratives all competing to tie some ribbon of meaning into a

Narrative suggests that the world has shape since a plot that
constructs narrative coherence depends upon consecution, a
procession of cause and effect. For centuries up until the twentieth,
humans have depended upon narrative procession to confirm such
master-narratives as human progress, the power of Reason, the
development of Enlightenment thought, the march of science, the
march of freedom, the march of democracy . . . High school history
textbooks continue to profess a linear movement of progress: America,
despite some setbacks here and there, is always advancing toward a

more perfect union. However, the horrors of World War I show that
reality is not a tidy evolution. The most advanced civilizations in the
world slaughter 9 million in a war of attrition, forcing the human to
question belief in human progress, the lack of which is only affirmed
when the war to end all wars is followed by the genocidal horror of
World War II. It is impossible to overstate the extent to which World
War I traumatically ruptures the notion of European progress, a
catastrophe that tears history into a before and after, and that only
makes the next war seem almost fatefully inevitable. The Great War
results in the scandal of novelists who hold on to nave assumptions
that nineteenth-century realism can continue to represent reality,
which Virginia Woolf deracinates in *** If the battlefields between
1914 and 1918 reveal the ghastly illusion of grand narratives, what
remains as a consequence are partial-truths and fragmented accounts
much like post-traumatic expressiona web of different points of
view that do not naturally unveil an ideal, providential shape to
experience, but wind through a textual representation. Words start to
become unhinged from reference in a stable field of representation.
If endings try to forge a design on a world textually fragmented,
they do so by simplifying and impoverishing that world. Modernists
become aware that narrating is at the same time falsifying. Endings
are tropes just like the devices by which authors configure temporal
consecution out of duration. Modernism subverts notions of realism.
Therefore the most realistic novel, in a sense, becomes one that is
most conscious of its falsification. The falsification of closure, the
figurative crafting of narrative duration, is why modernist authors are
obsessed with time as a fictional construct. As fiction becomes self-
conscious of its own fictiveness, it also becomes prevalently time-
In its pivot between realism and falsification, the most prevailing
trope of modernist fiction becomes irony. The gap between reality and

fiction widens at the same time as authors become more self-conscious

of the extent to which they make that gap manifest. Authors narrate
accounts by foregrounding their own limitations. Many modernist
novels center on the novelists struggle to tell a story, a narrative in
which the novelist of the novel we read takes center stage in the genre
of metafiction, a genre that remains prevalent today despite its worn
out conventions: Heart of Darkness, The Good Soldier, At Swim Two
Birds, The End of the Affair, The Comforters.
For instance, the storyteller, John Dowell in Ford Maddox Fords
The Good Soldier goes to great lengths to acknowledge the gaps in
recounting the past to the point that Ford implies the impossibility to
tell a story straight. Dowells refrain is I dont know repeated dozens
of times throughout his narrative that moves tortuously back and forth
between a ten-year period as he tries to gain closure after a series of
tragic events of which he plays a part. Never arriving at a satisfying
ending, each chapter reaches the crescendo of a characters pitifully
absurd death, only to return to the train of confusing events that led to
the disintegration of his marriage and the social circle it orbited.
Dowells unknowingness is so entrenched that Ashburnhams suicide,
the good soldier of the title comes at the very end as an
afterthought. In fact, Dowell exclaims that he almost forgot about the
suicide! The final death that should round off the flux in the middle
arrives instead like an ellipsis. If Dowell had more time, it seems, he
would continue to narrate another chapter in his retrospective scan of
the past as he tries to figure things out. The ending of The Good
Soldier foregrounds the fictional arbitrariness of endings.
Even works that are not explicitly about the author writing a
novel deal with the difficult machinations of narration. William
Faulkners short story A Rose for Emily has a narrator timid about
owning his own account as he hides behind the official sounding first
person plural, we, couching his narrative in the tone of a

spokesperson for a municipal committee. At the same time he jumps

forward and backward in time in order to creep up to the grisly
discovery in Emilys upstairs bedroom as though he must tread to the
end carefully. His storytelling has an element of refinement that puts a
veneer over the grotesque circumstances. The story ends with the
ghastly revelation that Emily had kept Barons corpse in their marriage
bed like a truth too traumatic to grasp in the present. The nearest one
can arrive at the truth in modernist fiction is to confess ones difficulty
in getting there. The modern narrative finds ways, then, to intimate the
possibility of many versions of the subject other than its own. Samuel
Becketts novels, for instance, set out on one narrative only to abort it
for another one moments after it begins that is equally pointless. Like
the two tramps in Waiting for Godot, the plot never gets anywhere but
spends a lot of time trying to, and the revelation never arrives.

Without a foundation in objective reality or a mythical origin,

modern narrative wanders through an in-between state in search of
origins and endings, which is why stories of the past century find
endings so difficult, indeed, why the difficulty of an ending itself
becomes the central conflict of the novel. Modern fiction must find
ways to be self-sustaining. Unlike Homer or the author of Genesis,
modern fiction appeals to its own authority. The impossibility to
articulate the simplest story, even the nature of telling a story itself,
becomes the conflict of the plot for a substantial amount of modern
novels and poems. Although two world wars and the accumulation of
atrocities that surround them destroy a belief that history progresses
toward an achieved fulfillment (which will lead to the current post-
apocalyptic fixation), a progressive sense of history already begins to
crumble between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
World War I is the event that most traumatically ruptures literary
history, but it is also too frequently used as a convenient marker for

the beginning of literary modernism. This leads to a drastic misreading

of modernism in its relationship to the development of modernity going
back to the early sixteenth century. The increasingly complex nature of
narrative that must combine necessity with gratuity results partly from
the disintegration of belief in a linear narrative in which the human
advances from barbarism to civilization. This narrative of progress
begins with the Protestant Revolution and proceeds through the
advancements of empirical reasoning and secularism in the 17th and
18th centuries. History, philosophy, biology, and eventually psychology
in the 19th century, however, evidence how the advancement of
civilization is concomitant to barbarity.

The Journey of Closure

The savagery behind civilization is certainly the main point of

Marlows impossible story that barely gets off the ground in Heart of
Darkness, a novel that predates 1914 by fourteen years. It is no
surprise that Kurtz, the monstrous figure whom Marlow must search for
initially came to Africa as an emissary of pity, and science, and
progress, and devil knows what else. Although Kurtz took the job
managing the post in the Central Station in the ivory trade
championing progress and enlightenment, he degenerates into a
savage who performs unspeakable rites and amends his manuscript
on the European mission to civilize Africa with the terrifying phrase,
Exterminate the brutes! Recently there has been a growing interest
in the relationship between colonialism and apocalypse that has also
been evolving into an interest in the post-apocalyptic imagination in
relation to post-colonialism.
As an adventure story, Heart of Darkness deconstructs the
mythologies of human progress inherent in the adventure of

colonialism by using the plot convention of the journey, the most

prevalent motif in literature. Marlows fitful journey by steamship up
the Congo repeats the plot convention of Huck and Jims journey by
raft on the Mississippi. The river motif returns in works, such as
Hemingways The Two Big-Hearted River, James Dickeys
Deliverance, and Cormac McCarthys Sutree. Like the map of rivers
running throughout Africa that allures Marlow as a child, the river
provides a symbol of the serpentine movement of life from an origin to
a terminus while it also represents the possibility of a return. PETER
Stories are rife with journeys. The foundational work of literature
in the West, Homers Odyssey, depicts a circular journey of departure
and return in its movement from chaos that results from a rupture
Paris kidnapping Helen of Troyand the restoration of order the return
providesOdysseuss homecoming in Ithaca. Joyce imposes Homers
mythical narrative over the haphazard wanderings of Stephen and
Leopold in their separate journeys out into Dublin and back home
again to create a modernist cyclical view in which all of history occurs
in a single day. Stephens rejection of Leopolds offer for lodging in the
penultimate chapter, however (a moment that always stirs deep
sadness in me), ruptures the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus it
mimics. But the novel resolves the fragmentary chaos of modern
Dublin Joyce sutures together over seven hundred pages on the most
affirmative note in literary history, Molly Blooms erotic and orgiastic
The convention of the journey never tires in literature for the
simple fact that the plot of a story must move. Without movement
there is no plot. Like a shark, a story dies (or comes to an end) if the
plot stops moving. All of the medieval romances that constitute a few
hundred years of European and British literature center on tales of the
knight-errant. The plot of these stories are comprised of events that

test, challenge, and threaten the knight on his quest for treasure,
frequently the Holy Grail (which is why it has become a euphemism for
the unattainable goal), and his return home as a stronger individual
and, hence, the insurer of a strengthened kingdom. The ending reveals
either the knights success or failure at proving his Christian virtue,
protecting the virtue of his lady and of the monarchy, and perpetuating
the strength of his kingdom. Gawain, who begins Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight an untested knight eager to show off for Guinevere as
much as he feels incumbent to save face for king Arthur, returns to
Camelot a seasoned knight because his pride has been humbled (if not
humiliated). The plot is concordantly eschatological. Gawain wins
salvation for Camelot because the triumph of England is already
realized in the slap-dashed history the narrator opens with. More
importantly, the plot begins with the inflated ego of Camelot and ends
with ego deflated. But in its place Gawain attains strength more
powerful than empty pride. As a representative of England, Gawain
achieves self-knowledge of his own fallibility, which results in his
strength from wretchedness.
The knightly romances constitute a cohesive religious and
monarchial eschatology, which makes sense. The knight serves the two
institutions that dominate the medieval world, Church and State. The
salvation of one depends upon the other; a kingdom is bound to the
realized salvation of the Church. Unlike the ancient world, the afterlife
is at the core of Christianity in which each person is unique in his or her
very human combination of greatness and wretchedness: wretched
because the human is depraved enough to crucify Christ, and great
because Christ died for human sin, making the human possible to fulfill
the potential God created him to be, and promising an eschatology
already realized in spite of wretchedness.
The knight, therefore, is not an individual on a quest for self-
knowledge as its own pursuit, a good in of itself. He represents the

providential plot of a whole kingdom. The crucial difference is that the

ancient world not only isolates gods to locationsthey are spatially
limitedbut also makes them unbound to any moral system. Homers
god-like warriors journey and fight for glory as something divine in its
own right. The finality of death makes the battle in the face of its
inevitability all the more glorious. Narrative in the Christian world,
however, spatially dislodges the divine. In the medieval world the
divine is no longer relegated within the city, behind the walls, in a
space or person who must be paid homage, but splays out into the
entire world. Everything in the world, natural and manmade, and every
event comprise manifest signs from God since his presence is
everywhere. This allows medieval narrative to take on its highly
allegorical nature as everything in the world is invested with spiritual
and symbolic value. The physical world always embodying and
projecting the divine for the medieval world maintains its narrative
power all the way up into the novel, a form that elevates the ordinary
to allegorical significance, bestowing the diurnal with value that makes
the lives of everyday people the central subject of narrative.
As the Roman paradigm of one world bound together in a single
destiny crumbles and monarchism and then nationalism rise, the
journey motif transitions into the individual quest for self-knowledge
that induces and is induced by self-consciousness. By the early 1500s,
the Protestant Revolution, with its emphasis upon the sovereignty of
the selfeach person is his or her own priest, as Martin Luther
preachesexposes the falsities of the Romance tradition. The narrative
conventions of the knight errant wear out. The knight becomes the
courtier, whose journeys narrow to parochial interests and the search
for personal and erotic fulfillment in the renaissance, incorporating the
complex codes of courtly love into the sonnet tradition and drama. The
figure of the hero that begins as a knight, a prince, and then a courtier
devolves into the farcical figure, the picaresque hero who becomes the

archetypal protagonist of the early novel. Don Quixote, the ludicrous

sentimentalist for bygone romances that led him to lunatic journeys
that never really get anywhere, at least in reality, catches his mania for
adventure from the influence of books. Two centuries before the novel
becomes the most popular genre the motif begins of the person led
astray by books, like *** in Northanger Abbey. In Don Quixotes
ridiculous adventures the teleology of the ancient epic form becomes
humbled and rustic. The protagonists heroic search for truth ensues
over long prose narratives to register the increasingly difficult path to
truth, and which eventually become the novel, a form that draws its
figures down to our homely level to represent who we are and even,
ironically, stoops to levels beneath us.
The novel continues the journey motif. As modernity progresses
the knight becomes an ordinary individual in search of truth, which
becomes increasingly contingent upon self-knowledge wrapped up in a
deepening self-consciousness. Pilgrim, the everyday Christian in
Pilgrims Progress; Gulliver, the beguiled man of reason in Gullivers
Travels; Tom Jones, the adventuring rogue in Tom Jones; Crusoe, the
self-reliant capitalist in Robinson Crusoe; Pip, the poor orphan desirous
of aristocratic destiny in Great Expectations; Ahab, the figure driven by
obsession in Moby Dick; Huck, a young boy rebelling against
hypocritical antebellum morality in Huckleberry Finn; Clarissa, a
housewife struggling for self-affirmation in Mrs. Dalloway; Leopold, a
middle-aged advertising executive longing for a son in Ulysses; the
uprooted youth wandering America in On the Road; Oedipa Mass, an
amateur sleuth tasked to uncover the conspiratorial mysteries of
America in The Crying of Lot 49. A teleology that deepens the desire to
realize an increasingly difficult ending into something more
unconscious drives each protagonist. The ends of the search for truth
become elusive, impossible. From Pilgrims Progress in which the hero
searches for the Christian salvation already predestined to The Crying

of Lot 49 in which Oedipa searches through a labyrinthine of meaning

behind the impossibly complex systems of signs in America that
remain forever elusive, the quest motif becomes the impossible search
for truth.
But now we have a big irony that goes to the heart of the
necessary falsification of experience an ending imposes on narrative.
There is nothing more hackneyed than the metaphor of life is a
journey. It is a clich, easily used to short circuit interpretation. The
journey metaphor connotes a life of continuity and purpose. We are all
travellers on our way to a destination. The road trip continues to be a
very popular motif in literature in America where the pioneering
dreams of freedom, adventure, expansion, and life anew come to
fruition in the romance and speed of the highway. The road trip motif
allows a character to remain free from an origin or destination. She is
neither here nor there, but exists in a suspended state of flux, an in-
between space where the self can explore and revel in the fragmentary
transience of fleeting towns and cities in ever widening and shifting
spaces. There is no obligation. A surplus of possibility lies ahead, which
is why the road trip is often Dionysian and nihilistic. At the same time
the purpose of the road trip is to get somewhere, to discover
something. In the end, all road trip narratives boil down to the journey
of self-knowledge, even if the journey, like Oedipas quest for the
mysteries of America, is a search for something seemingly beyond the
self. It is fitting that Oedipas name is a playful feminization of the
archetypal figure of tragic self-knowledge. But the irony remains: the
journey to self-knowledge becomes as clichd as the journey of life.
The hackneyed status of the journey metaphor is evident by the ease
with which a student can apply it to any piece of literature. Since plot
necessitates movement, a starting point and an end, and since at least
one voice must be engaged in that movement (someone speaks), any
story or poem can become a life journey that results in self-knowledge.

The irony that a clich envelops almost all elements of narrative

reveals the rigidity of plot. In its final analysis, since plot involves the
sequential arrangement of elements to form the beginning and end,
there is nothing much new that plot can do since the earliest
storytellers than to portion out a segment of time in its narrow
paradigms familiar to readers. This is why so many authors can write
novels based upon a formula. An author can pour the material of the
story into a prefabricated plot. This does not mean that the plot of a
formulaic novel is not interesting or creative. Many of them, in fact, are
more interesting than the plots of literature. It means that an author
has used the nature of plot as a fixed and predestined form in ways
that do not demand much interpretation from the reader. There is little
or no ironic distance between the level of expectation and its
fulfillment, which is why films adapted from pulp fiction are usually
more successful than film adaptations of literature.
A useful way in which to understand the structure of plot, in fact,
is to read formulaic narratives, like romances, detective stories, or
screenplays. Screenwriters work almost exclusively within the austere
limitations of plot. By watching films or reading screenplays, a student
in particular can learn a lot about the sedimentation of the ways plot
have provided meaning over centuries beneath which a storehouse of
myths exists. A screenwriter must fit her material into a ruthlessly
economic plot that is recognizable and necessary for the millions of
people who attend movies both nationally and globally.

Modernism and Closure


Lets return to Benjamins angel of history. It comes in his final

work Theses on the Philosophy of History, which he wrote at a
particular moment of crisis, 1939, on the cusp of World War II. There is
no doubt that his bitterness toward Marxism results from Stalins 1939
non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Theses is a rejection of the past as
a continuous history of human progress. Although Marx replaces the
Hegelian progress of history with his dialectical materialism, Benjamin
criticizes him for retaining a belief in human teleology. Marxs Utopian
vision is not that different from a messianic / eschatological narrative.
Both require a destruction of the world, and each promises a more
perfect world to follow.
Pointing out the miniscule duration of human history in contrast
to the universe, Benjamin turns the human into a farce. The here-and-
now, which is the model of messianic time summarizes the entire
history of humanity into a monstrous abbreviation, coincides to a hair
with the figure, which the history of humanity makes in the universe.
Although this prefigures the postmodern reduction of the human into
an absurd figure, like Vonneguts wisp of undifferentiated
nothingness whose history is a mere peephole in the universe, such
attacks on Enlightenment notions of human progress and the
perfection of mankind predate his work. His critique is current to the
crisis in 1939, but it is a belated response to the lag end of high
The nineteenth century had already given birth to what Paul
Ricoeur calls hermeneutics of suspicion, an age that questions and
demythologizes assumptions inherited from modernity. The masters
are Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, although he could have included
Darwin. At the height of the Enlightenment there already develops
counter-Enlightenment thinking, such as Vicos departure from
Cartesian models of history or Voltaires ridicule of Spinoza after the
Lisbon earthquake. In the next century Nietzsche reduces the human

to a decentered subject who faces a terrifying and Dionysian freedom

after killing God. Spengler turns the linear progression of history into a
centripetal spiral that implodes in on itself, like Yeats gyres of history
swirling out of control so that the center cannot hold. Civilization
does not progress toward perfection, but reaches a point at which
whatever brought it to its height precipitates its decline. Writers
become obsessed with disintegration. Henry Adams proclaims the Age
of the Dynamo when ever-increasing speed accelerates toward
entropy; the human comes to worship the machine as opposed to the
aesthetics that once provided metaphysical permanence for a bygone
era represented by the Virgin. For Freud in Civilization and its
Discontents, the work of civilization requires the expenditure of
primordial energy in increasing acts of barbarity, a theory proven by
the horror of World War I. In its millenarian optimism, the West never
imagined the slaughter of 1914 to 1918 could happen as British
soldiers were expected to be home by Christmas. Civilization for Freud,
like religion, is an illusion foisted on reality to defend against a primal
past and future annihilation. Augustines memory and anticipation that
tear the self asunder is tame compared to the speculative drama of
Eros and Thanatos that ends Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
World War I that laid waste to most of Europe confirms the worst
nightmares of late 19thC prognosticators, and induces literary
depictions of culture in a state of terminal decadence. Eliots The
Waste Land continues to have such an impact today because of its
apocalyptic tone. The byzantine reference to literature, the poem
reveals a decadent post-war culture swallowing great works of the past
and spitting them out into mutated forms that the poet sutures
together, a culture in triage. But the poem does not depict a
catastrophic ending. Instead, culture devolves into fragmentation and
meaninglessness that shares, in many ways, with the uncreating
light that ends Alexander Popes The Dunciad. The high tragedy of

Othello turns into the Shakespearean rag playing on a gramophone.

Crowds of people surging over London Bridge on their way to work
superimpose Dantes image of the walking dead that inhabit the
inferno. The cacophony of motorcars congesting the roads becomes
the sound of Andrew Marvells destiny racing up behind us. Abelards
love for Eloise plays out as a seedy tryst between a secretary and a
pimply clerk that the mythical blind seer, Tiresias, is relegated to
witness over and over again.
The ending of Eliots The Hollow Men echoes the limp
apocalypse of The Waste Land in which the world ends Not with a
bang but a whimper. In the poem, the alarm of an imminent
apocalypse comes from the bartenders repeated warning, HURRY UP
PLEASE ITS TIME. Eliots early poems remain central to literary
experience because its perpetual fragmentation foreshadows
postmodern estrangement. The Waste Land speaks to a world
hungering to become whole again, to connect, to gain closure, which
accounts for the irresolute ending in lines that combine nursery rhyme
and prayer in the haphazard juxtapositions of an avant-garde collage.
The end hints at the potential for healing as the Fisher King, rendered
impotent by the desiccated landscape, reflects upon the morass of
confusing experience: These fragments I have shored against my
ruins. The line stands out from the rest that, despite the mournful
tone, is affirmative in its clarity. Despite the terminal decline of
civilization, consciousness imposes a kind of order. Eliot intimates
hope, albeit shattered, that literature can heal. The rain promises to
end the drought and heal the illness. The prayer of peace which
passeth understanding, intimates the ordering effects of poetry.
Shortly after The Waste Land Eliot becomes a British citizen,
converts to Anglo-Catholicism, and subscribes to Royalism. He comes
to believe that religion offers ultimate coherence while poetry and
criticism serves this end. Despite the horrors of World War II, the

prevailing message of the various pilgrimages in Four Quartets is the

salvific power of religious investment in a national poetry. The
fragments of culture can be shored against the ruins of civilization by
returning to culture, religion, and nation. Permanence is the answer.
Tradition saves a dissipate society increasingly indifferent toward
reflection and alienated from its historical situation. Eliot urges that the
public must resist the anarchy Matthew Arnold feared and
accommodate the intellectual elite. Poetry can save us if only we
surrender to higher ideologies. The argument for the power of poetry
to redeem time from its fragmentation and unify consciousness seems
to have worn out its welcome. It is hardly a winning argument today.
does not gain the dominant discourse of postmodernism.1
Eliots work of the 1920s and 30s represents the prevailing mood
of the modernist apocalyptic imagination while his later poems work
against the grain of the growing postmodern mentality. A
metanarrative of eternal order, whether one of secular humanism or
Christianity, undergirds the contingency of existence and supports the
poets effort to recreate meaning in the world. The salvific power of art
is never more urgently necessary than it is for the modernists. The
speed of technology that thrilled and terrified Henry Adams in 1903
fragments community from nation, self from the world, and the self
from the self, a condition of epistemological alienation confirmed by
the Great War. But novelists and poets in the 1920s jump in to
reconcile these divorces, doing so, ironically, by divorcing themselves

1 Despite the aesthetic triumph of Four Quartets, The Waste Land

endures as the landmark poem of high modernism. Eliot may have
dismissed his earlier work as mere grousing, but it is his earlier vision
of destruction and alienation that persists. It seems unlikely that Four
Quartets will take root in our consciousness the same way as The
Waste Land. Redemption from a catastrophic history provided by
religious belief does not resonate as powerfully as Hurry Up Please Its
Time. Instead, Eliots later poetry makes him sound like a

from the previous century. The providential plots of the eighteenth and
nineteenth-centuries that create a seamless coherence to all the stray
strands of narrative treat temporality far too artificially and navely for
the modernists.

Chapter Eleven
The Beforeness and Afterness of 1945

As industry and inventiveness progresses to make modernism

ever more self-consciously modern, the human increasingly loses a
sense of metaphysical permanence. Just in the few years around 1900,
Freud maps the unconscious as a mysterious and dangerously

determining realm while Einsteins Theory of Relativity makes space

and time a lot stranger than anyone thought. Everything enters a state
of experiment and improvisation, subjectivity and relativism. Literature
must keep up with the challenges to traditional ways of seeing a world
rapidly reforming around the demands of the new perceiving
consciousness of the self. Therefore, the novel becomes a form where
authors challenge the apprehension of reality through impressionism,
stream of consciousness, and fragmentation.
World War I interrupts the modernist experiment. Within a few
years the war destroys ideals of European human progress that had
already been assaulted before the war, and exposes the barbarity
behind civilization. There is nothing that suggests permanence. The
idyllic tradition of Shakespeare and Milton that millions of British
soldiers volunteered to defend, as it does for Septimus Smith, becomes
a sham. Despite the rupture of unmitigated carnage in history,
however, the writer and artist of the post-war period remains driven to
find ways to form meaning. They may have been the lost generation,
dislocated by the shock of the war, but there is probably no literary
period in which novelists, poets, and artists have such a rage for
order. Instead of an apocalyptic imagination that projects world-
ending disaster, the literature of this period seeks to recreate meaning,
to build the world in defiance of disaster. Like the massive effort to
rebuild physical space after war, novelists and poets work to rebuild
metaphysical space. So much of the psychoanalysis that begins and
becomes a more acceptable science as a result of the war is driven
toward rebuilding the soldiers traumatized self, shoring the fragments
against his ruins.
Peter Gay argues, modernist fiction undermined accepted
criteria for literary verdictscoherence, chronology, closure, let alone
reticenceand turned inward, shockingly. I am not sure how
shockingly modernists turned inward compared to the Germans in

the early 1500s, the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of the late 1500s
and early 1600s, the prose and poetry of British, French and German
romanticism in the early 1800s, including the burgeoning fascination
with lurid biography toward the end of that century. The modernists
have a rage for coherence and closure, albeit from a different point of
view. I think a better way to put it is that modernist literature
emphasizes interiority as the ground of consciousness, despite how
fragmented it is, and reimagines the world mapped by the complexities
of this newly subject-centered space. The modernist shift toward
interiority coincides with a rapid movement toward relativism (a term
fraught with contention) as a priori or metaphysical truths become
inadequate to account for the complexity of human experience. Given
the betrayal of faith in the external world, it would make sense that
artists turn to the operations of consciousness itself.
By the beginning of the 20thC, truth is already loosened from its
binds in the total coherence assumed throughout previous centuries.
The serial catastrophes that ensue with World War I only confirm the
impossibility of a single, coherent order while exponentially eroding the
belief in innate human goodness and progress. There is a
misunderstanding that the great experimentation in the art and
literature of modernism begin after World War I. Post-impressionism,
cubism, stream-of-consciousness, imagism and many other isms
combine with the most rapid expansion of modern technological
invention in the fervent decades preceding the war.
What changes is that status of the modern artist. The artistic and
literary elite, who does not have much of an influence upon
mainstream culture, undertakes the experimentation that is well
underway before 1914. The attack against utilitarian bathos begins
roughly around the time Baudelaire writes The Painter of Modern Life.
**** The impetus to separate from mass media continues with an elite
group of writers and artists who counter in particular the prosaic utility

of journalism and photographic replication. Modernism is really a

literary and artistic attempt to wrench creative production out of the
easy pleasure of middle class practicality and function. The Armory
Show in 1913 shocks Gilded Age sensibilities with its onslaught of
impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism, and cubismit is one of
the most incredible exhibits in historybut remains a fringe novelty
before the war like the equally creative literature of the period.
Mainstream culture does not generally take these new approaches
toward visual arts seriously until the old Victorian world begins to fade.
In the 1920s, things reverse as, jazzed by the electricity of modernity,
the mainstream coopts modernism in the 1920s. In fact it is an
endlessly frustrating irony that modernism, originally an attack on
contemporary mainstream and middle class values of industrialism, is
coopted by the very culture that artists and writers reject.
The modern experimentation of the previous century may not
have become acceptable until the 1920s, but the series of
epistemological shifts in our understanding of the world inherited from
the nineteenth-century, like Darwin and Nietzsche, inform the
modernist sensibility before the war. In particular, the human dominion
over the world contributes to the great flux of literary invention early in
the twentieth-century. We learn how to tame, harness and utilize forces
of nature and invent means by which to gain control over the world
that would have seemed, as Freud claims in Civilization and its
Discontents, like an actual fulfillment of everyor of almost every
fairy-tale wish. He goes on,
All these assets he may lay claim to as his cultural
acquisition. Long ago he formed an ideal conception of
omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his
gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed
unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him.
One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural

ideals. To-day he has come very close to the attainment of

this ideal, he has almost become a god himself (38).
And yet, those nations that are the pinnacle of civilization
slaughter each other in the battlefield with the very technology that
bestowed their godhood. Modernism has always been fraught with
such ambivalence. It is Janus faced. At one side are the incredible
advancements of human production in dominion over the world. On the
other side are the incredible acts of barbarity. World War I, in fact,
makes many artists skeptical of the grand experimentation that had
preceded the European bloodshed. Artists, like Picasso, take a hiatus
from cubism and return to a neo-classical style. Many ask, is there
something about the experimental rejection of tradition that allowed
for the annihilation of two generations of Europeans on the battlefield?
As we will see in Part II, there is a powerful post-war return to
religion, particularly Catholicism, which is understated in literary
history but every bit as influential as the secular humanist tradition
that dominates the modernist canon. But this return to religion does
not nostalgically recuperate a bygone tradition, despite (and in spite)
of the Catholic Churchs doctrines that inculcated a trenchant anti-
modernity all the way until the 1960s. Instead, a rich array of writers in
the early and mid-twentieth century reimagines religion in the
contemporary context that is fraught with ambivalence concerning
belief. G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Hillarie Belloc, Graham Greene,
Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Muriel Spark,
Walker Percy, Flannery OConnor, to name a few, form a powerful
canon of modern literature that depicts the struggle between belief
and unbelief. They, in fact, make the question of belief the most central
concern of the modern era, particularly their representations of
eschatological and apocalyptic concerns that become more complex as
the century progresses.

I also disagree with Peter Gays characterization of the effects of

both wars on art in that the world that emerged after the peace
treaties of 1918 and 1919 generated few striking innovations in high
culture. Much to the contrary, the ending of the Second World War,
which left the map of European countriesexcept for that of Germany
largely intact, confronted those who presumably cared about high
culture with gross moral failures and irrepressible horrors to explain,
expiate, or evade (442). I am not sure how Gay accounts for Eliot,
Stevens, Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, and Faulkner, the glorious
achievements of high modernism in the 1920s and 30s. Although World
War II does result in literary exhaustion reflected in poetry and fictions
turgid progress up until the 1960s and 70s, America and eventually
Britain do respond with new forms that revitalize high culture.
Narrative and lyric, despite events that change everything, prove to be
remarkably resilient and, as we will see in post-9/11 fiction, oddly
comfortable with returning to traditional realism.
But what about that thorny term postmodern used to describe this
era and that we creep up to carefully? It is too easy to say that the
modernist poet attempts to cling to meaning she tries to recreate in a
chaotic world while the postmodernist rejects meaning after the
horrors in 1945. It seems to me that the work emerging after 1918
fulfills a great deal of the experimentation beginning before the war,
while the ambivalence toward human nature that the war creates
deepens literature with a more complex rage for order. The artist
emerging from 1945, however, has a harder task than the modernist
emerging from 1918. 1945 poses much larger challenges. Theodore
Adornos famous and misunderstood claim, Poetry after Auschwitz is
barbaric challenges writers either to express the impossibility of
poetry or to rebel against it by continuing the modernist rage for order.
Adornos claim continues to haunt us because he detects the
overwhelming burden of afterness more urgently felt beyond 1945

than in any other time in history. It is this sense of a final afterness that
makes our age so trenchantly post-apocalyptic.
Never before has such a rapid series of cataclysmic events
culminating in the atomic bombs challenged the artists vocation.
Throughout history writing has been driven to uncover the secrets of
experience, to shed light on or give meaning to the antimonies of life,
even if the truths that compel the quest end in the necessity of death,
like Ahab and the whale. But what secrets are left to plumb after the
discoveries of Auschwitz and before the very real possibility of nuclear
annihilation? Is it still possible to imagine, like Bottoms dream which
hath no bottom, that vision provides ever deepening and
unfathomable wonders? Or does the bottom of that dream reveal a
Up until 1945, the depth of horror always serves as a dangerous
place of discovery, a threshold that the writer dares to tread. Marlow
pulls back from the abyss that Kurtz plunges into, which leaves him
with only an ambivalent fragment of the story. He will never know what
the horror! is. The taboo has always been a source for the
imagination. There has always been another vision too dangerous to
see, another veil of darkness to uncover. Shakespeare takes the
audience to the depths of unfathomable desire in Iago or Edmund, or
reveals the potential of depravity by thrusting Gloucesters torture
front-stage. But, as Hamlet says before the poison kills him, there is so
much more to say. Is there something more to say in the ruined
afterness of 1945? Can narrative and lyric bend to a world that seems
to have uncovered all the horror possible and that had once remained
only the potential of human imagination? Are the only two possibilities
for inspiration a world of fantasy or a crapulent world left behind in the
ruins? In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim can either live with the
reality of contemporary mid-western life that looks like bombed out
Dresden or he can escape to an imaginary Eden on Tralfamadore in the

role of Adam with Montana Wildhack his Eve. He chooses the latter. In
the final chapter, Vonnegut, the framed narrator, remerges from the
fiction to reveal that, despite the possibility of constructing alternate
worlds out of Kilgore Trout novels, the actual world continues on to
deliver shit. Vonnegut might express the dilemma in a different
context, but it shares Prufrocks dilemma in 1911 when human voices
wake us and we drown.
Although literary studies uses the Holocaust and the atomic
bombs to divide postmodernism from modernism, just exactly when
postmodernism begins and how we define it is even more beguiling
than modernism. The term postmodern, as many point out, is
problematic alone, but signify the apocalyptic anxieties that intensify in
the second half of the century. What does it mean to come after the
contemporary? Does not the literature we term postmodern shed light
on its attributes already inherent in modernism? Does postmodernism
not necessarily come after modernism but continue with its program
reconfigured to face the new realities of a terminal era? Finnegans
Wake is certainly more postmodern than many works after 1945,
whereas a great deal of postmodern poetry returns to form as much as
it departs from it, and not only for ironic purposes.
It is more productive, I believe, to understand how both
movements (and both halves of the twentieth century) work within and
beyond each other. One necessitates the other. Both periods of
literature do not necessarily reject the possibility of order beneath the
chaos of the world or an order transcendent to a human level of
comprehension. They are both engaged in a rage for order. I know this
is antithetical to the postmodern claims of radical indeterminacy. But
even if postmodernism believes that language is a series of metonymic
markers forming a chain of signification in a perpetually self-replicating
surface without depth, a belief in language remains nonetheless.
Something, not nothing, is articulated. A character in a play by Beckett

speaks even if he speaks of the impossibility to speak. Postmodernism

does not reject the possibility that language does things, even if it is
used to communicate its own terminal inadequacy. Perhaps a belief in
the ultimate social and material construction of existence replaces a
spiritual dialectic. But the death of God and the total dominance of Self
only serve to form another ideological construction; just because it
rejects ideologies does not unburden it of ideology.
This is the problem for me with the so-called New Atheism of the
past couple decades, primarily as led by Christopher Hitchens, Richard
Hawkins, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis, amongst others. In its absolute
rejection of God, Atheism becomes another absolutism burdened by its
own doctrines that are predicated on what it rejects. All systems that
support Atheism argue from what Atheism is not, a sort of inverted
negative theology. There is no middle ground, no ambivalence. It is
either total rejection or total affirmation. Either way, it amounts to
fundamentalism, one that refuses to acknowledge that its dependence
upon science is itself the adoption of a fundamental belief.
No poet of any worth has ever expressed a belief that his or her
work is the product of a social or material construction. I have yet to
read a poets own prose concerning poetry that emphasizes the futility
of language or the impossibility of speaking beyond the self. I have yet
to shake hands with a social construction. It seems to me that literary
studies have grown exhausted with deterministic notions that reality is
bound by surface replication. It remains, however, an uncertainty if a
renewed sense of valuewhether we call it New Humanism, New
Ethics, a return to religion, or what have youcan become important
enough to resist the ethos of terminalism that prevails in the world. We
remain stuck in an afterness that is more of a burden than an
Modern and postmodern writers encounter a dual desire
seemingly at odds with itself. The poet wants to form an aesthetic

order out of experience at the same time as he or she questions

traditional aesthetic categories of representation. Many modernists
heed Ezra Pounds call to make it new, but it is impossible to
amputate tradition. Concerning T.S. Eliot, Frank Kermode says,
Tradition, a word we especially associate with this modernist, is for
him the continuity of imperial deposits; hence, the importance in his
thought of Virgil and Dante. He saw his age as a long transition through
which the elect must live, redeeming the time (112). Anthony Hecht,
for instance, utilizes traditional poetic form but questions the Western
traditions from which form evolves. He does not necessarily play form
ironically against content, but tries to save the best that remains in the
ruins of tradition. Hecht had witnessed the horror of Buchenwald,
which left him waking up screaming for years. Trauma does not result
for Hecht in what one expects, a breaking of form for a confessional
style of free verse, but to shore fragments against his ruins in a
modernist rage for order.
As modernism protracts through serial catastrophe into and
beyond 1945, however, the acceleration of times contraction into an
urgent now makes a redeeming order lose its battle against
displacement into futurity. In the urge to make it new, the modernist
uses tradition to break from it by selecting what remains of value,
shoring fragments against ruins. New artistic forms always carry with it
traces of what came before: it does not make much difference if one
wants to call the traces of the past the burden of history, a canon, the
touchstones, tradition, material determinants, or the anxiety of
influence. I am more interested in the contemporary readers ability to
translate the tropes of the threshold of the end that inform our post-
apocalyptic tradition. Modern and postmodern work forces us to
become cunning readers at inferring irony in their complex stance
toward not just form and content but also a future inexorably coming
and a past that is impossible to keep repressed without the danger of

allowing destructive displacement to subsume the healing power of

In order to understand how a contemporary suspicion of tradition
replaces the modernist suspicion of futurity as it converges to form the
thick immediacy of the present characteristic of our post-apocalyptic
exhaustion, we need to examine how the perception of time undergoes
massive changes over the past one hundred years, particularly the
nearly oppressive time-consciousness of modernist narrative and lyric.
In short, time is not the same as it was in the nineteenth century. Time
is not the same as it was even a few decades ago. Temporal
contraction and fragmentation has made it so that a frightening
paucity of ones orientation toward history has set in that contributes
to terminal malaise. The incredible array of choices characteristic of
secularism is partly to blame. This is countered, however, by the irony
that we live in a very religious time. However, religions today tend to
be either secularity in the disguise of religiositydevotion to an
estranged, orphaned selfor belief that preaches extreme apocalyptic
ideologiesthe rise of radical fundamentalismpowerful as those
beliefs might be. Also partly to blame is the increasingly
compartmentalized world we live in that allows only a narrow,
technical, and material experience of life, a narrowness that has
thoroughly penetrated higher education. The possibility for a habitable
future might depend on the ways in which fictions can give a shape to
time and, conversely, the time we allow to give shape to fictions.

Chapter Twelve
Modernist Time-Consciousness

The way we understand and experience time changes radically in

the first few decades of the 20thC. The changes are so rapid we could
call it a temporal revolution. This revolution, like all upheavals, is

disruptive and even traumatizing in its effects that continue to deepen

our sense today of post-apocalyptic afterness.
Literature registers these changes in the perception of time,
particularly the thoroughly time-conscious work of the early twentieth
century. Time is not only the theme of Modernist literature, but the
poem and novels innovation and experimentation, even the way it
looks on the page, embodies its own shifting perception of temporality.
The effect is that time rather than fate shapes the act of narration and
the voice of the lyric. An author who self-consciously rearranges
narrative to make the resolution of action achieve the illumination of
experience replaces the mimetic function by which nineteenth-century
novels depict action that moves in conflict driven consecution. Joyces
epiphany replaces the conventional catastrophe that brings
narrative action to resolution. A similar revolution occurs in the lyric as
poets and novelists share each others craft. It is, in fact, the French
Symbolists emphasis (brought to Anglophone modernism by Yeats,
Pound, and Eliot) on the power of the lyric to temporally suspend
experience that helps to draw the novel out of linear and material
sludge. Pounds Image or concentrated Vortex replaces romantic
descriptiveness to capture intuitive or intellectually layered
abstractions from the moment rather than a thematic whole. Eliots
fragmentation and juxtaposition replaces the logical and linear
pace and order of lines and stanzas to challenge closure. Whereas
traditional narrative and poetry works within paradigms of linear
progression, modernist works use temporal fragmentation to form a
complete picture unique to the world of the story or poem. Fiction and
poetry develop toward its own self-realized time.

A great part of the temporal revolution of the twentieth century

results from rapid advancements in technology that completely change
society beginning in the late nineteenth century. The modern

innovations of the railway, photograph, motion picture, telephone,

gramophone, and radio radically reconfigure the way we perceive time.
By the early twentieth century the railway (including trolleys and
subways) transforms the entire makeup of Europe, England, and
America. It reshapes landscape, contracts the space between people
and regions, blurs the lines between urban and rural, and contributes
to the rapid growth of cities. It uproots parochialism and increases
cosmopolitanism. For the first time one can exist in many places at
once. The railway, in short, alters how space contains and measures
time. The automobile and the highway only accelerate this revolution
by the middle of the century. The automobile places control in the
hands of the individual, providing her the agency not only to shape
destiny, but also literally to drive to that destiny. Immediacy thickens
the more that the century progresses to create the postmodern and
contemporary density of the present, a presentness of the present,
which is the theme of this chapter.
The railways fast and fluid movement between spaces changes
the temporal context of space from the nineteenth to the twentieth
century. One place is no longer isolated from another. The space that a
town, a village, a home occupies is no longer relegated by time.
London connects easily to Cambridge, New York to Fairfield. As a result,
the identity of each place becomes dissociated from its unique context.
As the self grows increasingly transient, so do the places the self
inhabits. More radically, the railway sweeps away local time as England
and America institute standardized time to conform to the new world of
train schedules and regional interconnectivity. Therefore, the railway
contributes to the ways in which time measures and regulates work
and exchange. Capitalism can grow more quickly when everyone is on
the same temporal page! Originally measured for religious purposes,
such as a monks liturgical day, time now thoroughly regulates capital,
from work schedules to the cost of time to accomplish a job.

The railway is a central feature in modernist literature as both a

romanticized instrument and a disorienting disruption. In Woolfs The
Waves, Louis meditates on the experience of flux during a train ride.
Now I hang suspended without attachments. We are
nowhere. We are passing through England in a train.
England slips by the window and always changing from hill
to wood, from rivers and willows to towns again. And I have
no firm ground to which I go (50).
The movement between time and space is fluid and dynamic for Louis,
which makes the railway apropos for representing both the experience
of maturation and one era transitioning to another. Adolescence can
feel like a time in which one has no firm ground to which I go just as
this new modern world can quickly antiquate the past. The present is
left unfamiliar. The train ride embodies all of these experiences in its
rapid movement from one place to another, reducing the world to an
ever-changing blur from the window.
The quote from Woolf registers alienated modernity, the sense of
disconnection that intensifies after the war. In The Passenger, Kafkas
protagonist reflects on the alienation produced by the transitory nature
of the railway. I am standing on the platform of the tram and am
entirely uncertain as to my place in this world, this town, my family. In
Hemingways Hills Like White Elephants, a man pesters his mistress
with a roundabout discussion over her imminent abortion as they wait
in a train depot in the middle of nowhere in Spain. The transitory
setting heightens the horrible disposability of the relationship and the
pregnancy. Their luggage foreshadows the ease of moving on.
Eventually, of course, another train will easily allow the man to move
on for good.
The exhilarating disorientation of technology, such as the
railway, and the shifting space of modernism as it invades the
traditional order of family and community accounts for the gloominess

inherent in so much of its literature. In A Handful of Dust, Evelyn

Waughs most depressing comedy, Brenda is able to balance her
marriage and her extramarital affair because of the ease with which
the train transports her between her family estate in the country,
Hetton Abbey, and her one room flat in London. Commuter affairs
become a new phenomenon. She is also able to maintain her affair
because of the telephone, which figures dominantly in this 1935 novel.
***Quote***The telephone shows the extent to which technology
invades social relationships in a new world of speed and change that
Brendas husband, Tony Last, the last guard of old world tradition and
permanence, (hence, his surname) cannot navigate.
Along with the railway, rapid advancements in communication
deepen the newness of modernism and contribute to the radical
changes in the perception of time. The telephone, gramophone,
cinema, and radio are fixtures of modern experience by the time
Waugh writes A Handful of Dust. But the old world stubbornly lingers.
Hetton Abbey does not have telephones and still depends on
telegraph. One either tries to catch up or remains, like Tony, hopelessly
relegated to the decay of the past. This accounts for the disorienting
superimposition of the new and the old in the novel. The busy noise of
the builders Brenda hires to modernize a wing in the dour nineteenth-
century setting grows more frenzied as they apply sheepskin and
chromium plating to the dark, Victorian paneling. For Tony the
modernizers, such as Ms. Beaver (her name indicative of her busy job
scavenging old homes to make room for high rise apartments), invade
like barbarians breeching the wall of the city. Technology is also deadly.
During a foxhunt, a motorcycle backfires in its attempt to secure right
of way on the country road, making the horse that the Lasts little boy
rides kick out, sending him to his death beneath its hooves.
Champions of a former way of life bemoan the ugliness of
modernism in many of Waughs novels, like Charles Ryder in

Brideshead Revisited, who makes a living off of painting portraits of

estates doomed for destruction that he can sell to the former owners.
New technologies turn the idealism of aesthetics into materialism, the
process Baudelaire feared as a result of newsprint as early as the
1840s. The rapid means by which technologies produce the increasing
homogeneity of cultural production to the masses compel these first
modernist responses. Modernism, in many ways, is initially reactionary
in its fear of the middle class utilization of art. For defenders of high
art, mass media in the late nineteenth century, particularly journalism
and tabloids, produce a society apathetic to aesthetic permanence.
Late nineteenth-century aesthetes, such as Walter Pater and Oscar
Wilde, promote art for arts sake in the belief that art exists for no
other purpose than its own beauty. It is an attempt to wrench art from
the homogeneity of mass cultural production and bestow literature
with its own time not contingent upon the speed of commercial forms.
There is a clear connection between aestheticism and the New
Criticism that evolves in post-war America with its emphasis on the
ontological status of the poem as an autotelic object isolated from all
other contingent concerns. The poem, in a sense, poses for the
students interpretation.
Imagism, one of the first movements to announce the arrival of
modernism, thanks to Ezra Pounds endless energy, affirms newness by
exhorting the reader to focus on the now, the moment abstracted from
the homogeneity of time. The tenets of Imagism that urge ascetic form
to isolate a single moment or experience with as little language as
possible clearly counters mass media excess at the same time as it
rejects the bloated romanticism of late Victorian poetry (Tennyson,
Swinburne, etc.) For Pound, an image is that which presents an
intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time and that is
the result of long contemplation. His most famous Imagist poem

renders the intuitive stillness of immediate vision, ironically, in the

context of a busy subway station.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

The two lines juxtapose disparate images, one on a busy metro

platform, the other a close-up of petals on a branch in the rain. Both
lines superimpose time and place to capture separate scenes fusing
into one intuitive experience. The epigrammatic style Pound derives
from Japanese Haiku illustrates language much in the same way as the
Chinese ideogram pictorially presents phrases with one character.
Pound craftily edits the poem into tighter contraction by replacing the
expected like that ends the first line with a semicolon. The immediate
experience of metaphor replaces simile. The use of like or as would
interrupt the total experience by making its linguistic operation too
transparent. The final effect is an immediate vision. Since the poem
has no context of place other than its title, it demands the reader to
focus on the phenomenology of experience itself.
We do not generally associate the faces of commuters jockeying
for space on a platform with blossoms in the rain. One could argue that
faces in a crowd blurred from the window resemble dewy flowers.
Pound conveys the impression that a visual moment presses on
consciousness, an inexact experience sculpted with exact language. An
object associates with something else that is completely different but
no less important in the streams and eddies of the mind. The poem
enacts the moment of vision captured amongst the many currents of
moments in a daydream.

The word apparition, however, complicates the poem. It

connotes something haunting about the faces. The ghostly crowd
becomes an image of presence and absence as they dither on a
margin of being here and not here. It is a presence in, but not of, the
world. The crowd inhabits a threshold between one place and another.
As in Kafkas passenger waiting on the platform, the crowd and the
words in the poem are here and not here, neither coming nor going.
The first line is paradoxically frozen in transit until it dissolves, like
montage, the movement from one frame of film to the next as the
petals on the wet branch crystallize into view. The metro denoted as
physical transportation transforms into poetic vision connoted as
psychic transportation in one moment of retention. The ghostlike faces
become the afterimages of the daydream. They are the impression left
behind, the delay between seeing and contemplating, the moment and
its afterimage. In the end, the poem represents the immediacy of a
memory as it forms an epiphany.
Subways are screeching dynamos. In fact, the train, the machine,
the sublime industrial destruction of the modern world becomes the
dominant image of Vorticism, a movement that develops only a year
later and that Pound himself adopts to depict a concentrated energy of
language. It is characteristic of modernist immutability that the
classical stillness of Imagism can give birth to and coexist with its
antithesis. In a Station of the Metro is a resoundingly quiet poem, like
a still life, that uses the noise, speed, and congestion of the metro for
its context. Pounds epic poem written over decades, Cantos, is a busy,
mind-numbing vortex of language, but each canto offers stilled
moments, parts that can be read extracted from and then reinserted in
the whole.
Pound argues that one should not confuse Imagism with
picture, but should see Imagist poetry as a way of depicting the
experience of a mood, a moment, an idea, the thingness of things in

their essence. But the emphasis upon the picture is prevalent

nonetheless. When we read Imagist poems, we think in terms of
images. The isolation of an image in poetry is made possible by the
ways in which photography in the nineteenth century changes
mimesis. Vorticism destroys the stillness or permanence associated
with the past by depicting the onrush of the future, but it does so by
creating depictions of chaos frozen into a whole that can be utilized for
purposes abstracted from their original context.
In its ability to vividly capture reality, photography
singlehandedly destroys mimetic art in the nineteenth century (while
allowing art to take more adventurous excursions into representation).
Further, the ubiquity of photography, as Walter Benjamin argues,
abstracts the image from its source and replicates it for any use.
Consider how the high-minded doctrines of Imagism in 1913 resemble
advertising only fifty years later. We do not need the name of the
restaurant when the golden letter M can provide an intuitive
association to everything we desire from it. The commercial power of
the image to speak to nearly everyone on the entire globe is no match
for the Imagists aspirations. Imagism is a mere heartbeat away from
Marshall McLuhans doctrine, the medium is the message. Andy
Warhols Pop Art of the 1950s and 60s turns the flattened space of
visual replication, the perpetual immediacy of advertising, into high
Some artists and philosophers welcome the power of
communication to sweep away the old world in apocalyptic
destruction. The whole spirit of Dada is destruction. They desire to
eradicate traditional values placed upon art as a way to reject the
failures of the past. The playful anarchy of Marcel Duchamps work
forces us to question the ways art inhabits space, like his urinal
installation. Does an object change when it is placed in a rarefied
context? Can anything, therefore, become a work of art? These works

are seemingly repellent, designed to appall a sense of decorum. At the

same time, however, Duchamp is not doing anything more provocative
than the intellectual games of poets. He puts Wallace Stevens
thought-experiment in Anecdote of a Jar into action. The urinal could
very well be an example of the jar placed on a hill in Tennessee.
William Carlos Williams responds to Dada by turning poems themselves
into found or readymade art. The infamous The Red Wheelbarrow
reads like a Polaroid snapshot and This is Just to Say a husbands
note to his wife taped to the refrigerator. The drive to create art by
obliterating art, as in Maleavichs White Square on a White
Background, or at least to create art that is artless, might have a
nihilistic strain, but it maintains a covenant between word and world.
All of the modernists ask epistemological questions in various different
ways. Reality is a given. For the modernists what is at stake is its
relationship to art.
Modernists diverge on approaches toward the representation of
reality, the thingness of things perceived in time. They generally
represent temporality, even in the instant of an image, as occurring in
vast psychic, mythic, and historic space. William Carlos Williams,
however, bemoans Eliots The Wasteland for dropping an atomic bomb
on literature. In the context of Williams own poetic predilections, he is
right. The busy innovations that accelerate modernism through and
beyond the war maintain strong and numerous adherents that
becomes literary hegemony, thanks to Eliots criticism, well into the
middle of the century. Williams emphasis on the prosaic and plain stuff
of reality, the depiction of things as things sans Wallace Stevens
intellectual mediations or Eliots imposing temporal orders, takes a
backseat. The more lyrical and aesthetic strain of what is called high
modernism dominates from 1922 to the early 1950s. But Williams
reference to atomic bomb puts his complaint into another
retrospective context. The post-1945 period of literature develops

beneath the adumbrations of a mushroom cloud. The fictional

possibilities of time in the 1920s and 30s become nearly obliterated by
the actual annihilation of time in the 1940s. The postmodernists in
many ways draw from the fund of modernist discovery of rich
temporalities at the same time as they are repelled by its obsession
with the past. Williams own style will come to influence a post-war
generation of writers who reject the past as they discover a kinship
with the other overlooked modernist, D.H. Lawrence, and his desire to
risk apocalypse.

In terms of what I am calling the temporal revolution as it

transforms into apocalyptic vision, the most important foundational
figures in my estimate are Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford.
To understand how Conrad and Ford forever complicate the
temporality of narrative, we have to assess the assumption or pact of
transparency between an author and his story up until roughly 1900. It
is fairly commonsense that all narratives require an enunciating
narrator. But this truism belies a far more complex relationship
between an author and the story, the storyteller and the narrative
voice. The novelist before 1900 generally keeps this slippery
relationship hidden from the reader in order to create the semblance of
realism. Part of the novelty of the novel as it first develops in the
18thC is its realness bolstered by the novelists transparent voice. The
goal of a novel is to induce in the reader a willing suspension of
disbelief. Today, however, we are far more suspicious of the authors
authority, so to speak, and for good reasons. The enunciating narrator
should never be confused with the author. This is a dreadful mistake
students often make when they read a literary work that plays with the
ironic distance between author and narrator, like Lolita or A Modest
Proposal. A gap always exists between an author and the narrative

voice that widens or contracts to varying degrees and in different

narrative forms. Ironic distance exists even in autobiography, a form
that would seem to offer the most direct contact between author and
reader. But a personal pronoun in an autobiography is always an
authorial construction. The I of The Autobiography of Benjamin
Franklin should not be confused with the author, Benjamin Franklin,
who creates a very distinct storytelling persona in his marvelous work.
The traditional realist novel labors to obscure traces of a
constituting voice and to maintain a determinate link between the
author and the enunciating voice of the narrative. The purest narrative
form for the nineteenth century novelist is a story in which there is
little gap between the author and the narrative. The author wields
absolute authority over narrative. The narrator of a novel, in effect,
matches the authorial control of the novelist. Most readers up until
modernism believe that this is the natural way that stories are
narrated. The Victorian reader, for instance, assumes the novelist is a
trustworthy citizen who speaks in his or her earnest, authentic voice.
Such authorial control is ultimately a convention, however, one that
reflects nineteenth-century values. The novelist, like the human, is the
center of himself in a world that progresses toward increasing
rationality. The omniscient or authorial narrator, almost like a divine
creator, can unfold a world of clear moral teleology.
By adopting a sort of alter ego in Marlow to serve as a storyteller,
Conrad creates a new narrative voice and technique that challenges
the authorial omniscience and linear teleology of plot in the
nineteenth-century novel. Gerard Genette calls the means by which
Conrad and others employ a narrator the narrative instance. In Heart
of Darkness, Conrad uses Marlows discourse to stage the scene of a
story narrating itself. By making the fabricating work of the narrator
fully audible, Conrad can disengage the temporal organization of
fiction from sequential time that follows causally linked events. Freed

from the traditional realist constraint of mimicking serial time, Conrad

instead follows the indeterminate patterns of memory and speech.

The motion picture might be the most radical modernist

invention while it is also a new technology that poses the greatest
threat to literature. Walter Benjamin embraces the potential for
political change the temporal and spatial destructiveness of cinema
provides. In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he argues that
photography and cinema allows art to become usable for any context,
particularly in its ability to invade the passivity of a burgeois culture.
Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to
the naked eyeif only because an unconsciously penetrated space is
substituted for a space consciously explored by man. The shift from
conscious to unconscious in the cinema offers the political potential for
technology to incite revolution. The film is an infernal machine,
Benjamin says concerning *** Once it is ignited and set in motion, it
revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot
apologize. It cannot reflect anything. It cannot wait for you to
understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable
explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the
utmost ingenuity and malice. His description celebrates cinemas
nearly apocalyptic destruction. The means toward that end might rob
the filmgoer of agency, but at the same time it invites an unconscious
impulse for renewal to sweep up the human into the inevitable change
modernity surges toward. Art and anarchy walk hand in hand toward
freedom. Benjamins equation of film and anarchy foreshadows Don
DeLillos argument that terrorism is the last and purest artistic act.
Between the beginning and end of the twentieth century, then,

technology ushers in apocalyptic intimations in its explosive formation

of new worlds that is both redemptive and destructive.

Rupture and disruption become new characteristics of upheaval

associated with modern time. There is a general consensus that around
roughly 1800 the West becomes conscious of living in new times, a
sense of present urgency that reaches a crescendo with the self-
conscious recognition that the modern has arrived characteristic of
twentieth-century modernism. The present becomes thick with
immediacy and distinction by 1800 in ways it had not been
experienced before. The urgency of the present perpetuates and
deepens the inherent sense that our time is the critical one arriving
always at the end of a series of crises, a sense of urgency that
accelerates the post-apocalyptic ethos of today. This new sense of the
immediate around 1800 gives birth to zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, a
term that is used to describe new times so often it grows hackneyed.
There is no doubt that the congestion of events that close the
eighteenth century with the French Revolution contributes to the sense
of times immediacy. For the first time the West lives through
experiences that prove that the world can literally change overnight.
History can be made in an instant.
For the first time there is also a growing sense that historical
processes are immanent within the individual as opposed to operating
exclusively beyond the self, like ancient Greek fate. The nineteenth-
century novel carries the weight of greatness because its plot is
grounded in a tension between individual autonomy and fate. It is a
tension between the old world constructed around a tragic mythos and
a new world founded upon the comic concern with the present. The
Victorian, Transcendentalist, French realist, or epic Russian novels

represent the height of the genre because they depict highly

individualized characters that still, nonetheless, act out in a world that
drives them toward fate in the formula of ancient tragedy. The world of
these novels is comic in its depiction of a meticulous present and tragic
in its dependence upon providential patterns of closure. Despite the
tidy endings, these novels feel so important because their familiar
literary patterns call up myths of heroism and suffering. The controlled
pessimism of the period perhaps reaches a peak with Thomas Hardy at
the same time as Henry James contests tragic paradigms to focus on a
new authorial and perceiving consciousness.
The other aspect that gives these mid to late nineteenth-century
novels such power is that they address social and psychological
realities before the social sciences come of age in the 20thC. The slow
birth of social sciences in the 19thC keeps psychological concerns tied
to the neat paradigms of tragic mythos. It makes it possible for
theorists, like Nancy Armstrong or Judith Butler, to argue that the novel
between the 18th and 19th Cs contributes to the formation of middle
class domesticity and gender: life imitates art. The novels highly
crafted plots offer social science for the masses. Despite how fiction
falsifies actual experiencerealism is really just another form of
literary decorumnovels serve as models of human action brought to
completion, allowing for ethical reflection on the human condition.
In the wake of Darwins theories of natural selection, realism
adjusts its paradigms to incorporate the new vision of biological
fatalism in the unbearably bleak world of the Naturalist novel.
Naturalism remains powerful well into the 20thC, as in Hemingways
existential world where life and death duke it out with ruthless
economy made more indeterminate by Freud. But a new lyricism, such
as symbolism inherited from the French, brings the ordinary and the
unbearable to a beautiful time-consciousness in his novels as well as
the novels of Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, et al. But since psychology

remains the province of fiction in the nineteenth century, the elements

of old tragedy prevail. Plot continues to repeat its trajectory toward a
final or violent catastrophe that results in the stasis and completion of
conclusive action, all passion spent, in Miltons words. The self-
consciousness of time as something personally perceived while
lyrically controlled has yet to enter the novel of this high and rarefied
period in the nineteenth century.

Most people experience history as a force outside of them that

drives them as opposed to a force that can be driven. A majority of
people do not consider themselves historical beings or agents for
change. A sense of ones time and space in history has grown far more
detached and isolated. There is, for instance, very little in media that
gives anyone a wider context of history. Everything caters to sequential
crisis. In general the public is apathetic, comfortable to remain
playthings of history. In fact, for philosophers and theorists like Zizek or
Frederic Jameson, the unconscious is formed by the forgotten trauma
of revolution that never happened as opposed to familial or primal
psychic wounds. In other words, we repress the trauma of our political
failure to change the world, and this repression has made us inert.
Zizek in particular bemoans the failure of the left to enact change. With
his in-your-face philosophy, he believes that heads need to be cracked,
that the establishment must be swept away with a sort of world
destruction. At the same time he wonders if the world itself has already
come to an end and we dont know it, leaving us in the ruins. For
Jameson, it is the impossibility of revolution in the past two hundred
years that exerts its pressure on the unconscious and which accounts
for the greatness of the novel before the world wars. The nineteenth-
century novel enacts the energy of revolution the people fail to

But revolutions, like the Protestant and French upheavals, are

only possible when the masses get caught up in a force and
counterforce that propels them. A revolution sweeps up humans in its
destructive vortex that widens to engulf everything. It takes on a life of
its own that moves toward and settles into its inevitable end. It is one
great hurricane that changes everything in its path. At the same time a
revolution requires individuals self-consciously taking control of history.
Revolution is not possible without the self-consciousness of
individuality that ushers in modernity. It is made up of the many
individuals who, in all of their different identities, become one
undifferentiated mass. The circle that creates the parts-whole dynamic
is no more vicious than in revolution. Autonomy and self-surrender
working in a mutual tension drives revolution toward its sweeping
destruction and reform. It is the reason that most revolutions end in
totalitarianism and dictatorship. People must give up freedom in order
to gain the freedom they desire. Once the Dionysian swirl of revolution
attenuates, the members who lead and orchestrate its force must turn
self-surrender into law.
There is a salient connection between revolution and comedy. As
it evolves from high Greek drama, comedy throughout the ages is
preoccupied with subverting and renovating establishment. The
concerns of comedy are always current, which is why a majority of
comic novels quickly become period pieces. Comedy does not carry
the burden of a past curse; death does not loom as an inevitable
enemy. The concern of comedy is immediate happiness. For comedy,
the enemy is any legalismlaws, ethical codes, societal prohibitions,
parochial prejudices, social stratificationthat stands between a
younger generation and their desires for a better world. Comedy seeks
to break laws, to destroy the established order so as to rejuvenate and
celebrate a new order. The law breaking can be slight or it can be
sweeping in its inevitable trajectory to a new and happy ending. But it

almost always involves a battle between the old and the new even if
the expulsion of traditional figures who stand in the way is terribly
uncomfortable, like **** in As You Like It. Tradition is always antithetical
to comedy. The fathers right in A Midsummer Nights Dream to
arrange his daughters marriage to a man she does not love conspires
with the law the Duke must uphold. Either she must conform to
patriarchy and relinquish the man she loves, or face exile in a nunnery.
The foibles in this play are purely hilarious and innocent, and the laws
evaporate with the same ease as the magically induced dreams. It is
not always as easy. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia twists the law to
expose Shylock, and renders his Jewish usury impotent while forcing
him to reject his religion as punishment. It is one of the most vexed
and uncomfortable expulsions of the villain from the stage.
One of the great achievements of the novel is that its loose
structure combined with the intensification of character opens comedy
to the deepened complications of tragedy. In fact, a pure comedy in the
novel today rarely achieves literary status. Most comic novels
disappear since its conventions do not maintain interpretive interest in
a world far more suspicious of the falsification comedy requires. There
are rare but wonderful moments in the twentieth century, however,
when a comic novel retains most of its conventional features and
remains of literary interest. In Kingsley Amiss Lucky Jim, the
picaresque Jim Dixon, the post-war figure of the new middle class
academic, must overcome an entire aristocratic tradition in the
university system in order to win the girl of his dreams from their
clutches. Dixons antics that accelerate as the novel progresses
increasingly expose the old orders hypocrisy until the novel ends when
Dixon rejects it, wins the girl, and gains acceptance into a new social
order. Amis invests a lot of literary craftsmanship in the novel partly
because his motivation is political. The novel celebrates the
advancement of the post-war middle class in its wholesale renovation

of the still powerful but rapidly fading landed gentry in England. It

might not be a manifesto to call the working class to arms, but Amis
cleverly couches social subversion in its traditional comic setting. The
ruling class, at least in the narrow world of the academy Amis depicts,
can never free itself of such ridicule that relegates them to the
stereotypical roles of a comedy. It is the great political effect of comedy
to reduce villainous forces to farce, defusing the potential harm the
folly of certain figures can wreck on the world. Tina Feys spot-on satire
does more to empty Sarah Palin of her political power than endless
panels of pundits.
The motif of cranky authority figures, the representatives of a
moribund establishment, threatening the joys of youth repeats and
multiplies in fiction and movies until today. Despite the narrow
conventions of comedy whose frequent usage of the motif empties it of
meaningyou can find them in every comic moviethey never tire.
Television banks on the endless variety of comic situations whose
conventions and plots remain rigid and formulaic. Ever since ancient
Greek comedy, the comic plot today resolves when a new and youthful
order exposes the hypocrisy or general ridiculousness of an older and
crotchety order. The new order expels the old to establish a society
that celebrates a renewed cohesion.
But comedy also contributes to the more tragic strains of post-
apocalypse that grip the contemporary world. So much of the
countercultural revolutions in the late 1960s follow the patterns of
comedy in its tableaux of the new generation pitted against the
establishment. In fact, it is interesting how, looking back on the 1960s,
the actual war between youth and age, child and parent, looks like
dramatic roles, countercultural situations readymade for theater.
Notice how by the 1980s history of the 1960s begins to posture
comically for our entertainment. The late capitalist fatigue with which
Jameson characterizes the 1990s witnesses the 1960s repackaged in

television shows, movies, and documentaries. The depictions always

tend to capture the spirit of the age, its heights and its tragedies, as an
anomalous and quirky period. There never is a transition from the
intensity of the 1960s and now, although numerous documentaries like
to argue for the moment when the 1960s officially came to an end, like
the violence at Altamont, in order to provide that vexed decade
closure. Unlike narrative closure, of course, life continues on into the
failed ideals and shit that follows from 1970 until now.
Mad Men is such a remarkable television program because,
despite its slow, patient, and meticulous construction of the ten years
between 1959 and 1969, the show is really about us. Although it relies
on many entrenched comic conventions, such as the increasingly
vestigial role of figures from a bygone era, each episode, I argue,
reveals the subtle but immense cultural shifts (month by month
changes that we have never experienced since) occurring in a steady
march toward nihilism. It is not that 9/11 is coming, although the
opening tableaux of Don Draper in sillouhette falling from a skyscraper
adumbrates the Falling Man, but that 1970 is coming. My feeling is that
the show senses, perhaps unconsciously, that at some point during the
winter between 1969 and 1970, something transcendent dies in
America. I cannot quite pinpoint what this something is, and I am not
alone in the feeling. I have had numerous conversations with people on
the topic. Mad Men creeps toward this disenchantment, for lack of a
better word, hesitantly intuiting that a certain mentality for renovation
in America went dormant in 1970. The ability to think or entertain the
possibility of discourse that can speak beyond itself and induce self-
transcendence dies and is replaced by inertia. You can literally hear the
transcendence empty out of music as the decade ends and that serves
as such an urgent function during the period. Perhaps exhaustion with
history sets in. There are certainly plenty of more events in the
proceeding decadesthe revolution in computer and information

technology is still around the cornerbut we become somehow

unhinged from history.
One of the reasons why the movie, The Graduate, continues to
resonate is how it draws upon all comic conventions, but ends with
dissolution. A desultory mood that runs throughout the movie
continues into the final credits, despite Ben and Elaines escape from
the old order. As Sounds of Silence plays and the bus drives them off
into the proverbial sunset, we know that there is no society into which
they will reintegrate that will embrace them except the one that they
rejected, the one that they will inevitably inhabit. It is, of course, the
great irony that cultural and artistic revolts during modernism end up
absorbed into the mainstream whose villainous force serves as such a
creative catalyst. The same members of the youth revolutions in the
1960s are now the masters of business. Some of the wealthiest men on
the planet were once countercultural figures. And the music that
serves as the symbol and weapon of revolt becomes thoroughly
The subversive power of comedy wears out. It seems as though
an anti-establishment movement cannot arise in America without
carrying the baggage of 1968. Revolts always end up looking like
people playing roles that had already been acted out to an inevitable
failure. Rebellion in America is now a worn out trope. It is an
overplayed convention. One can more easily get the satisfaction of
revolt now by watching it played out in movies. Or, more commonly,
the youth can act out revolution in the safe and detached confines of
video games. You do not have to muddy your hands by waging a full-
scale renovation of the establishment when you can wreck such
destruction repeatedly everyday from a computer screen. It remains to
be seen if the Occupy Wall Street movement, closely aligned with the
power of social media that generated the Arab Spring, can regain the
urge for renovation lost in 2011. My feeling, however, is that most

people would much rather occupy virtual space than they would Wall
Street. Perhaps the next revolutionary movement will be one, heralded
by figures like Edward Snowden, which seeks to undermine the
establishments digital tyranny.
Revolutions do not end in stasis. Unlike the ending of comedy
that celebrates a new integration, the post-revolutionary society must
reclaim order from mayhem by violently enforcing self-surrender to the
whole. We probably would not want to see the various and painful ways
in which newly married couples of a comedy must negotiate
compromises to their freedom after the happy ending. A new political
order usually enforces self-surrender with explicit or covert forms of
persecution. America is not free from such persecutions, even though
the War of Independence was not really a revolution. No doubt we
represent the most successful upheaval in recent historyit did not
result in Napoleon or Stalinbut it was not a process aligned with
apocalyptic fantasies that completely change a civilization from within.
Ours was a colonial war occurring in the midst of numerous other
European disputes. Not to sound heretical to American exceptionalism
(we certainly are one of the great experiments in history), but there is
not much of a difference between parliamentarian monarchy and
presidential republicanism. Most of the ideas of democracy
championed by the founding fathers were already being championed
by England. Our foundational documents refine and simplify the
democratic ideologies already debated for two centuries in Great
Britain, particularly Scotland. The Declaration of Independence, despite
its wonderfully cogent elegance, is a distillation of basic Age of Reason
tenets. In other words, we did not rebel against British politics and their
way of life. We rebelled against colonial status. But America, under the
belief in its revolutionary origins that reach back to the Puritan
establishment of a New Jerusalem on earth, continues its persecutions
designed to maintain self-surrender to a conflicted ideology that

preaches freedom as an abstraction but demands conformity always

fraught (for better and worse) with ambiguity.
Revolutions imagine that they will end, like comedy, in Utopia.
The Utopia is a literary genre that has a long and very important
history not just for literature but also for politics and nationalism in
general. Nightmare always lies right beneath the surface of any Utopia
today, however, particularly coming after the totalitarianism that
revolutionary energies ignite. The romanticist disillusionment with the
French Revolution is one of the first periods when apocalyptic energy,
the outward and actual renovation of the world, goes inward. The
dreams of creating a new world radically shift to the desire to change
the self. We have grown more suspicious today of anything that takes
on the semblance of a perfect state. Whenever a setting in a movie
resembles Eden, we immediately know it does so forebodingly.
The current genre of Dystopia prevails. Dystopias revel in post-
apocalyptic excrement, the refuse left behind by failed dreams. In
Dystopia, the destruction requisite for a desired future in New
Jerusalem ends in shit. Karl Marx imagines that Utopia will evolve when
we reject Judeo-Christian eschatology and conflict ends between the
classes. It is a dream of Godless freedom perpetuating endlessly on
earth as opposed to an afterlife that promises an eternal equality.
History in Utopia, for Marx, comes to an end but human life continues.
Like a narrative, history requires conflict. So when labor no longer
requires a division of classes, the harmony of Eden will be restored on
earth. As complicated as his philosophy reads, the Marxian narrative is
a romance of the future. Romances of the future, no matter how
convincingly narrated, are no more real than dreams of an afterlife,
which is perhaps why Benjamin becomes so thoroughly disenchanted
with Marx right before his death. The dreams of communism turn into
the nightmares of Stalin and his pact with Hitler. Further, it is difficult to
imagine the benefit of living in a world without story or conflict.

It is no surprise that the new (and barely investigated) genre of

the last part of the century is the romance of the future. At the same
time as we have nowhere else to settle, what we have settled turns to
shit, which is why science fiction and fantasy are such popular genres.
It is why Billy Pilgrim flees for his thought experiment in Tralfamadore.
But I get ahead of myself.

Lived time from 1800 on becomes less an experience of

continuum and more a rupture, an endless sense of transition in which
the new and the unexpected continually happen. This acceleration of
time built upon transition and disruption radicalizes by the post-war
years of the 1920s to produce the most densely time-conscious works
of literature in history. The Great War is the biggest rupture. The
perception of peace that follows is not experienced as a return to pre-
war years (although there is even up until today a nostalgic myth
about a pre-war pastoralism evidenced in Philip Larkins poem), but a
passage into another strangeness that results from the ability by which
five years can literally overturn the world.

Brian McHale famously distinguishes writing between the first

and second half of the twentieth century as epistemological and
ontological. After World War I, writers still asked the epistemological
questions of the world: What is truth? Who am I? What is the self?
What is the meaning of things? The war ruptured the way in which

modernists saw the world and the self in that world, and the new forms
they produced reflect that rupture with the past. But the questions
they ask remain the same and literature continues to search for
meaning in the belief that it is inherent in a poem. A contract between
the human and language, so to speak, remains unbroken: words still
signify reality. Not only can language create meaning, language can
recreate meaning that has been broken. For the modernists, there was
a lot of blame to pass around for the decline of civilization, but no one
ever believed language betrayed humanity as they did after World War

After close reading and deconstruction exhausts itself by the

1980s and the 90s, the disenchantment with language spurs on
attempts at re-enchanting literary interpretation. Many turn away from
close and formal analyses of text and find empowerment within the
fragmentation of meaning, such as new historicism, identity politics,
multiculturalism, and post-colonialism. Some turn to a new humanism
or other modes of recovering a lost aesthetic permanence, like religion
and literature. Although literary theory is pronounced dead, numerous
movements have sprouted in its wake, such as cognitive studies,
gender studies, trauma theory, queer theory, disability studies, and the
aforementioned movements that continue, particularly postcolonial
However, a new and prevalent post-apocalyptic tone bleeds over
to literary studies from postmodern philosophy in the 1990s that is
markedly different from the apocalyptic imagination of the first half of
the twentieth century. The term postmodern has always been fraught
with the irony that the movement breeds. What does it mean to come
after the modern, after the now? How do you follow from the now?
What does it mean to come after the contemporary? Of course,

postmodern means coming after modernism as a movement, but its

practitioners are always in on the irony that spills into absurdity as
movements evolve out of postmodern exhaustion, such as post-
postmodern, or meta-modern, or even post-meta-modern.
The post-apocalyptic, however, takes its cue from Benjamins
attitude toward culture, his angel of history. He argues that the
catastrophe has always already happened, and we live in its ruins.
After World War II with the revelation of the concentration camps and
the atomic bombs, the last half of the twentieth century becomes more
saliently aware of coming after catastrophe than any other time. World
War II incepts the current preoccupation with unimaginable atrocity
and annihilation that provides the material for post-apocalyptic
representation. The end of the world that we imagine as the whole
scale destruction of cityscapes did happen. Images of decimated
population centers, like Berlin, Munich, London, Dresden, Hiroshima,
and Nagasaki prove that we have already witnessed the horrors that
we imagine the apocalypse to look like. Auschwitz, Dachau,
Buchenwald have already enacted the inferno at the end of the line.
Samuel Becketts Endgame or Cormac McCarthys The Road would not
be possible without visions of world destruction supplied by actual
annihilation. Disaster movies about the end of the world enact
something we have already seen.

From Apocalypse to Post-Apocalypse;
From Tragedy to Trauma

Catastrophe and Disbelief

Catastrophe unveils brute reality while defying belief, conflicting

the boundary between fiction and actuality. Narratives of the
Holocaust, 9/11, child abuse, natural disasters are not hypothetical
experiences, but they share an unusual bond with belief that
constitutes the as if of fiction, generating paradoxes that nag at the
heart of trauma theory. First, catastrophe is more unbelievable than

fiction in its defiance of expectation. Second, the element of surprise

and its magnitude makes catastrophe associated to the aesthetic
experience of the sublime. We use the same terms to describe
catastrophe as we do the sublime: terrifying, obscure, inexplicable,
unimaginable, unspeakable, unbelievable. And finally, as disturbing as
trauma and testimony to the effects of traumatic experience might be,
we are continually drawn to its representations. What does it mean
that, like tragedy, catastrophe gives pleasure?
Traumatic testimony, like fiction, forces us to believe the
unbelievable. In a great paradox, traumatic events defy belief whereas
we automatically believe in fiction. Catastrophe is not an experience
one chooses. One cannot say, I do not want a catastrophe. One cannot
say, I do not want trauma. And when we do fall haplessly into trauma
or catastrophe, we are more apt to deny it rather than confront and
assent to the experience. There is nothing in fiction to deny, no matter
how outrageous an authors fantasy. And literature does not deny a
persons freewill. One can choose not to accept a novelist or poets
world; one can choose what one wants to read; one can stop reading a
novel or a poem. As much as one can choose literature, one cannot
deny literature.
Despite its incomprehensibility, catastrophe depends upon
believability, which is why testimony to trauma remains so difficult.
The witness or victim of trauma must convince an audience that the
unbelievable is not fiction. Thousands of witnesses to shooting squads
and concentration camps in the late 1930s and early 1940s could not
convince the allies that they were real. We expect fiction and poetry to
defy our expectations and to twist reality. Even though unimaginable
catastrophe happens everyday, we do not expect life to be willfully
ironic. There is, in a sense, decorum we demand from life that we do
not require from imaginative literature. We expect literature to be
neurotic, even psychotic. But we demand coherence from life, and

despite the constant ways in which contingency undermines the sense

we make out of the world, we continue to expect life to have inviolable
Thousands of priests over the decades have told their victims of
abuse, no one will believe you. And when many of the early and
courageous clergy abuse victims came forward in the 1980s and told
their stories, the Church, the press, the authorities, and even their
family did not believe them. Before the 1990s there was a certain
unspoken code amongst both journalists and policemen that topics
such as clergy abuse were taboo; it was best to keep such horror under
wraps. Even today there remains an entrenched decorum that censors
the visibility of PTSD victims of war or the abuse of children. Even as
more testimony to clergy abuse came out, peaking in the late 1990s
along with a slew of scholarship on the topic, the atrocity barely made
a dent upon our consciousness until 9/11 allowed the Boston scandal of
2002 to transform into a catastrophe. The unbelievable spectacle of
the terrorist attacks allowed for the believability of systematic clergy
Testimony to trauma requires from witnesses and readers a
willing suspension of disbelief over real events. That is a difficult
irony to wrap ones mind around. So many victims of trauma remain
silent about their experiences because they do not have the
vocabulary and the authorial craft to shape events into a believable
narrative. As Sir Philip Sidney argued, poets never purport to tell the
truth, so they cannot be accused of lying, allowing the reader a space
in which reflexively to suspend disbelief. The representation of trauma,
however, purports to signify truth concerning experience that can defy
belief. How ironic that we have faith in fiction whereas we have such
disbelief in life! Victims of trauma struggle to suspend disbelief while,
at the same time, they resist that suspension, struggling to transfer the
raw reality of catastrophe into expressive form. It is much easier to

contend with fiction than it is to contend with the brute material of the
Although we assume that the victim or witness of trauma has a
moral obligation to tell the truth, what happens when that truth defies
the reality that we construct out of the world? What happens, in other
words, when truth is indeed stranger than fiction? Writing about
trauma and catastrophe forces an author to work hard toward making
horror true while a reader must work-toward a willing suspension of
disbelief. A witness or reader of trauma must contend with truths that
subvert and defy assumptions of benign coherence in the world.
Paradoxically it is more difficult to believe the actual experiences of
catastrophe than it is to believe the fantasies of fiction. Fiction, in other
words, can appear more real than actual experience, which is why not
only catastrophe and fiction share an intimate bond, but also why
trauma is frequently more effective when the experience is placed
within a fictional narrative frame.

Trauma and Tropes

Catastrophe shocks us into a stance of unbelief, a state of

shock, because we never imagine such an experience could happen.
Taken by surprise, stricken by terror, the trauma that results from
catastrophic experience feels phantasmagoric. But we are always
conscious of the potential for catastrophe. The world in fact offers us
enough evidence of catastrophe on a daily basis to break the illusion
that the world is underpinned by a familiar and predictable coherence.
We may even desire catastrophe deep within our unconscious,
probably more often than not. We are not shocked by the events of a
catastrophe; we are shocked because the catastrophe that we
imagined could happen, that we know does happen, and that we may
unconsciously desire to happen, actually does. The fantasy becomes

reality. Catastrophe constitutes the worst experiences that we can

imagine and that actually do occur coming true.
Our attempt to represent catastrophe becomes, ironically, our
attempt to return the experience to fantasy. Articulating or writing
about catastrophe may affirm the experience, but it does so by
recovering a hypothetical frame so that we can recreate it into
something over which we can willingly suspend disbelief. I am not
arguing that the way toward working-through trauma is to lie. I am
arguing that the way we represent trauma, even when it takes the
form of direct testimony, becomes framed by the same dynamics of
We trope traumatic experience in the same way that an author
tropes language: to maintain tension, to refigure language to signify
experience, to perpetuate plot and maintain conflict, and ultimately to
ensure that the experience remains fiction. To the extent that trauma
defamiliarizes the world and sets us at a distance from our self and the
experiencewe can only contend with trauma by distancing ourselves
from the catastrophe that instigates itthe representation or
articulation of trauma shares in the tropes by which we understand
poetry. Although confronting and working-through trauma and
catastrophe means to confront raw reality, traumatic experience
paradoxically results in unreality.
The transformation of words into meaning when they are
troped, distressed, twisted or perverted from their familiar usage is
central to the relationship between trauma and fiction. Aristotle defines
metaphor as the process of giving the thing a name that belongs to
something else. The poet evades literal statement by twisting
language. She carries or crosses words from a familiar context to an
unfamiliar one in order to generate possibilities for signification.
Whereas Aristotle focuses upon metaphor in terms of resemblance,
modern interpretations of metaphor explore how difference operates in

the formation of resemblance. Metaphor creates meaning through

resemblance, but by associating terms radically different from each
other. To the extent that metaphor creates resemblance through
difference in unexpected ways that at the same time form the fabric of
the way in which we see, experience and understand the world, irony
plays a crucial role in energizing metaphorical expression.
Irony, in its broad function to present a deliberate antinomy
between two levels of meaning, creates contrast that allows metaphor
to form resemblance through difference. By dissociating language from
its normal usage as a means to create associations, irony
circumscribes metaphor. Metaphor, the master-comparative trope,
depends upon irony, the master-contrasting trope to create analogical
meaning between dissociative realms. The interplay between
metaphor and irony in poetry generates analogical difference within
similarity, similarity within difference. The comparison between one
linguistic realm and another in the representation of experience
depends upon the ironic contrast between those realms held up by the
poet through association. In short, metaphor walks hand in hand with
irony by defying our expectations of what language signifies.
Trauma vexes the tension between irony and metaphor. The
recollection and articulation of trauma ultimately transforms into a
figuration of the experience. The victim or the witness to trauma must
trope the experience in the attempt to articulate the scene of
catastrophe. Traumatic experience brings us to the closest contact we
have with the Real in Lacanian terms because catastrophe forces us to
confront the terror of annihilation. According to Lacan, the Real is the
field of brute existence that language attempts to control. All action
and reference relate to the Real, but we can only manage the Real
through signifying practices. It is as impossible to signify the Real as it
is to articulate trauma because the Real and the traumatic are one and
the same. Just as the poet cannot abide direct or literal statement, the

witness of trauma must find ways in which to twist catastrophe into

Poetry and trauma converge upon the struggle for a voice to
articulate absence. Poets and witnesses to trauma cry out for
affirmation. But that cry transforms into distorted and tropic language.
Ironically, the only way for one to understand trauma is to
misunderstand the experience. Language becomes most challenged by
the linguistic lacuna of trauma. If, according to Lacans dictum, the
unconscious is structured like a language, then words in their function
to signify the absent object they stand for intensifies the struggle of a
witness of catastrophe to testify beyond the limits of signification.
Since traumatic experience stresses the threshold of that which
one can emotionally cope and intellectually comprehend, which I have
been calling, borrowing from Karl Jaspers, limit-situations, its
articulation ultimately involves willful misreading, evasion or
resistance. Directly confronting and articulating traumatic experience
is as anathema to its testimony as literalism is to the poets
expression. We have, therefore, a problem for interpretation. Is there a
unique poetics of trauma separate from literature? Or does all
literature engage in the same tension between irony and metaphor as
trauma, including the inherent suspension of disbelief that struggles
with our desire to disbelieve that depend upon the deep structures of
wishes and fantasies? To push the questions even further, does all
literature evolve from trauma?
The Shocking Ending

How often people pray these days? In what forms do their

prayers take? Do people who do not believe in God pray? What does it
mean to pray if God is dead? Is it still prayer, or is it meditation? Is

there any difference between the supplications an atheist makes to

himself late at night from the prayer of the devout to God?
Formal prayers, like The Lords Prayer or Hail Mary, end with
Amen, which is roughly translated as Let it be. An even rougher
translation might be leave it alone or move on. Let it be gestures
toward a deep silence. It is like a prompt to assume a contemplative
For me, the silence after amen is terrifying because of the
nothingness it might signify. Amen gestures toward reverential
silence that dwells with divine presence. But it also might gesture to
the terrified silence that dwells in nothingness.
I assume that most people pray the way I do, however, which is a
long rambling dialogue in my head late at night or early in the morning
in language of fragmented yearning, unknowingness, and a certain
amount of bargaining. If this is the case, then prayer is like automatic
writing, a sort of quasi-religious free association. It teeters precariously
between psychoanalysis and psychobabble. Free-associative prayer
amounts to non-closure in a double sense. There is no form to enclose
the prayer since the space in which the language struggles to
articulate is as endless as the desire that compels the prayer. Added to
this is the gamble I make with presence that compels me to invest in
the time to pray. When praying I hope that I am not speaking to myself
but engaging in a discourse that speaks beyond the self. Belief is
fraught with ambivalence that compels fiction and poetry. Does
language refer to and embody the world, or does language refer only
to itself? We are not as terrified that prayer will be unanswered as we
are of the potential nothingness we might be addressing.
Literature resists nothingness. So much of the fullness literary
closure provides wagers in presence. Modern and postmodern endings
grow more difficult in fiction and poetry because of the
disenchantment that empties the contemporary world of depth.

Simulacra, as I have suggested, flattens image and language into

information streams that, in its infinite replication, drain trauma of
meaning. If, as Baudrillard and Zizek insist, simulation does not refer to
any reality because the simulation is reality, then everything is
immanent with value that can be forever replicated. Lifes traumas can
become mere information. The result is a valueless world of pure
surface in which there is no transcendence. The imagination speaks to
itself. Everything, then, like my prayers, comprises undifferentiated
I resist the notion of disenchantment with every interpretive fiber
of my poor self. And, ironically, I refuse such postmodern illusions
because of the hopelessness of prayer.

The original ending of the Gospel of Mark is as disturbing as it is

mysterious. The women went out and fled from [Christs] tomb; for
trembling and astonishment had come upon them and they said
nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (16:8). It reads like a non-
ending. Even though we know the story ends with Christs resurrection,
Marks original non-ending still has the ability to unsettle. It defies
The abrupt ending of the women fleeing Christs empty tomb in
terror hardly conforms to the message of the Good News, which is why
most versions of the Bible add Christs resurrection to Marks gospel.
The amended ending has the closure of a divine comedy. But since we
know how the original ends, the extended version seems to falsify the
visceral experience of the earlier text. The extended version lays bare
the authorial impulse to balance contingency with coherence in
narrative. If narrative coherence is not forthcoming, we impose order,
even if it means, as in the case of Mark, rewriting the original.
In a beautiful reading of the ending of Marks gospel, Serene
Jones interprets the terrified women in the context of trauma.

Their silence is the fractured speech of violence as it lives in their

bodies and psyches . . . their inability to speak parallels the
experience of trauma survivors for whom speech, memory, and
agency have been undone by violence.

She suggests that the irresolute ending serves a purpose.

We resist giving Mark a cohesive ending but instead use his non-
ending to remind us that, in a world filled with vast and
unresolved traumas, Jesus comes to us anyway, in the midst of
our faltering speech, our shattered memories, and our frayed
sense of agency. This is truly what grace is, in its most radical
form: not the reassuring ending of an orderly story, but the
incredible insistence on love amid fragmented, unraveled human

Mark leaves the question of Christs resurrection a matter of the

readers faith, her openness to Gods grace. The resurrection insures a
realized eschatology that shapes history whose events move toward its
fulfillment. The women might flee the tomb in terror, but we, reading
from the end of scripture, from outside or about the text, occupy a
vantage point of knowingness. The promise of salvation has and is
always fulfilled, but a realized eschatology does not negate suffering.
Marks ending offers a space for the reader to dwell in the terror of
uncertainty. Knowing the storys ending in Easter does not assure
consolation. Despite the triumph of Sunday, we struggle with a
fragmented life in the middle of experience. As Jones suggests, the
ending of Mark is perhaps intentionally abrupt. It ends with the terrified
women as a way to evoke the gesture of shock as opposed to the

language. In effect, the end acts like a prompt for the reader to enact
her own performance of terror.
The abrupt ending of Marks gospel indicates the period of
waiting between Easter and Apocalypse for which there is no narrative
closure. It is a period held in suspension, even, as Marks non-ending
suggests, an abyss. In the Christian narrative, the apocalypse, of
course, will be accompanied by the Christs return, the second coming,
which will be both awesome and terrible. We have no idea when Christ
will return. He is trenchantly ambiguous about time, sometimes
claiming that the final days are now, other times claiming that he has
no idea when it will come. In his parables, however, Christ frequently
emphasizes that he will return when we least expect it, like a thief in
the night, or the master who could return at any time, so the servant
must always keep his home prepared. It will be a surprise, an abrupt
but final interruption. Augustine, therefore, urges preparedness. One
must always be in a state of readiness for the apocalypse. Since it is
impossible to know when it will arrive, we cannot treat it as an event
we can plan around. It must be planned for. It falls outside of the
diurnal progress of things we anticipate. The only way in which we can
make temporal sense of the apocalypse, Augustine suggests, is to
make its anticipation immanently present within our lives. Ones
consciousness must fix upon the inevitability of death. As Hamlet
claims, The readiness is all. The ending of Marks gospel seems to
stress the element that makes narrative most painful and pleasurable:
suspense. But it is unfulfilled suspense, a suspense that keeps the
reader suspended.

The awe we experience in the face of catastrophe results from a

momentary debilitation of cognition. We cannot comprehend the sight
before our eyes. Shock is like numinous experience, holy and
harrowing, a sensation of dread and awe. Something wholly other

consumes us. Catastrophe that marks the ending of tragedy oscillates

between ecstatic and horrifying surrender.
Bystanders entranced by the terrifying vision of catastrophe
often occur near the end of a tragic or traumatic narrative. Before the
tragedy allows distance and dispassion to alleviate horrific experience
into the refined state of catharsis, an ending suspends the audience,
however momentarily, in a state of unmitigated fear. For Aristotle,
catharsis tames the trauma. Aristotle, of course, left catharsis vague,
but the term has been modernized to mean a healthy process of
releasing emotions. Catharsis alleviates terror, which means that, as a
refining force, it represses the visceral experience that instigates it.
Toward the end of Oedipus Rex the Chorus stands aghast before
the horrific sight Oedipus, who has blinded himself. Before the falling
action alleviates the terror, they are unable to believe the sight before
their eyes. They do not yet have the space and time to contemplate
the experience disinterestedly. In this moment we glimpse the
experience of horror before interpretation intervenes.
Gratuitous acts of violence in ancient Greek theater occurred
offstage, reported by a messenger after the fact, creating a delayed
response. It cushions the audience from direct contact with horror. The
messenger uses sensational rhetoric, a ghastly blow-by-blow account
of Jocastas suicide and Oedipuss self-mutilation. The audience can
listen in rapt horror at the messengers detailed account, spared the
shock of seeing the violence directly until Oedipus, blinded, is led in.
The Chorus, representing our shock, sings about the inability to

Dreadful indeed for men to see.

Never have my own eyes
Looked on a sight so full of fear.

What madness came upon you, what daemon
Leaped on your life with heavier
Punishment that a mortal man can bear?
No: I can not even
Look upon you, poor ruined one.
And I would speak, question, ponder,
If I were able. No.
You make me shudder.
( )
I would speak, question, ponder if I were able encapsulates the
visual motif of characters traumatized by catastrophe. Remove the
words from the mouths of the Chorus and we are left with the image of
silent bystanders shuddering.
The messenger, a single witness to the horror, cannot serve as
the witness until the group interprets the experience. Mere information
does not provide closure to the catastrophe just as a chronicle cannot
impress the magnitude of historical events. But collective witnessing
devolves into mere sensation unless the group, the Chorus,
interpolates catastrophe with interpretation.
Creon spares Oedipus from the mob, arguing that his body has
ironically become a sacred and untouchable object, a holy thing. The
unspeakable depth of horror into which Oedipus descends has also
made him set apart, sacred, untouchable. The play ends with
seemingly inexplicable catastrophe that has been interpreted
nonetheless. Despite the horrific spectacle, Oedipus accepts his
criminality and expunges himself from the community. For the
moment, leadership under Creon promises a new kingdom will rise
from the ruins of catastrophe. Indeed, the classic movement of tragedy
is in motion as the ending, although drenched in tragic waste,
intimates the restoration of order.

But the play also ends with Creon urging Oedipuss exile with a
suspicious amount of expediency: he seems to desire the power that
he so emphatically denied earlier in the play. The alacrity with which
Creon confronts the crisis mirrors Oedipuss handling of the plague at
the beginning of the play. A deepening dramatic irony, therefore,
frames the beginning and the end of the play, which foreshadows the
hubristic cycle that will repeat in the next play. It is not eschatology
that provides closure in Sophocles cosmos, even though the plot of the
play might seem inexorably linear in its path toward a realized destiny.
In the ancient world, an end does not assume a triumph over death
and the promise of new life. Instead it is a fatalistic and morbid vision
of death as final. The new kingdom the ending promises foreshadows a
cyclical return to the hubris of human action that had fated its
destruction. Order succumbs to destruction as catastrophe, the final
moment, clears the way for order to return in another cycle toward

From Apocalypse to Tragedy: King Lear

What if bystanders remain silenced by catastrophe at the end of

a play? What if we are left with just a state of shock bereft of the
interpretive reflection that falling action can provide?
This is what happens in Shakespeares King Lear. Audiences had
been familiar with versions of the ancient tale that end with Cordelia
taking the throne and Lear living out his old age in retirement. But
Shakespeare gives his play an unexpectedly tragic ending. Just after
Lear finds joy in his reunion with Cordelia and Edgar triumphs over his
evil brother Edmund to restore Lear to the throne, Cordelias stay of
execution arrives too late and Lear dies from despair. It was an
audacious move. It was too shocking for audiences, so performances of
the play from 1681 to 1838 followed Nahum Tates revised version in

which Cordelias French army regains the kingdom, Cordelia survives to

marry Edgar, and King Lear is spared a death from despair. Tate
essentially turns King Lear into comedy. Redemption might be achieved
after many detours into abysmal suffering, but it becomes a comedy
nonetheless, ending with justice prevailing, social order restored, and
the worthy man and woman marrying.
Samuel Johnson could not bear Shakespeares ending, and gave
Tates version his critical blessing. Cordelia, from the time of Tate,
Johnson writes, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my
sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate
that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know
not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till
I undertook to revise them as an editor. Perhaps the ending of King
Lear traumatized him. Terrified of madness, Johnson was certainly
disturbed by Lears descent into insanity. But the ending also disturbed
his moral sensibility. Tragedy, for Johnson, must give meaning to evil.
The ending of tragedy should parcel out justice accordingly. Closure,
therefore, provides moral meaning for Johnson. Shakespeare shocks
the audience for purely sensational reasons. There is no reason to kill
Cordelia just as there is no reason to bring Lear to such depths of
despair throughout the play only to drop him into a further abyss at the
very moment when he has so painfully learned his lesson. It was too
traumatic for him to imagine nihilism.
It was not until the early twentieth century that King Lear, its
original ending restored, gained the highest critical reverence. The
nihilism that disturbed Johnson resonated with modern critics and
audiences. A rapid history of carnage from World War I to the Holocaust
and the atomic bombs compelled audiences to identify with the plays
inexplicable horror that mocks moral justice in a world
unaccommodating of a divine order.

Only three characters, like the tattered remnants of a Greek

chorus, remain at the end of King Lear. Instead of the lyrical
disquisition upon nothingness that transitions the falling action of
Oedipus Rex, King Lear leaves the survivors with literally nothing to
say. The sight of Lears death as he clutches his senselessly executed
daughter leaves them in a state of shock. No one, not even Edgar, has
any disinterested interpretation to alleviate the horror. Further, no
messenger mediates between the audience and the violence. Lear is
the messenger. Like the unbearable scene in which Regan and
Cornwall gouge out Gloucesters eyes that Shakespeare shoves in front
of the audience (Jacques Barzun argues this scene suggests
Shakespeare barbarity), Lear holds Cordelia in his arms fully disclosing
the horror before us. He drapes his daughter over his lap in a tableau
of the pieta as he desperately tries to convince himself that she might
come back to life. The hope for resurrection that haunts Shakespeares
Christian world stands in brutal contrast to the pre-Christian setting of
the play in which death is final. This unexpected catastrophe is so
awful one feels compelled to find some kind of meaningful hope in it.
Harold Goddard, one of the most humane readers of Shakespeare,
argued that the play is about resurrection: Lear dies of joy, not despair,
when he sees the feather he holds before Cordelias lips twitch. Even
the best critics are allowed to project their desires into Shakespeare.
The play, however, does not intimate such a hopeful ending. Kent
and Edgars open-ended questions when they see Lear and Cordelia
reflect a more vexing aspect of Christian eschatology:

KENT Is this the promised end?

EDGAR Or image of that horror?

Edgar, as always, has his finger on the pulse of the play. Lears
death brings this particular cycle of catastrophe to an end without
promising to end further conflict. It does not unveil the ultimate ending
to the world. An image of that horror, the apocalypse remains
deferred, appearing only as figurations of its possibility. It may be the
ending to this harsh world, but life continues inexorably toward an
unknown apocalypse. Indeed, the ending is bleaker if one knows the
background to the ancient story of Lear. Edgars future as the new king
does not promise the Wheel of Fortune to turn favorablyan
antiquated motif the play frequently employs only to emphasize its
uselessnessbut will send England to further dissolution. Tasked with
ruling a harsh kingdom, Edgar will have to fend off England from an
invasion of wolves that ultimately tear him to pieces.
Frank Kermode uses King Lear as an example of how apocalyptic
belief shifts to tragic sensibility in the early modern era. Tragedy,
Kermode writes, is a successor of apocalypse in its notion of an
endless world. Up until the renaissance the apocalypse signified a
definitive occurrence biblically promised and always imminent. Most
ancient Christians interpreted scripture as an urgent warning that the
world was going to end very soon, even within their own generation. In
fact, most people believedmany continue to do sothat Christs
message was predominantly apocalyptic. Since Christ seemed urgent
about an imminent end, the ancient Church awaited the ultimate
destruction and the second coming as though it would happen at any
moment. The Roman destruction of the temple at Jerusalem led many
Jews to believe that the world had ended. The terrible event was
probably a powerful influence behind Marks gospel.
When the end did not comewhen catastrophe remained an
image of that horrorthe apocalypse became a perpetually deferred
event. Each era reads the signs of the coming end that never arrives.
The deferral of the apocalypse grows into a felt sense that history

comprises an endless series of catastrophes. Since the renaissance,

endings become transitions into perpetuated crisis as a belief in the
actual ultimate end erodes. Instead of an ultimate end, catastrophe
produces apocalyptic intimations further into the future. Edgar stands
before a deracinated world that continues on, nonetheless, to protract
irresolute crises.
Tragedy, for Kermode, assumes figurations of apocalypsedeath,
judgment, heaven, hellbut the world goes forward in the hands of
exhausted survivors. The end is no longer a literal and transcendent
matter, but a matter of immanence. For Kermode belief in
apocalypse was contingent upon the existence of the aevum, a realm
outside of time inhabited by angels that contrasts successiveness.
Transcendence gives contingency meaning. The demythologization of
the aevum, the loss of eternity as a condition that makes finitude
meaningful, forces the human to fill the space the angels left behind
with new fictions of the end. Not only does death become a more
personal concern, one could argue that the loss of the actual end of the
world allows self-consciousness to develop. Hamlet and Macbeths self-
consciousness of death, Kermode argues, reflects the modern human
condition mired in the interim flux of protracted crisis.
What can the bystanders say at the end of the play? Would it do
justice to the nothingness at the heart of the tragic vision if Edgar
interpolated the experience with commentary? After Albany leaves to
dispatch the dead and Kent departs to kill himself, Edgar faces a future
that comes to him drained of meaning. Annihilation has preceded the
end, and Edgar seems to stand at the last moment of the play in a
post-apocalyptic world. There is no literary figure more alone than
Edgar, even in a play by Samuel Beckett, and the final four lines
emphasize his emptiness.

The weight of this sad time we must obey;


Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne the most; we that are young
Shall never see so much nor live so long.
(5.3. 329 332)

The quatrain echoes his fathers words in Act 1, We have seen the
best of our time, as Edgar feebly tries to give them refigured
meaning. It is about all the play has to offer for falling action, mere
window-dressing for the prevailing silence. At most, it sounds like a
whimper in a world stunned into terrified silence. There is literally
nothing more to say.
Edgars inability to end the play with the reflectiveness he had
cultivated in the plays middle leaves us in a suspended state of
irresolution. But it also leaves us terrified. Edgars evolving wisdom
was always consoling in the middle of the play, despite how strangely
he goes about achieving it, because he is the only character who
stands outside of the action. He functions as the plays repository for
mourning. It would be impossible for us to bear the extremity of
emotions each character inflicts on us without Edgars odd
combination of empathy and disinterestedness toward suffering. In his
endless roleplaying, he copes with trauma through performance.

His stance of aesthetic curiosity distances him enough from his own
pain that he can cope with it in a space of artistic freedom.
In these moments when Edgar breaks from the exhausting roles
he plays so that he can inspect the unraveling kingdom anonymously,
he reflects on experience. Although his brief soliloquies and asides do
not have the emotional breadth of Lears mad poetry or Edmunds
calculated intellectualizations, they offer clearing spaces for the
audience to see coherence in chaos that is unavailable to the other

characters. At one critical point Edgar achieves tragic wisdom that

goes to the heart of what makes the play terrifying: his realization that
as long as we are convinced things cannot get any worse, they do. The
point comes in Act IV when Edgar seems almost ecstatic in his belief
that he has reached the bottom of the tragic arc of experience.

To be worst,
The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,
Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear.
The lamentable change is from the best;
The worst returns to laughter. Welcome, then,
Thou insubstantial air that I embrace!
The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst
Owes nothing to thy blasts.

(4.1. 1 8)

He has every reason to identify with the tragic victim of circumstances

beyond his control. Banished by his father whose posse hunts him
down after Edmunds betrayal, and assuming the disguise of the
homeless madman, Tom oBedlam, the lowliest figure in society,
Edgars reference to the worst shows how tragedy can level the
playing field. The madman and the Fool can share the same patch of
straw as the King. Disaster opens space for a possible restoration of
anything because it has stripped away the superfluity that
differentiates people, leaving everyone a bare forked animal. The
space that the worst opens offers apocalyptic disclosure.
Catastrophe unveils truths, breaking open space from where Edgar can
achieve transformations and provoke transformation in others.
Seemingly on cue, however, Edgars blinded father enters the
scene to interrupt his soliloquy with his howls of pain. Gloucesters

tragic fall, obviously recalling Oedipuss, is a fresh catastrophe that

undermines Edgars belief that he is acting out a part to its
regenerative end.

O gods! Who is t can say, I am at the worst?

I am worse that eer I was
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say, This is the worst.
(Emphasis mine 4.1 23 -28)

Edgar does not witness the ultimate end, but reaches instead a
threshold of disclosure. Thomas Pynchon repeats the same edge of
imminent disclosure at the ending of The Crying of Lot 49 as does
Cormac McCarthy in the vexed and quasi-religious voice that ends The
Road. It is not consoling that this is not the literal end, whether it is
Shakespeare, Pynchon or McCarthy. In the absolute tragedy of the Lear-
world, it is better not to be born at all; and if one exists, the promised
end is, in Hamlets words, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Conflict will continue; the torture of this Lear-world will go on like
Edgars dark philosophy that the worst always gets outdone by
further crises. As soon as we can say, this is the end, we know
another end awaits us.

Tragedy and Trauma

The foundational notion of psychotherapy is that talking things

out allows a healthy catharsis. Freud called the emotional purging the
talking cure. There might be many different approaches toward
psychotherapy, but the common wisdom everyone shares is that you
need to talk about your problems. We all know that this activity is as

imperative toward mental health as brushing your teeth is to oral

hygiene. If you keep your feelings inside, the problems bottling them
up could turn into a crisis.
It is hard to believe that there was once a time not too long ago
when this was not a shared wisdom. After World War I a soldier was
considered effeminate or loathsome if he divulged his tortured feelings.
One might think we have come a long way, and we have, but
disclosing feelings still remains rife with the threat of abjection. Most
people feel ashamed of emotions. There are more times than not when
one would rather get a root canal than confess ones feelings.
Whatever secret emotions one harbors, they remain safe tucked away
inside even when they are growing mental tumors. Verbalizing
problems might allow for catharsis, but words have a way of making
feelings real, and reality, as we all know, is a bitch.
Everyone has experienced the unburdening effect of talking out a
problem with a friend, spilling the beans, so to speak, about how one
really feels, and the physically racking experience it entails. Words are
not mechanical, and when they are used to confess personal problems
they can be accompanied by physical pain. It is interesting that
unburdening hidden feelings with a loved one is often accompanied by
guilt even when your emotional confession does not have an iota of
criminality. It is almost instinct when hiding your twisted expression or
your tears with your hands to say, Im sorry. We might have come a
long way since the days before Freud inaugurated the new era of
psychology, but something shameful or even criminal about emotions
remains. We still associate mental health with filth and abjection.

The cathartic release that getting closure promises to transform

trauma into the consolatory shape of fiction. It assumes that there is
an inherent narrative structure to trauma. If stories reflect the
narrative structures existing already in lived experience, then cathartic

closure can refigure the many strands of the seemingly meaningless

plot of trauma into a storied whole available for interpretation.
In psychotherapy one expends emotion in order to gain mental
equilibrium similar to the tensions narrative conflict generates and that
an ending discharges. Tragedy resolves when the climactic turn in the
play allows the stray strands of the plot to form a meaningful whole.
Psychotherapy adopts the literary convention of catastrophe, closure,
and catharsis to describe the process of overcoming trauma: working-
through conflict in order to achieve the cathartic release of closure, or
working-beyond trauma.
These cathartic structures in psychotherapy and literature also
share in the Christian narrative of suffering, redemption, and salvation.
Redemption narratives depicting a sweeping vision of creation, fall, and
restoration that span Hebrew and Christian scriptures inform the
structure of narrative throughout literature up until today. Trauma
narratives, such as the contemporary memoir, are dependent upon a
predictable but varying narrative structure of lost innocence,
inexorable suffering, and hard-earned redemption. Likewise,
psychotherapy, traditionally anathema to religion, draws upon
narratives of redemption from suffering in the victims drive to gain
closure. Tragedy follows similar narrative patterns of suffering and
redemption, but closes in death or exile. Since tragedy depicts, as
Aristotle claims, an action that is complete, the plot provides closure to
the contingent meaninglessness tragedy depicts. Part of the
redemptive nature of catharsis derives from the ways in which tragedy
contains terror in an aesthetic frame. By decimating worlds, tragedy
can intimate potential renewal. In a Christian world, adumbrations of
renewal emphasize the individuals confrontation with a personal
eschatology. The ending in tragedy does not present the promised end,
but, as Edgar says near the end of King Lear, an image of that horror.

Although the allure of the passion story leads to the catharsis of

resurrection, the totalizing eschatological message of Christianity often
elides the endurance of suffering. Marks gospel, as we saw, had to be
amended to make it conform to a consoling coherence. The raw terror,
the sense of Gods abandonment, could not be left to the imagination.
Despite the promised end, the terror remains.
As I have argued, the closure that creates a literary works form
is a trope that functions, like apocalypse, to rupture and reveal at the
same time as it conceals our unconscious desire for conflict. Narrative
endings form critical boundary-situations. An ending intimates a space
from beyond an endpoint that Christianity associates with
transcendence, psychology associates with emotional empowerment,
and criticism associates with the promise for interpretation. The
narrative conventions of redemption that both psychotherapy and
religion share open up a much-needed dialogue between trauma and
religion. If tragedy succeeds apocalypse, as Kermode claims, then I
would argue that trauma succeeds tragedy.

There two different ways of looking at tragedy: tragedy as form

the literary genre governed by conventions as opposed to ideasor
tragedy as sensibilitya disposition toward life, an encompassing
worldview of isolation. Over the past century the word tragedy has
wandered from its strictly generic definition of an aesthetic form to
signify a much wider range of experience that has more to do with
sensibility. Particularly in response to catastrophe in the past century,
the word gains new and powerful currency. Tragedy no longer
privileges events based strictly upon magnitude. The Holocaust,
hurricane Katrina, 9/11, a lost job, a red shirt inadvertently left in a
white wash can all be described as tragic. As Terry Eagleton quips,
tragedy has come to mean very sad. In fact, tragic sensibility has

come to mean something closer to, and even synonymous with,

A term once relegated to an aesthetic category, tragedy now
encompasses an indeterminate sensibility that reflects a deepening
awareness of the inherent drama in disaster. The cinematic unfolding
of events like 9/11 and hurricane Katrina testifies to a new paradigm by
which we witness traumatic experience. We are increasingly
enraptured by the immediacy of catastrophe that we witness from
mediated sources, between the actual and the virtual. Whereas trauma
was once relegated to the direct contact between catastrophe and its
survivor, media allows us all now to bear witness to catastrophic
events. Trauma has become fairly democratic business. We can all
stake a claim, to varying degrees, in survival.
The semantic drift of tragedy reflects an evolving disposition to
describe actuality in a dramatic context. Since the renaissance, the
association of despair with sin personalizes tragedy. In ancient drama
the tragic figure is an agent for the plot, making for little self-
consciousness. Early modern tragedy, as we have seen with
Shakespeare, depicts the tragic figure as an individual very
preoccupied with agency. This preoccupation makes him, at the same
time, much more self-conscious of helplessness. The transformation of
tragedy into an existential concern deepens with secularity that
eventually reaches Freuds anatomy of unconscious confliction that
makes us all, to an extent, the isolated figures of tragedy. The tragic
hero is no longer the privileged role of a single, powerful figure. Like
Willy Lowman in Death of a Salesman, we all become figures for whom
attention must be paid.
In the Christian era tragedy depicts, as Reinhold Niebhur argues,
incongruity between the self and God. But eschatology means that
so much more is at stake for him than exile or death. Unlike classical
drama that urges the protagonists division between the self and the

world that Schiller emphasizes, early modern tragedy evolves in the

shadow of the crucifixion and resurrection. Suffering in the world
serves as a preamble to salvation. Tragedy carries the weight of
eschatology absent from classical tragedy. Rather than intimating
hope, Christian tragedy is haunted by the promise of salvation.
It has been commonplace in criticism to show how tragedy is
incompatible with Christianity. George Steiner argues that the hope of
salvation contaminates the irredeemable despair required of tragedy.
Tragedy is a purely theistic genre for Steiner, that form of art which
requires the intolerable burden of Gods presence. Therefore, a
secularized world is inhospitable to tragedy that requires the felt
presence of God. Steiners uncompromising absolutism has generally
prevailed in arguments concerning tragedy. Christianity is dramatic,
Sylvan Barnet argues, but it is not tragic, for Christian teleology robs
death of its sting (202). Charles Glicksberg writes, Christianity
completely reverses the tragic formula: out of failure success is born,
out of death comes the bliss of everlasting life in eternity. Christianity
demands the acceptance of suffering and death as the price of
salvation, whereas the tragic vision retains the anguish of uncertainty,
the piercing pain of doubt, the dread and fear and despair (14).
Arguing that the felix culpa annuls tragedy, Karl Jasper says, The
chance of being saved destroys the tragic sense of being trapped
without a chance of escape. Therefore no genuinely Christian tragedy
can exist (13). In Beyond Tragedy Reinhold Niebhur concludes: The
cross is not tragic, but the resolution of tragedy (155). Salvation
compensates for suffering, making tragedy incongruous with Christian
There is a new openness, however, toward the Christian
experience of tragedy in the past decade. The theologian, Graham
Ward, recently criticized Steiners view as a suppressionist
understanding of resurrection, such that all the darkness and pain of

the crucifixion is erased and rendered epiphenomenal; not only erased

but justified. The eschatological obliterates all memories and
experiences of the apocalyptic. Wards argument against Steiners
absolutism comes in defense of Terry Eagletons study of tragedy,
Sweet Violence (2004), a book that marked for many his surprising
religious turn. Eagleton argues: Jesus crucifixion is genuinely tragic . .
. The destitute condition of humanity, if it was to be fully restored, had
to be lived all the way through, pressed to the extreme limit of a
descent into the hell of meaninglessness and desolation, rather than
disavowed, patched up or short-circuited. Christs death is not a
conjuring trick, a devise for rising again in glory. It is only by
accepting the worst for what it is, not as a convenient springboard to
leap beyond it, can one surpass it. Jesus is left only with a forlorn faith
in what he called Father, despite the fact that He abandoned him.
Tragedy can become a source of renewed life, opening grace from the
groundlessness of existence. The unfathomableness of Gods grace,
Eagleton writes, constitutes the tragic possibilities of Christianity.
Although Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday form the
beginning, middle, and end that close with Christs triumph over death,
comic absolutism effaces the tragic disjuncture at the heart of the
Paschal mystery. The promise of resurrection risks not only a denial of
death, but also the refusal to affirm life.
Eagleton, Ward and others who pull away from Steiners
absolutist vision open tragedy up to religion in ways that can
contribute to trauma theory. Opening tragedy to religious discourse in
the context of trauma theory allows for an understanding of how
suffering problematizes the Christian metanarrative of consolation that
permeates all literature and thought in the West.
The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar articulates a
relationship between religion and suffering in Mysterium Paschale. In
this remarkable work, Balthasar elevates Christs harrowing of hell on

Holy Saturday to a more pronounced position in the Easter narrative.

The forlorn middle position of Holy Saturday when God abandons
Christ, Balthasar argues, is central to the Christian experience. The
suspended period of suffering endures like the middling position
between the past and the future of trauma victims. The promise of
resurrection cannot cancel out suffering, Balthasar argues, because
Christianity emphasizes Gods self-emptying and abandonment.
Christs redemption of humankind had its decisive completion,
Balthasar writes, not, strictly speaking, with the Incarnation or in the
continuity of his mortal life, but in the hiatus of death (13). The
second death that comprises Holy Saturday is the realization of all
Godlessness the taking on of all the sins of the world in the
descent into Hell (52, 51, 53). All things are restored in the end only
because Gods suffering represents the ultimate tragedy of
In Spirit and Trauma: a Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo
argues that Balthasars emphasis on Holy Saturday offers a theological
articulation of trauma. Like Christs descent into Hell, death haunts
life for the trauma victim. Trauma theory should witness the ongoing
experience of death in life (3). Trauma frustrates the hope of future
salvation. Instead, haunted by events they cannot comprehend,
victims remain suspended in an eternal present where suffering
endures. In its emphasis upon the totalizing coherence between origin
and apocalypse, theology tends to misunderstand how suffering
endures within a fragmented middle ground of experience. The push
to move beyond the event to a new and pure place, is not just a
misconception about traumatic survival, Rambo writes, it is a
dangerous move that threatens to elide the realities of traumatic
suffering (4). In other words, Rambo criticizes both religion and
psychology for their emphasis upon graining closure. She calls for a

theology that moves away from beginnings and endings, or life and
death, in order to focus in on middles and remaining.

I claim that trauma returns theologians to our primary

claims about death and life, particularly as they are
narrated in the events of cross and resurrection. Trauma
disrupts this narrative, turning our attention to a more
mixed terrain of remaining, one that I identify as the
middle (5).

Rambos middle space remains a perplexingly untheologized

site of survival. Trauma is a condition in which experience remains
caught in the middle where life and death superimpose. A narrative
ending, I argue, like the closure gained from traumatic experience,
opens a space that is simultaneously past and future. An ending
becomes a trope, a retrograde middle to a plot in which the white
space of the page that followsand the white space that surrounds the
textforms the unconscious of the text, a plot that, as Prospero says,
is rounded by a little sleep.

Six months after the outbreak of World War I, Freud concludes his
strange essay, Thoughts on War and Death (1915) with aphoristic
sounding words: If you desire peace, prepare for war . . . If you would
endure life, be prepared for death. Freuds essay certainly doesnt
have a consoling ending! As the human becomes more murderous in
the work required to maintain civilization, it becomes, paradoxically,
easier to deny death. For Freud, our dread of death makes it so that
our unconscious does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if

Our own death is indeed unimaginable, and whenever we

make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we
really survive as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic
school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no
one believes in his own death, or to put the same thing in
another way, in the unconscious every one of us is
convinced of his own immortality (223).

Our unconscious belief in immortality results from the

fragmentation of finitude. Paul Ricoeur calls the despairing position in
the middle, the pathetique of misery. Our own life-narrative remains
incomplete because our total time on earth is longer than our
conscious experience of it. We are conscious only of the middle of life.
Since we do not register our own birth or death, we require others to
narrate its story, but we despair over our inability to experience the
self as a totality. We are only aware of the parts that make up the
whole of the self. For Freud, one cannot represent ones own death
unless it appears in a fantasy, which means that the sublimating power
of fiction emerges as an anxious defense against the threat of death.

It is inevitable result of all this that we should seek in the

world of fiction, of general literature and of the theater
compensation for the impoverishment of life. There we still
find people who know how to die, who are even capable of
killing someone else . . . which makes it possible for us to
reconcile ourselves with deathnamely, that behind all the
vicissitudes of life we preserve our existence intact . . . In
the realm of fiction we discover that the plurality of lives
for which we crave. We die in the person of a given hero,
yet we survive him, and are ready to die again with the
next hero just as safely (225).

The parallel between mortality and the human compulsion to

make fictions preoccupies the modern investigation of narrative. Frank
Kermode, as we have seen, argues that the fragmentary experience of
finitude and the terror of death compel the consoling paradigms of
closure in fiction. Fiction offers us ultimate beginnings and endings
unavailable to us in our forlorn position stuck in the middest. The
coherence an ending offers to the beginning and middle bestows
fiction with birth and death in miniature. When we read fiction we
become spectators to life as a whole. The ending transforms the
imagined world of fiction into a sort-of micro-eschaton that organizes
experience into a meaningful teleology unavailable to us in life.
Kermode examines our crisis-oriented condition from a Christian
perspective of stable and transcendent origins and endings. An ending
brings meaning to fiction that is not only consolatory but providential.
The author, like God, designs the totality of a work and determines all
its outcomes, which makes narrative bare an uncanny resemblance to
Kermodes paradigm for narrative coherence is the union of the
Old and New Testament into one book that begins with Genesis and
ends with Apocalypse. The mass of material of the Old Testament
typologically forms a seamless determination of events in the New. For
Kermode, our personalized vision of death as it evolves in the wake of
demythologized apocalypse immensely affects narrative closure. As
the apocalypse transforms into the individual preoccupation with
mortality indicative of tragedy, we are forced to reinvent paradigms of
closure to account for finitude. Consequently, the endings of fiction in
the past century become more difficult and irresolute as closure fits
less within an actual biblical apocalypse. Endings increasingly struggle
with the navet inherent in totalizing contingent experience as closure
crumbles into transitions from one crisis to the next.

Creation and Apocalypse no longer accord with lived experience.

Literary closure, therefore, must adjust to a Christian cosmology that
can no longer accommodate contingency. But narrative must continue
to balance the artifice of an ending with the haphazardness of life.
Instead of plots teleology that propels narrative toward ultimate
endings, modern fiction depicts the end-directed movement of
narrative as the crossing to another crisis. Fiction continues to allow for
the illusion of closure; an ending must satisfy in some way. But in
modern texts, closure accounts for the excess of experience by taking
the form of irresolution, disjuncture, gaps, and fissures. As increasingly
incomprehensible events congest the modern world, narratives
attempt to reflect the resulting trauma by rupturing narrative
consecution in its inexorable progress to an end. The flashback, for
instance, becomes more symptomatic of trauma than it is a narrative
convention. Narrative depicts the impossibility to gain closure from
incomprehensible experience. There is always more conflict than a plot
can resolve, a surplus that cannot be closed. The excess of meaning
that reaches the limits of cognition and problematizes narrative
coherence is the focus of trauma theory.
In many respects, Kermodes argument in The Sense of an
Ending that the end-directed nature of fiction provides consolation is
too simple. It reflects the discharge of pleasurable energy in a cathartic
model of therapy that Freud eventually revised in Beyond the Pleasure
Principle. The conflict resolution of fiction Kermode focuses on is akin
to the pleasure principle that, Freud argues, operates in the service of
a function whose business is to free the mental apparatus entirely from
excitation (62). Gaining closure veils a more tragic condition
concerning the impossibility to cope that Freuds writing points to and
that has affinities with Balthasars emphasis upon the forlornness of
Holy Saturday.

Since psychoanalysis interprets the indeterminate space of the

unconscious, the narrative it generates is conceivably interminable.
There is nothing to preclude a psychotherapeutic narrative from ending
because the unconscious has no stable temporal ground. Whereas
theology explains our condition in terms of an original catastrophe, for
Freud the human is thrown at birth into a perpetual battleground of
instincts. We cannot govern the dark realm of the unconscious that
governs us. Further, at birth the human is helpless, entirely dependent
upon others. Religion evolves out of this helplessness. Like children we
surrender to forces greater than us. Freud remarked to Jung in 1910,
the ultimate basis of mans need for religion is infantile helplessness
(PMB 189). Since we require a parent to care for us, Freud argues, a
personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father
(Freud, 1910:123). In The Future of an Illusion, Freud argues that God is
a taskmaster-father who protects us even as He terrifies us. Religion,
therefore, is born from mans need to make his helplessness tolerable
and built up from the material of memories of helplessness of his own
childhood and the childhood of the human race (18).
The same power Kermode claims that fiction possesses to
console us functions for Freud in religion. Religion and art traffics in
illusions. Further, both religion and art evolve from the need to form
substitutions for lost childhood gratification. Although religion and art
share similar illusions, Freud reserves deeper contempt for religion.
Poetry might be harmless enough for Freud (an ambivalence toward
poets and artists that befuddled Lionel Trilling), but religion is a
dangerous cultural neurosis that everyone conforms to. The
consolation endings in fiction provide turns into totalizing providential
design in religion and God becomes the transcendent Author.
Everything that happens in this world, Freud writes, is an expression
of the intentions of an intelligence superior to us, which in the end,
though its ways and byways are difficult to follow, orders everything

for the best (19). Religion transforms the comforting teleology of

fiction into the governing principle of eschatology. We cling to a
pervasive hope for an afterlife that Freud describes in terms similar to
a nineteenth-century novel. In the end all good is rewarded and all
evil punished, if not actually in this form of life then in the latter
existences that begin after death. In this way all the terrors, the
sufferings, and the hardships of life are destined to be obliterated
(PMB 189). Whereas one can willingly suspend disbelief when reading
fiction, religion blurs those lines. Unlike art, religion pervades life with
an illusion by which we live. Further, belief in the afterlife denies death.
If death is merely the prelude to immortality, then the human will
continue to deny his or her own mortality, a denial that accounts for
the destructiveness of the battlefields in 1915.
For Freud, the eschatological promise of religion short-circuits
interpretation. But the end-directed nature of life he examines
resembles eschatology nonetheless. The central statement in Beyond
the Pleasure Principle, The aim of all life is death, appears like a
truism. Eventually we are all going to die. Yet Freuds wording, the
aim of all life, implies teleology. It is not just that we are going to die.
Death is our goal. And if death is our goal, it is also our desire.
Freud comes to this disturbing realization by examining the
recurring nightmares of soldiers concerning the physical trauma of war.
The repetition of these dreams compels Freuds stunning realization
that dreams do not constitute wish fulfillment as he had previously
imagined. Why does the mind urge people to repeat pain from the
past? Certainly dreaming about the physical trauma of war does not
fulfill an unconscious wish. To illustrate how the repetition compulsion
of soldiers nightmares allows them to make sense of experience,
Freud famously analyzes a game he observes his little grandchild
playing. The boy throws a spool of string out of his crib, announcing

fort! (gone), and then pulls it back in crying da! (here). The game
does not tire for the boy. He repeats it to Freuds curiosity.
Freud concludes that the boy creates the game as a means to
cope with his mothers daily departures. He abreacts painful
experience by throwing the object out of his crib (mom is gone!) and
reeling it in (mom is back!). The games repetition sublimates the pain
of her loss into creative activity, allowing him to master trauma. The
boys ability to cope with loss by compulsively repeating his mothers
coming and going sheds light on the soldiers recurring dreams. The
game turns trauma into a miniature plot that the boy performs. He
owns his little drama, and, unlike his mothers departures, he can
control it by repeating at whim. The repeated semblance of pain binds
the boys traumatic energy into a manageable unit. While it may be
unpleasant, the activity of working-through trauma ultimately reduces
excitation, which is pleasurable. The pleasure derives from the ability
to turn pain into something artistic. At the same time, paradoxically,
the reduction of excitation requires the expenditure of energy. (BUT
soldiers cant CONTROL their nightmares = the need for artistic
In Sigmund Freud, Richard Wollheim argues that Freud resurrects
his early belief that the mind acts as though it could altogether
eliminate tension, as though, in other words, it could reduce itself to a
state of extinction (211). Whereas the cathartic model of Freuds early
work reduces everything to the equivalence between the rise of
tension that results in unpleasure, and the expenditure of tension that
results in pleasure, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the mind
compulsively works over some original impression, so as to master it,
so as at a later stage to get pleasure from it. There is in repetition a
trend that really is beyond, i.e., inconsistent with, the pleasure
principle. By combining his new insight with his hypothesis that all
repetition is a form of discharge, Freud theorizes that the compulsion

to repeat can be seen as the effort to restore a state that is both

historically primitive and also marked by the total draining of energy,
i.e., death (Emphasis mine 211 212). Working-through trauma
results not only in the equilibrium of toxic emotion, but constitutes the
search for something beyond our traumatic state that combines life
and death.
Lionel Trilling is one of the first literary critics to see that Beyond
the Pleasure Principles relevance to literature is inescapable. For
Trilling, Freuds work is one which stands besides Aristotles notion of
catharsis, in part to supplement, in part to modify it. Freuds theory of
traumatic neurosis suggests for Trilling what might be called the
mithridactic function, by which tragedy is used as the homeopathic
administration of pain to insure ourselves to the greater pain which life
will force upon us (54, 55-56). Freud himself points out how his
exploration into traumatic neuroses is relevant to literature at the end
of Chapter II in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but the commentary
arrives like an afterthought. The therapeutic relevance of fiction gains
great attention from narrative theorists in the 1980s, however, who
begin to loosen up narrative formalism with psychoanalytic criticism. In
Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks uses Beyond the Pleasure Principle
as a template for narrative in his argument that plot is best conceived
as an activity, a structuring operation that, driven by the unconscious,
reveals a passion for meaning. Like a human life, a narrative must
reach an ending on its own terms, delaying the end until it finds
suitable closure. Circumventing a direct route to the end, a plot builds
conflict that makes the ending all the more cathartic or pleasurable. At
the same time, an ending, like death, is agonizing: the structure of a
narrative draws a beginning and middle to an ending in a struggle that
shadows the unconscious war between Eros and Thanatos.
Narratives, says Brooks, lay bare the nature of narration as a form
of human desire: the need to tell as a primary human drive that seeks

to seduce and subjugate the listener, to implicate him in the thrust of

desire that can never quite speak its namenever can quite come to
the pointbut that insists on speaking over and over again its
movement towards the name.
Desire and death propel narratives toward an ending on its own
terms, which parallel the human drive to return to an earlier state of
things. Paradoxically, this drive for inertia results in the increasing
expenditure of energy. We work hard in our desire to return to an inert
state. The paradox resembles Augustines belief that a symptom of our
fallen state is our ever-agitated efforts to still time. The energy we
expend to reconcile past and future into the stillness of eternity
increases. What impels us forward, Eagleton says of Freud,
perversely, is an instinct to travel backward to Eden (248). If the
boys game of fort/da constitutes a plot in miniature, then a short
story, a novel or a play extends the same dynamic between pain and
pleasure into a more complex sequence of repetitions and delays that
bind experiences into a structure to master them in anticipation of
cathartic release. A narrative must come to an end, but it does so by
delaying the end in order to reach it on its own terms.
In Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure, A.D. Nutall argues that Freud
revolutionizes our idea of the pleasure tragedy generates because he
was more open to its mysterious nature than Aristotle who showed
how tragic pleasure is possible but not exactly why it happens in a
given case. For Nutall, Freud believed in a quasi-physiological
cathexes of psychic forcein psychic quantarequiring periodic
discharge (39 40). He eschews the darker realms of the
unconscious, however, by concluding his study with formalism.

Tragedy, unlike fairground rides, operates not only at the

level of arousal but also at the level of conclusion or
closure. It is the special pleasurethe oikeia hedonethat

we feel when all is done, when we have followed the

sequence to its terrible end and understood, that sill needs
to be explained (104).

Although Nuttall claims that he does not want to set aside as

irrelevant the pleasure of arousal, he believes that the irresponsible
pleasure of arousal is joined with bonds of iron to the responsibilities of
probable knowledge and intellectual assent. In other words, by giving
tragic energy closure, the play becomes an aesthetic object available
for contemplation. Tragic representation is terrifying but safe. Nuttalls
genealogy of tragic pleasure that begins with Aristotle returns to
Aristotle. We might experience catharsis, but a tragic play assures our
experience will be disinterested.
Nuttall misses an opportunity to explore the difference between
the representation of terror and it actuality, and the pleasure we derive
from both. As Nietzsche was aware, humans do gain pleasure from
actual suffering. Obviously there is a difference between literally
witnessing catastrophe and watching a play (or a movie). Zizek argued
that our desire to watch replays of the second play hitting the Twin
Towers in the terrorist attacks was tantamount to the titillation of a
snuff film. It was probably hardly the case for those in the middle of the
experience. For Edmund Burke, an experience that literally threatens
our life cannot be sublime. Although we can feel terror standing at the
edge of an ocean or at the summit of a mountain, the sublime is
primarily an aesthetic category. The same applies to Aristotles
argument that one gains pleasure from contemplating depictions of
death as opposed to confronting actual death, which merely repulses
The distinction between actuality and art goes to the heart of
Freuds distinction between anxiety and terror. Tragedy allows us to
experience terror by heightening pleasurable discharge because we

are already anxiously prepared to be shocked. In our willing suspension

of disbelief, we respond to the appearance of terror. Tragedy turns
terror into a trope. We can manage, therefore, the pity and fear a
tragic work invites us to experience. Aristotle claims that drama does
not mirror the world as it is, but creates a world as it could be.
Therefore, truth in literature must be an embodied truth. Since
literature is hypothetical, poetry can body forth the possible and the
probable, Nuttall says, and this we can properly enjoy (102).
Tragedy allows us to rehearse for actual catastrophe by vicariously
experiencing it. Echoing Trilling, Nuttall says that tragedy is an
exercise in understanding in advance the real horrors we may meet
and the psychic violence they may cause (104).
Tragedy vexes an audience into a heightened emotional state by
the appearance of terror. This cannot be overstated. We are terrified by
a fiction. The success of a tragedy reflects the balance between
contingency and closure and ending provides: we believe in a fiction
while recognizing its artifice. In fact, the more tension a tragic work
can produce between actuality and artifice, the more successful it is.
Drama allows us aesthetic distance in which to properly experience
terror. The pleasure we gain from tragedy derives from our exposure to
experience that does cannot actually threaten us. Since the mind
cannot confront the possibility of death directly, tragedy allows us the
possibility of surviving. We gain pleasure because we experience the
semblance of survival. The catharsis or the psychic discharge tragedy
produces functions as a substitute for terror that both rehearses and
tropes death.
Anticipation is paradoxical in that we must be anxious in order to
work-through trauma. Anxiety defensively guards against experience in
the future that one was not prepared for in the past. Freud makes a
crucial distinction between anxiety, fear and fright.

Anxiety describes a particular state of expecting danger

or preparing for it, even though it ma be an unknown one.
Fear requires a definite object of which to be afraid.
Fright, however, is the name we give to the state a person
gets into when he has run into danger without being
prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise. I do
not believe that anxiety can produce a traumatic neurosis.
There is something about anxiety that protects its subject
against fright and so against fright neurosis. (11).

Trauma is the result of the inability to receive an event caused by fright

(Schreck) because it exceeds comprehension. Traumatic neurosis,
claims Freud, is created by the lack of any preparedness for anxiety
(emphasis mine 31). Repetition compulsion in the form of dreams or
verbal representation prepares for the delayed over-excitation of
trauma. Trauma entails endeavoring to master the stimulus
retrospectively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the
cause of the traumatic neurosis (emphasis mine 609). This temporal
delay in registering trauma accounts for its peculiar double structure:
trauma involves a subsequent event that triggers the initial one into
cognition, forcing us to confront it.
In Unclaimed Experience, the foundational text of trauma theory,
Cathy Caruth focuses on the temporal structure of belatedness in
trauma as a way to theorize about literary representation. She draws
from Freuds notion of temporal paradox to argue that trauma is not
necessarily caused by a breach in the mind of stimulation too
overwhelming for consciousness, but by the lack of preparedness to
take in stimulation that comes too quickly. Therefore, trauma consists
solely in the structure of its experience or recognition: the event is not
assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its
repeated possession of the one who experiences it (4-5). Therefore,

the incomprehensibility of history can only be represented on a literary

The inception of trauma theory in the early 1990s for Caruth
addresses a crisis in representation as much as it explores trauma.
Unclaimed Experience attempts to rectify the frequent charge that
deconstruction leads to political and ethical paralysis. Trauma allows
deconstruction to balance formal practices of interpretation within the
actual contingencies of the world. Deconstructive thinkers do not deny
reference, but rethink reference apart from traditional understanding.
By using the temporal paradox of trauma, the return in a second event
of what was not known in the first, Caruth conceives of experience in
the ways it escapes or resists comprehension. Writing gives expression
to what cannot be fully known. Literary criticism must track that which
escapes interpretation. For Shelly Rambo, Caruth opens up theological
possibilities of a double telling between a story of the unbearable
nature of an event and the unbearable nature of its survival.
Caruths emphasis on incomprehensibility, however, threatens to
elevate trauma to a sublime category. Casting trauma into an
unspeakable realm shares in the same sublimity of the sacred.
Caruths theory poses a dilemma: traumatic experience defies
representation, so attempts to articulate it results in an affront to
understanding. Such a sublime nature to trauma threatens to close off
the possibility of meaning. Dominick LaCapra argues, Caruth . . .
seems dangerously close to conflating absence (of absolute foundation
and total meaning or knowledge) with loss and even sacralizing or
making sublime, the compulsive acting-out of a traumatic past
(History 121). Susana Onega and Jean-Michael Guteau describe the
sublime of trauma as the failure of faculties concerning traumatic
experience, claiming, trauma would, thus, be compatible with a
conjectural mode that would throw us subjects, in our capacity as
readers and critics, into a complex ethical state of a disquieted

negative capability (19). Ironically, this penchant for the sublime

shares in the same absolutism of tragedy championed by George
Steiner, but which occludes the possibility for confronting the
actualities of suffering. It seems to me a dead end for trauma theory if
it succumbs to the same emphasis on absolute categories of the
ineffable as theology.
In Narrating Pain: The Power of Catharsis, Richard Kearney
explores the ways in which narrative retelling can provide cathartic
release for sufferers of trauma. Since pity and fear, according to
Aristotle, arise from the dramatic imitation of certain actions in order to
provide for their outlet, the recounting of plot, fiction or spectacle
permits us to repeat the past forward so to speak. Such creative
repetition allows for a certain kind of pleasure or release. In the play
of narrative re-creation we are invited to revisit our livesthrough
actions and personas of othersso as to live them otherwise. We
discover a way to give a future to the past (Paragraph 51). He offers
the possibility for a positive effect of using tragic conventions in the
representation of traumatic experience. Unbearable events, such as
genocide, might become elevated to a sublime category or reduced to
melodramatic representation, but he urges how narrative catharsis is
a way of making absent things present in a unique balancing of
compassion and dispassion, of identification and contemplation, or
particular emotion and universal understanding. Such a balance can
proffer some measure of healing (63). It is possible, then, to confront
the actuality of suffering without succumbing to the total numbness of
trauma that leads to unknowingness, and to impose order over
traumatic experience with narrative structure without eliding the
endurance of pain. If actuality does not balance with narrative
convention, Kearney seems to suggest, it is impossible for life to
endure beyond the paralyzing effects of trauma. Redemption from
trauma is possible without whitewashing the power of the past.

In Mourning and Melancholy, Freud defines the process of

working through mourning as remembering, repeating, working
through. The disturbing aspect of his essay is that the work of
mourning never brings redemption from suffering. In fact, the work of
mourning creates an illusion of healing we impose upon the inchoate
material of experience so that life can appear meaningful. The state of
melancholy might be reached when an author allows mourning to
transform into something both chronic and oddly pleasurable. Likewise,
our desire to work-beyond trauma requires us to produce conflict. This
seems, of course, antithetical to common sense. It suggests that we
work-through mourning only so that we can never relinquish our
fixation upon the lost object. Ironically, if the result of working-through
mourning is to release our emotional investment in the lost object, we
end up mourning the loss of that very object we have expended so
much energy to forget. The wounds that repetition compulsion afflicts
are, in fact, often traumatic in of themselves. We have come to equate
catharsis with purging: expending emotional force brings closure to a
tragedy with sublime language. The result of catharsis, however, is
never the elimination of emotion. Poetry that tempers tragic outcomes
only masks conflicting energies that draw plot to its close. In the same
way that ancient Greek tragedy exacerbates violent emotions as a
means to purge them, we compulsively represent trauma in order to
perpetuate conflict under the assumption that we are working-beyond
trauma in similar acts of catharsis.

The sense of coming-after dogs both literature and witness. By
the time one registers the magnitude of catastrophe, the traumatic
event loses its immediacy. Trauma of the past becomes realized by a
secondary event that recalls the initial catastrophe. One registers
trauma in an entirely new context as its expression takes on a form
estranged from the source. Memory allows us to recreate times
passage into something more meaningful than consecution. While the
past invades the present, we attempt to impose an order upon life.
This retrospective compulsion measures our anxiety.

2 Harold Bloom opens his study of Wallace Stevens, The Poems

of Our Climate, with an apothegm concerning poetic creation,
Everything that can be broken should be broken, that he extends
into a triple rhythm: It must be broken; It must not bear having been
broken; It must seem to have been mended. According to Bloom,
poetry evolves from a struggle with belatedness. The strong poet
destroys influential precursors by willfully misreading them, breaking
the ways in which they imagine the world appears. But the poet cannot
abide the space he has broken, so he reinvents the world in order for it
to seem to have been mended. The key term here is seem. Modern
poets struggle not necessarily with how to represent reality, but how to
reimagine appearances. How does a poet represent reality other poets
have already reimagined? The modern poet must discover new ways in
which to trope an already figural reality. For Bloom an original
catastrophe is indeed already the condition of language, the condition
of the ruins of time. Poems are catastrophe creations, originating
from a flawed creator. Poets trope a world that prior poets have already
figuratively transformed. Crisis, therefore, is implicit in the very act of
writing. To break prior poetic appearances in order to create new ones,
the poet makes a crossing, which is a process of disjunction, a
leaping of the gap between one kind of figurative thinking and
another (Climate 1 2).
Whereas Blooms tripartite scheme in 1980 forms a nifty
coherence, our apocalyptic millennium problematizes the dialectic of
brokenness and mending. The interpretation of narrative closure must
extend the ellipsis in Blooms catastrophe creations or Kermodes
miniature apocalypse of tick-tock and tock-tick. Endings break
what appears to be mended by perpetuating brokenness.
Like Blooms poet who traverses terrain already explored by previous
poets, the representation of catastrophe is always belated.

Working-through trauma perpetuates conflict in the expenditure

of energy required to gain closure. It generates anxiety to compensate
for the lack of preparedness we had experienced when events caught
us off-guard. By perpetuating the conflict catastrophe instigates in
displaced forms, we repeat trauma with a difference. Repetition
compulsion does not replicate the past, but distorts the nature of
trauma into a new form, the work of art. We suffer instead from a
representation compulsion, a desire to work-beyond trauma by
constructing fictions.
Narrative repeats catastrophe temporally refigured by its
retrograde force into a particular form. Plot requires conflict that must
increase in order to reach the stillness of closure, but closure, at the
same time, conceals energy it cannot circumscribe. The conventional
necessity of an ending cannot contain time whose haphazardness it
must keep in balance. The ineluctable end-directedness of narrative
surrenders always to the death drive it must resist. But there is no
zero-point that punctuates the end. All endings imply an ellipsis. The
white space that follows the final words is a repository for all
possibilities in excess of cognition. This repository into which the final
words of a narrative trail transforms into the unconscious of the text.
Within the gulf that opens from the close of narrative grows the conflict
of the next crisis; it is a crossing into the conflict of further writing.
The paradoxical relationship between contingency and the
necessity for closure conflicts a narratives relationship to actuality.
Despite the assumption that one must cope with trauma by directly
stating it, literalism is the death of narrative. No matter how closely it
mirrors reality, narrative is figural. As I have been arguing, both the
closure and the ending of a text is a trope. The choice an author makes
in what to select and how to shape material into a narrative is the work
of figuration. Form, too, is a trope. To trope means to distort. An author
or witness must transform catastrophe into its appearance. This area of

trauma theory has not explored enough. It is common knowledge that

one must confront reality in order to gain psychological healing. But
representing trauma, even at the level of recounting, is a figural
exercise. It is never a direct statement. We must not forget that the
entire basis of Freuds theories about dreams involved the patients
dream-work, the story the patient constructs out of the dream that can
never recover the actual dream itself. The sublimation of trauma into
expressive form, therefore, breaks its own illusion of closure. Writing
always returns to the conflict of writing. The ending of a narrative
maintains the illusion that fiction, unlike psychotherapy, is not
Narrative crosses the experience or testimony of trauma into a
metonym of the experience that as a whole would be too totalizing to
cognitively withstand. Since literature transforms terror into the
appearance of terror, authors must always discover ways in which to
break appearances that have grown inadequate to contain shifting
realities. The appearance of terror that represents prior catastrophe
becomes something new, detached from the source, wandering and
errant. In its compulsion to survive it meanders away from its source
into the threat of oblivion. The surplus writing produces out of a
narrative ending marks transitory starting points that float in the
indeterminate space of working-through. The white space of closure
becomes a timeless demarcation of a threshold-situation.
Closure entails the desire to move beyond experience.
Ultimately, beyond is a trope for apocalypse in the assumption that an
ending discloses meaning. Closure entails disclosure. A narrative
ending is analogous to death, but it is not actual death. The repository
into which the surplus of writing signifies demythologizes the
apocalyptic symbolization accorded to endings. The movement of
narrative that requires conflict, such as unexpectedness, plot twists,
surprises, destroys metaphorical coherence with the subversive energy

of irony. Irony insures the survival of fiction by undermining literal or

direct statement. If we equate closure with metaphor, something that
unifies the indeterminacies of text to create the semblance of
transcendent meaning, working-through the journey to that cohesion
remains metonymic, caught on the rails of signification in its desire for
fullness. Narrative is pleasurable for this very reason. It offers the
appearance of closure while conflict keeps the reader entranced by the
unexpected. We know narrative will end, we desire to reach that end,
but we are most drawn along by desire when the narrative moves
toward that ending in unexpected ways. Although we expect an ending
to bestow meaning upon the whole, the interpretation an ending
demands defies literature to give us equations of meaning. We do not
seek in literature equivalents or direct statement. Irony assures that
the consummate meaning for which metaphor seeks will always break
the whole into associational parts that keeps closure deferred. Instead
of equations of meaning, literature yields a sense of meaning. We
always associate what a text is about to a semblance of how and what
meaning means. Narrative endings contribute to the metonymic rail of
all endings that stretch literature across the verbal surplus of endless
discursive space.
The rhythm, remembering, working-through, working-beyond is
analogous to the temporal structure of past, present and future and
the fictional structure of beginning, middle, and end. Working-through
entails the conscious effort to remember and all of the figural
distortions that occur as we turn memory into form and meaning. The
goal to work-beyond memories of conflict, to get closure, comes with
the conundrum: it also entails the effort to forget, and more than often
what an author excludes from a work is conscious or unconscious
Working-through is our continually conscious state. From the
moment we are born we are engaged in acts of working-through. For

many philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, we are

always working-through the very fact that we were born at all. We live
in the middle of working-through: remembering the source of trauma in
the pasteven when it is the buried, unconscious and primordial pain
of separation that occurs at the moment of birthwhile working-
beyond that past to prepare for the future. Working-beyond, the
desired result of getting closure, is a trope. The catharsis of closure,
whether it entails clarification, emotional purging, or forgetting, is a
figuration of transcendence, the something or the non-thing that lies
These tropes, however, also problematize the transcendence
associated with beyond. We link the word beyond with death,
release, heaven, eternity. Endings cannot contain threshold-situations
because they bleed over into the unknowable. Closure as a self-
consciously created world, an ontological world, leaves ghostly traces
of beginnings and endings, such as genesis and apocalypse. These
traces of closure, as Frank Kermode argues, offer consolation in
fictional endings. But they are paradigms for making sense of life that
continually wear out. The working-beyond of closure must produce
another trope of closure because endings are never ultimate.
Transcendent categories conceal perpetuated conflict, a surplus of
writing that moves all endings into an amorphous, transitional category
that I call the repository of mourning.
In the transfer of one charged scene of trauma to another the
work of mourning transforms the future not into the expenditure of
experience, but into a repository for the excess of trauma that the
transfer over time creates. Our experience of catharsis from trauma
superimposes other traumas that the original trauma generates just as
writing reaches endings that conceal the surplus of more writing the
energy of belatedness cannot contain and that is always, at the same
time, in a state of being written.

The repository for mourning is the white space of the page that
greets the ending of a text, but which also surrounds the text where we
displace, sublimate, project or interject loss and the threat of mortality.
This space is almost a Dionysian erasure of differentiation. The
repository is not fixed but moves mourning by conjuring from
obliteration another form. From the text frozen within and organizing
the blank of a pages space another conflict secretly arises that seeks
closure that the ending of this particularly text cannot achieve. The
repository of mourning destroys closure. It forms as a mechanism to
discharge the energy we expend over loss or lack so that we can
economize reserves of energy in preparation for further conflict.

Modernism and Postmodernism: from Eschatology to

Christianity equates the divine with concealment. The holy and

the sacred are always hidden, veiled like the host behind the curtain of
the tabernacle, concealed as if protected from transgression. Violating
divine secrets is tantamount to an act of sacrilege. As Kant indicates,
the sublime is tantamount to the prohibition against making
representations of God.
Since poetry is encoded by figurative language, it relates to the
sacred. There is the pervasive sense that meaning hides within a poem
like a secret. The secret and the sacred are inextricably linked. The
Latin word Ircanum means secret, conveying a root relationship
between secrecy and sacredness. Secrecy, something concealed and
set apart, imbues literary interpretation with a strain of religiosity.
Unlocking the secrets of a text becomes an inherently clerical task as
much as it is a dangerous one. Literary interpretation is religiously
haunted just as that which remains secret or concealed retains traces
of holy terror.
There is an interesting emphasis upon secrets in the Gospel of
Mark. Christ makes beguiling secret pacts with his disciples designed
to keep truth veiled. But secrecy cannot remain since revelation
requires an ultimate unveiling of truth. This is an ironic crux: salvation
and the new kingdom is already fully realized but revelation has not
yet come; the presence of God is both here and now while, at the same
time, yet to arrive. Revelation is always in the future. The parables
Christ uses to deliver his message exhort vigilance, to wait for the
kingdom to come. Believing does not entail seeing. Faith is a trusting
vigilance for the kyregma that remains in abeyance.

We assume that Christ utilizes parables to convey difficult

concepts in folksy allegories that make a single moral point. This is a
refined way in which to understand his parables that are more
disturbing than we like to think. Yet Christ is not a literary critic
anatomizing generic form. He tells his disciples that he uses parables
to confuse everyone.

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,

but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in
order that
they may indeed look, but not
And may indeed listen, but not
So that they may not turn again and be forgiven.
(Mark 4:10-12)

While he confuses the general public, Christ will explain everything to

his disciples, his insiders, in private. He wants to limit the secret of
the kingdom of heaven to a select circle and exclude everyone else
from his set. It is like a secret pact. Ironically his disciples do not
comprehend his private explanations either. The sacred secrets Christ
reveals only confuse the disciples, making even Christ frustrated. As
witnesses to the Word of God, it does not seem as though the disciples
are up to the task of testimony.3

3 At the same time as Christ tells his disciples that only a select few
have access to the secrets, Christ confesses to them uncertainty over
his messianic status. On his journey with his disciples to Caesarea
Phiippi, he asks them, Who do people say that I am? When Peter
gives several answers, Christ persists, But who do you say I am?
When Peter answers, You are the Messiah, Christ anxiously orders
them not to tell anyone about him. Once again, he forms a secret
pact. Doubly ironic, Christ wants to keep secrets while his own identity

In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode turns Mark 4:10-12

into a meditation on the relationship between biblical and literary
interpretation. He uses Christs secret pact as an example of the
critics labor of decoding texts. The parable forms an analogy for
Kermode to academia: there are certain people who are insiders to
the professors clerical work while the rest remain outsiders,
excluded from the meaning of literature. Christs arbitrary decision
about who has access to his secrets keeps outsiders dismayed and
frustrated. That which remains concealed or secret, like the
meaning of a poem, becomes imbued with divinity at the same time
as, like literary texts, Christs message is set aside, accessible only to
those granted the knowledge. Kermode concludes that Marks Gospel is
analogous to the irreducible mystery of the world. As we attempt to
understand the Gospel and come to grips with the world, our sole
hope and pleasure is in the perception of a momentary radiance,
before the door of disappointment is finally shut on us. In other words,
texts pose problems for interpretation toward which we create a sense
of meaning as opposed to equations of meaning. Texts remain always
open for disclosure.
Kermodes argument in Genesis of Secrecy is not without
problems. Since he treats Christs secret pact with his disciples
abstracted from its apocalyptic mode, Kermode misses the central
facet of futurity inherent in Marcan theology. Revelation to the few
concealed from the many is a common motif in Jewish apocalyptic
literature. A great deal of apocalyptic literature involves secrets
concealed from many and open only to the chosen. It is odd that
Kermode treats Christs secret pacts with his disciples detached from
apocalypse since eschatological coherence is his area of expertise. He
fails to place Christs message in the larger context of the crucifixion
when the Roman centurion recognizes the messiah after Christ cries

remains a secret to himself.


out in doubt to God at the moment before his death. Revelation

remains a secret in the present that must wait for a time of fulfillment
the kairoswhen truth is unveiled.
In Mark 4:10 and Marcan Epistemology, Joel Marcus points out
that Kermode confuses a gnostic tradition with an apocalyptic tradition.
Whereas Christianity recognizes God as arriving from the mystery of
the future, Marcus claims, In gnostic epistemology, however, the real
revelatory moment is at creation, and revelation in the present means
recapturing the original revelation. In apocalyptic literature, on the
other hand, the real revelatory moment is at the eschaton, and until
the eschaton the knowledge of even the elect can only be imperfect
(560 561). Mark 4:21-22 stresses that there is nothing concealed that
will not be revealed in an apocalyptic age to come. Referring to
Christs message as part of a Penultimate Age, Marcus insists that
Christ inhabits a space occurring before the fullness of revelation that
his time on earth summons. There are no secrets to be revealed about
the past because ultimate truth has not yet arrived. The time of Jesus
ministry on earth is a penultimate time, during which the disciples
comprehend something but do not have the full picture (568).
This is the maddening nature of apocalyptic knowledge inherent
in parables. The truth, the secrets revealed, is here and now. Christ is
the messiah, but he might not know this until the moment of his death
upon the cross. The full unveiling awaits a future when death promises
the redemption and fulfillment of time into eternity. To the extent that
divine secrets will not be revealed until a final unveiling upon death,
Kermode is right. We are all outsiders to both Marks gospel. In
Christian eschatology, however, salvation and resurrection are here
and now, but we still must wait while we are in this world for the
pleroma of life everlasting. We exist in the circle from where we cannot
see its full circumference, inhabiting only a part of the whole. Christs
irony, therefore, is that we are in fact within the circle he forms with his

disciples, waiting for the truth that remains to arrive from the future.
To have faith entails surrendering to the future that always comes and
yet always remains a mystery.
That we comprehend something but do not have the full picture also
informs the activity of literary interpretation. Apocalypse haunts
Jacques Derrida starting in the 1980s and up until his death. After
writing Specters of Marx, Derrida locates presence in the not yet, in a
time-to-come. Derridas work seems to search for the something else,
a surplus that remains unaccountable by more parasitic practices of
deconstruction and for which we do not have a full picture because this
thing, this something, comes from the deferral of meaning not yet
realized. For Ernst Bloch Utopia does not mean no place but a place
defined by what is yet to be. Apocalypse is a presence paradoxically
because of its promise to be so. For Derrida this future that is yet to be
present, and therefore does not have presence, becomes the only
possibility for a metaphysical presence.
No matter how far we take deconstruction, and no matter how
far theory pushes its own practice into a mode of imaginative writing
the displaces fiction, the issue of presence remains vexed. We can
neither affirm nor deny belief; and we cannot erase presence that
refuses to disappear under the oftentimes more powerful allure of
absence or erasure.
We are now in a position to look back upon the past century to
recognize the sublime level of unknowingness so powerfully
characteristic of its literature. It is, of course, a Christian virtue to
eschew pride and to be conscious of the extent to which one is

Something here about romanticism


Whereas the Romantic poets personalize biblical apocalypse, the

modernists interiorize end-time into the unconscious and recast it into
various forms of post-apocalypse. Unknowingness takes on a far more
ironic tone in the literature of the past century. Poets assume a stance
of unknowingness aware of a truth that eludes them or a secret too
difficult to verbalize.
The twenty and twenty-first centuries reveal a prevalence of
voices in poetry and fiction that speak to surviving a nightmare world
when everything suggests they should not have. Before the late
nineteenth century, poets try to reconcile experience with
transcendence in a sort-of trust that coherence underlies the
contingency and mutability of life. Twentieth-century literature,
however, tends to occupy an ironic stance of hapless unknowingness in
a cosmos that is as brutal and uncanny as it is indifferent to the desire
for poetic redemption. Whereas literature until the nineteenth-century
assumed an author or a poet has the ability to understand the world
Whatever is, is right, Pope concludestwentieth-century writers
occupy a rhetorical stance of unknowingness. Whatever is, is
indefinable, unavailable for interpretation. W.B. Yeats The Second
Coming mirrors a pattern that repeats in a lot of literature that
confronts the inexplicable: catastrophe undermines the coherence one
expects from the world; one anticipates the coherence of a Christian
metanarrative to come to the rescue; but instead one comes to realize
that all one knows is how much one does not know; one attempts,
then, to work-beyond the trauma of unknowingness by reconfiguring
ones epistemological grounding. And finally, in postmodern literature,
one attempts to work-beyond crisis by creating an alter mundus,
another possible world, a new ontology.

The speaker in twentieth-century fiction discovers that his or her

assumptions about the world become destroyed by its inexplicability.
There is no equanimity between self and nature, self and cosmos.
Characters search for a home, physical and spiritual, but find
themselves stuck in a world without maps to guide them. Or, in the
case of Marlow in Conrads Heart of Darkness, the map is filled with
blanks and the journey ahead is serpentine, an arabesque.
Written at the very end of the nineteenth century, Heart of
Darkness continues to haunt us. It remains at the center of the
modernist canon because it prefigures postmodern nihilism so well that
it feels like it is about our world. At the same time it remains rooted in
the nineteenth-century and the Victorian desire for order and progress
that modernism inherits in its ravaged forms. Heart of Darkness
emerges from a Victorian era of millennial hope indicative of
imperialism, a time for which we have no living memory but that
persists into our own capitalist fever that transforms history into
nightmare and from which we wish, like Stephen Daedalus, to awaken.
The novel is not about statement but the impossibility of
statement. Belgium and Leopold IIs atrocities are there, but they
become part of the parabolic mode of Marlows impossible quest for
knowledge. It is all about an aesthetic-of-the-unknowing as Conrad
packages the nature of parable and apocalyptic knowledge into a
complex transmission of stories.
The title of the novel suggests Marlows inward draw toward a
center. The nature of inner / outer is reflected in the narrators
description of Marlows technique for telling a story.
The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole
meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But
Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be
excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not
inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which

brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the

likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are
made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
**In the parabolic and ultimately apocalyptic nature of the novel, the
meaning of the story is something one circles toward from the outside
while the center can never be reached. The inside, the kernel, is the
site of meaning that is also the site of annihilation. Meaning only
arrives at the end of life that one must evade in order to survive if one
must be a storyteller in the first place. The Heart of Darkness is an
allegory about Marlows survival from trauma that he must put into
words, but the meaning of his experience fails him. The gap between
the literal and the figural become irreconcilable except as an allegory
of the ways in which we try to explain the structure of that gap itself.
As Marlows journey to rescue the elusive Kurtz takes him into
the center of Africa it also takes him to the abyss of humanity
represented by the injustice of the ivory trade. The primitivism that
surrounds him conjures kinship between the human and brute forces
Freud argues we must repress to maintain civilization.
It was unearthly, and the men wereNo, they were not
inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of itthe
suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly
to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made
horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of
their humanitylike yoursthe thought of your remote
kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it
was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would
admit to yourself that there was in you just the trace of a
response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim
suspicion of there being a meaning in it which youyou so
remote from the night of first agescould comprehend.
And why not?

Encountering soulless imperial administrators, the hollow men,

Marlow transforms humanity into the savages he discovers on his
journey to the Inner Post. Although he feels an uncanny kinship with
the natives, Marlow admits, as he often does, that his perceptions of
reality are greatly limited. He does not know and yearns for an
oracle, imagining Kurtz, who the hollow men disdain, will reveal truths
that only his position in the jungle beyond everyone else physically
and emotionally can provide. In the end Marlow must admit his failure
to embrace nihilism, only halfheartedly affirming the darkness, which
leaves him in a state of ambivalence. To jump over the edge of the
abyss would mean death; pulling back means the unknowingness of
survivorship. The novel places one in the agonizing position between
annihilation and survival, the middling space where suffering endures.
Everything in the novel hovers with ambivalent antinomies.
Marlow is torn between revealing the horror, and perpetuating
the myth of Kurtzs magnificence. Repression wins, but not without the
shock of its return. Kurtzs pamphlet concerning the Westernizing of
natives with which he entrusts Marlow in the hope for a heroic legacy
has the words Exterminate all the brutes scribbled at the end.
Marlow gives the manuscript to Kurtzs cousin, who is eager to
perpetuate the spurious story of the great man, but reluctantly rips out
the scribbled addendum, revising the story of the upright British man
who, removed from civilization, rises to brute power and enslaves
the natives who worship him and find him vast amounts of ivory. Until
he tells the story to his disciples on the Nellie, Marlow is inclined to
maintain the secret.
Kurtzs unequivocal submission to desire and destruction
juxtaposed to Marlows ambivalence, the need to maintain propriety,
make Marlow admire the man.
I was within a hairs-breadth of the last opportunity for
pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably

I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm

that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to
say. He said it . . . He summed uphe had judged. The
horror! He was a remarkable man.
His admiration reads like aesthetic appreciation uncomfortably
disinterested in response to a creature like Kurtz. But that is the whole
point of the novels equivocation. Marlows moral judgment goes to the
obscurantism that troubles many readers of the novel. It is not the
horrific journey up the Congo and the atrocities of the ivory trade that
traumatizes Marlow. There is nothing obscure about the consequences
of unbridled imperialism that litter the winding river. He is traumatized
by his own ambivalence. Such equivocation frustrates our current and
political desire for literature of statement. We have grown
uncomfortable with gaps between the figural and the literal. The
reader with social ideals wishes Marlow would arrive at plain old
political outrage. Although he expresses outrage at the hollow men
on the journey upriver, his ambiguity smacks of imperial apathy. It is
an affront to most readers need for socio-political redemption that,
despite Kurtzs unspeakable acts and his desire to exterminate all
the brutes, Marlow believes his final words, the horror, represent
moral triumph. For the reader hungering for liberal humanism
juxtaposed to colonial absolutism, Marlows responses come across as
inhumane. If Marlow could somehow evince even a glimmer of
conversion to liberal humanism, however, it would pervade the novel
with coherence a reader wishes to impose upon the novel. The gap
between the figural and the literal would narrow, and the novel would
lose its timelessness. It would become statement. The novel is all
about ambiguity made more obscure by Marlows radical ambivalence.
There is no direction for one to move that does not come without
occupying the position of a totalizing ideology, which is why Marlow
dithers on the boarders between truths and lies, speech and silence,

hesitation and submission. This is a world in which to survive means to

equivocate, but equivocation occludes the truth. Instead of joining
Kurtz in nihilistic resignation, Marlow, like the speaker in The Second
Coming, revels in a nearly impossible impressionism, turning the
ambivalent middling space between the Christian extremes of life and
death as the vital ground to wage artistic battle.
Ambivalence torments Marlow, and, like the mariner of
Coleridges poem, he must unburden the story he covets as a secret.
His story is really a confession: whereas Kurtz submits to the ultimate
nihilism that lurks beneath the veneer of civilization, Marlow can only
witness the darkness and pull back from its abysmal center. True,
Marlow says, he made that last stride, had stepped over the edge,
while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. Marlow
admits that the abyss seduces him but, unlike Kurtz, he has survived
because, hesitating, he refused to enter. He relinquishes access to
the secret he believes rests within the center or the heart into which
Kurtz plunges.
And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the
wisdom, and all the truth, and all the sincerity, are just
compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in
which we step over the threshold of the invisible.
The secret Marlow has been coveting since his odyssey is not
necessarily Kurtzs barbarity, but his own moral judgment in response
to Kurtzs affirmation of nihilism. His story to his shipmates constitutes
a confession in the form of testimony to what he has bourn witness. His
final act of revision before he confesses on the Nellie is the famous lie
to Kurtzs Intended (despite the fact that Marlow believes that there is
nothing worse in the world than a lie), telling her that Kurtzs last words
were her name. Ultimately Marlow feels like a failure because he could
not commit the consummately nihilistic act of destroying the
Intendeds perfectly arranged world of Edwardian mannerisms by

shoving the truth of the horror in her face: her townhouse, parlor,
grand piano (the keys made of ivory, of course), and her ridiculous
appellation, Intended. But I couldnt, Marlow confesses in the final
words of his story. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark
too altogether dark. Theres an awkward let down to his final words to
the shipmates. They sound like a flimsy and melodramatic conclusion
to his experience. They sound like aesthetic failure. Repressing the
instinct to destroy the Intended just as he must repress his desire to
join Kurtz in the darkness and destroy himself, he perpetuates the
myth of Kurtzand the myth of a civilized Westto protect the
Intendeds belief that an ultimate and essentially good coherence
underwrites the world. Of course your future husbands last words in
the tragic ending to his heroic life would be your name! he seems to
exclaim to her. We never learn her name because she is metonymic of
Kurtzs possessionsMy Intended, my ivory, my station, my river. In
protecting the Intended from the truth, Marlow ultimately protects
himself from the traumatic realization of his own destructive instinct
that signifies the thin veil between civilization and destruction.
Conrads genius in this novel is not necessarily the
impressionistic technique of the writing, which can be overbearingly
obscure and melodramatic. One cannot help but admit that Conrad
lays on the opaque adjectives rather thickly. The genius is the oblique
narrative technique by which the story transmits from narrator to
narrator in the manner of a parable. Marlow does not directly tell us
the story. The I of the novel is not Marlows but an unnamed first
person narrator who lurks on the sidelines of Marlows audience. He
lingers like an anonymous bystander who must nonetheless bear
testimony to the trauma that Marlow recounts. In the common
definition of a witness, he stands in for the person to whom experience
directly relates in order to give testimony; but he is so anonymous that
we forget that it is essentially his story, his testimony. Its

transformation (or should we call it transference?) from oral to verbal

testimony attests to the narrators need to confess its mystery. He
stands in as witness as though summoned to transmit a story, prodded
on by some unconscious need to make Marlows dream-like account
solid. Turning the novel into a second persons account of anothers
story deepens the impressionistic obscurity, but it also contains and
controls the impressionism into form, a framed narrative, a drama
about bearing witness and recording evidence. When the narrator
relinquishes the narrative to Marlow he sets his story aside in quotation
marks in order to create a semblance of authenticity. The narrator
functions as Marlows interlocutor, associated with the reader who
must approximate a sense of meaning from Marlows stuttering
narrative. To deepen the inflections of parable, we become the third
person in the story as the witness, three times removed from the
traumatic events. Plato would have had a heart attack! Ultimately the
novel becomes a parable about parables, a meta-parable, about the
difficulties inherent in transmitting a story whose subject is
inexplicable. Like Christ of the Gospel of Mark, there are insiders to the
secret who do not understand what is revealed, and the rest of us are
the poor and frustrated outsiders.
The framed narrative with its succession of storytellers makes
The Heart of Darkness read like Christs ironic secret pact with his
disciples. There is a group of disciples, the shipmates on the Nellie,
who circle around Marlow who promises to reveal the secrets to the
parable that remain inscrutable. And, as several interruptions in his
story testify, the disciples seem at times unable to comprehend
Marlows story, echoing the readers own outrage at its obscurantism.
The source of Marlows trauma grows increasingly sublime and veiled
in the secrecy of apocalyptic knowledge that sits in the middle and
knows as the story passes down from Kurtz to Marlow, from Marlow to
the Intended, from Marlow to the unnamed narrator amongst the crew

of the Nellie, and from the unnamed narrator to us, the reader.
Marlows narrative might move into the center, the Inner Post, the
heart of darkness, but it spirals out from that circumscribed center into
an ever-widening circle of interlocutors. The novel, therefore, becomes
a meditation upon witnessing, giving testimony, and the claims to truth
of testimony. The question that nags at the center of the novel is the
same one that nags at the center of trauma: how much closer does
one get to the heart of trauma by repeating the story? Or does the
return to disturbing experience perpetuate its conflict into other forms
as repetition compulsion propels difference instead of identity? Does
trauma gravitate toward the pole of the real or does it remain
centrifugally figural? Each retelling of a traumatic story does not
replicate the story, but transforms it into a disseminated narrative
relinquished to a web of expanding interlocutors and expanding
In his narration of the events to his crewmates, Marlow must
recreate the absent Kurtz who never becomes a determinate presence
for us. Kurtz is all mythical surface, all figural. He forms an annihilating
depth ironically because he remains so shallow and opaque. This is
because Kurtz, like Yeats rough beast, is a dream manifestation, a
composite of all that is alluring and repulsive to Marlow about the
world he finds himself mired in ambivalently and toward which he
wants some kind of redemption. Marlows retelling of the story
resembles a patients attempt at recounting a dream. It is no surprise
that Marlow repeatedly refers to his experience to his shipmates in
terms of the sublime experience of a dream.
Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me
I am trying to tell you a dreammaking a vain attempt,
because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-
sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and
bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, the notion of

being captured by the incredible which is the very essence

of dreams.
Marlows irritation echoes Christs frustration with his disciples. Having
eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you
not remember?
In order to redeem himself from lying, Marlow must return to the
repressed experience and repeat the trauma. He must return to the
dream and attempt to put the dream-sensation into words.
Recounting the journey to his shipmates, however, Marlow comes to
realize the impossibility to tell a story when you cannot make it refer to
a coherent world, so he continually falls back upon the futile effort to
make the dream-sensation real that results in exhausted muttering
about nihilism that constitutes the unformed space between the
figural. Droll thing life isthat mysterious arrangement of merciless
logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some
knowledge of yourselfthat comes too latea crop of
unextinguishable regrets. Marlow stumbles to find the language to
express the trauma of his experience, but the more he speaks, the
more that the centripetal force of aporia draws him into the resigned
language of unknowingness. In his desperate attempt to make his
audience see Kurtz, we realize that Kurtz himself is the least defined
figure in the story because he remains a source of Marlows dreams,
slouching towards England waiting to be born.
Like any witness giving testimony to trauma, Marlow misses the
mark. Revising his story about Kurtz during the year after his return
from Africa, Marlow is very aware of and uncomfortable with the fact
that his revisions turn his testimony into fiction. Marlow is a storyteller
who cannot abide a lie. A spinner of yarns, he is nonetheless
disgusted by the fabrication that goes into telling tales. A great part of
the work he must do in order to work-beyond his trauma is to accept
the fictional frame in which he must place experience, but he resents

doing so. Just as he had failed to tell the truth to Kurtzs Intended, he
fails to articulate the truth to his shipmates. He must compensate for
his inability to articulate experience and to redeem himself from his lie
by aestheticizing his experience. He must trope the experience. As a
result, like anyone giving testimony to trauma, he must protect himself
from the truth of the horror he does not understand by insuring that it
remains a story. Whereas Kurtz implodes within the abyss of his
selfhood with his eyes fixed on horror, Marlow is forced to interminably
repeat his story because he survives.
Theory encounters the same centripetal and centrifugal forces
that direct meaning in the examples of Yeats and Conrad. As the world
seems to fall apart, we attempt to circle back into the text, return to
the scenes of trauma, retell the story. We are compelled to get the
story of catastrophe right, but the verbal expression of experience
inevitably turns testimony into figuration. And if tropes are rhetorical
means by which to defamliarize language, verbal expression of
experience inevitably gets the story wrong. We reinterpret and
reimagine a world that seems to grow increasingly catastrophic by
working-towards the source of how we have reached the place we are
in now, hoping to work-beyond our particular predicament. Critical
theory, which evolved out of an attempt to contend with lost absolutes,
the slow death of God, and to transform the chaos of a war-ridden
world in the twentieth-century by recapitulating Enlightenment
rationalism and Kantian disinterestedness, confronts our contemporary
traumas. But theory also reflects our postmodern state of shock at a
world emptied of transcendence and, having lost the task to complete
the mourning over decentered logos, continues to deny its necessary
failure. Theory, in its efforts to change a world ready for revolution,
failed, and instead perpetuated its desire to substitute aesthetics by
trying hysterically to escape its displaced theology.

The trauma theorist and the religion and literature theorist is a

Marlow figure. He or she is caught in the ambivalent space between
affirming metaphysical presencethe hope for stable epistemology
and affirming absence and the rhetorical fabric (or yarn) we spin to
create a plural ontology to hold us above the abyssthe traumatic
realization of a revolution that never happenedor to use Amy
Hungerfords term for postmodern belief, to discover belief in the
meaningless. He or she pokes into the sublime darkness of existence
and serves as a witness to catastrophe, hoping for something beyond
that which language desperately attempts to signify. As in Heart of
Darkness, the source of trauma, like revelation from a series of
parables, arrives from a succession of transmitted stories. Most trauma
theorists, like the critic who becomes mired in literary theodicies,
discover that catastrophe remains inexplicable, its excesses
transforming it into sublime obscurantism of Heart of Darkness.
Therefore the only way in which to understand and express the
horror is to assume Marlows stance and to trope the experience, or,
like the unnamed narrator, misread the story and turn trauma into
fiction. Either way, each voice attempts to find a fiction that will
suffice, to use Wallace Stevens term.
Theory is ultimately a failure, but its a necessary fiction that
suffices as much as it is a necessary failure that must keep repeating
its failures nonetheless. Just as Freud made offhand admissions that
poetry understood the psyche better than science, a theory of trauma
must ultimately yield to its fictions. This is not necessarily good news if
we want to arrive at an empiricist (or even a rationalist) understanding
of the psychic and spiritual wounds that afflict us and do so in an
increasing manner. Although Marlow sounds continually weary and
resigned to the unknowingness of experience, he stumbles on in his
attempt to make his shipmates see. What the unnamed narrator
sees as a witness is merely an extension of the encroaching darkness

that Marlow expresses, occluding a clear vision of the trauma Marlow

attempts to convey.
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the
tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the
earth flowed somber under an overcast skyseemed to
lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
The unnamed narrator becomes an enfeebled metonym of Marlows
The Heart of Darkness is a novel about repetition compulsion,
but Marlows story is repetition with a difference. The novel ends with
the narrator who must pick up where Marlow left off by retelling a story
Marlow got wrong the first time. Marlow does not get it right the
second time. It is unlikely that the unnamed narrator will get it right
either, judging from the way he mimics Marlows despairing vision of
the ineffable. Further, it grows apparent that we, the final recipients of
the transmitted story, will fail to understand the heart of darkness
unless we want to enter Kurtzs abyssand there are plenty of ways
our imagination could conjure to do so! Trauma theory and religion and
literature must recognize that our examination of disturbing and
inexplicable experience always entails revision and misprision, a
projection of our own desires that conflict with truth unless we want to
become a mortal victim as opposed to a crippled survivor. Keep in
mind that Marlow never sees the natives he encounters as unique or
equal people, but as extensions of his own recognition of a primitive
nature within himself. (As I suggested, it is ludicrous for us to expect
from this fiction that he would do otherwise.) In the vein of Marlows
impressionism, everything is metonymic. Likewise, he can only see
Kurtz as the primal instinct for destruction, a pure manifestation of the
Id that makes Marlow feel like a failure since he cannot submit to it
with Kurtzs completeness. Kurtz is all self-realizing metaphor. He has
troped himself into his own oblivion.

Ultimately the goal of literary interpretation in a religious vein

or any vein for that matteris not to reach equations of meaning, but
to reach a sense of meaning. And Conrads impressionism is a perfect
interpretive battleground to experience the impossibility to equate the
figural and the literal. Kurtzs consummate nihilism, the annihilating
realm of the Real, equals death. Testimony to trauma can only
approximate the experience, which is why trauma and catastrophe
finds a fitting home in fiction just as I have been arguing it dwells
within as much as it derives from religious experience. Fiction allows
the ineffable a frame in which a reader, who stands as a witness like
the unnamed narrator in Conrads novel, willingly suspends disbelief.
The more that Marlow enters the depths of Africa, the more he
transgresses psychic thresholds, but he pulls back not because he is
lucky enough but because he must. In a post-apocalyptic world we
are all survivors having pulled back from the edge upon which all
literature treads.
Conrad is aware that authors of literature enter perilous realms,
like his sea voyagers. The ocean, as in Hart Cranes poetry, represents
dangerous crossings into the sublime. Freud called the sublime nature
of the imagination oceanic. Readers of literature enter fictional
worlds at their peril too, as I have argued. Theory, at least in its strong
work as theoria, crosses a threshold of knowledge into sublime
unknowingness. It is an act of transgression whose only reward is
punishment for the desire to know, or knowledge, while knowing that
the only imperative is to voyage ahead nonetheless. It dares to frame
fearful symmetries and the result is that theory in of itself becomes
both a religious and a traumatic enterprise. The exploration of trauma
traces sublime thresholds in order to work-through the horror in an
attempt to find the language of working-beyond trauma. The language
used to work-beyond becomes the language that speaks beyond itself.
As such it at once testifies to the impossibility of reading and the

impossibility of testimony itself. Once the mysterium tremendum

becomes fascinans, a movement that political readings attempt to do
to rationalize the numinous within the novel, we engage an
unfortunate endeavor to turn literature into therapy that comforts us
with the belief that the limit-situations of life have equations of
meaning. Conrad resists this at every moment in the novel. He
compels us to engage perilous reading more conducive to the
disjuncture and disconsolations of Freud than the bogus joys of
American Ego psychology.

Postmodernism to Contemporary Literature:

from Apocalypse to PTSD

For the past two centuries or more we have grown to privilege

literatures power to psychically mend our wounds. We believe that
reading literature is tantamount to mental hygiene. ***By reversing the
opposition between mend and wound we can provisionally privilege the

psychic rupture literature causes. By prioritizing wound, we can

examine how literature works-through trauma to perpetuate conflict in
a challenge to our assumptions about the world. The content of
literature wounds and re-wounds experience whereas its teleological
form, the temporal economy of a work, gives the appearance of
closure. Most people refuse to read literature because it does not
deliver pleasure in a simple expenditure of psychic energy.

To return to Harold Blooms Gnostic paradigm of crisis-poetry: in

the twenty-first century when we exist always at the transitional end of
serial catastrophe, the tropes that make brokenness appear mended
have worn out. We cannot maintain the paradigms of closure because
we have neither adjusted to nor caught up with hyperkinetic clearing
spaces for aesthetic consciousness that had once, as recently as a few
decades ago, allowed for more self-consciousness concerning the
temporal distention between past and future. The temporal
condensation of a hyperkinetic age of technological mimesis has
allowed for the mediate and immediate experience of trauma to
superimpose, creating something akin to temporal transumption.

The blueprint of tragedy for Steiner and other formal critics is the
Fall of Man. As Northrop Frye argues in The Great Code, the Christian
narrative forms a descending and ascending arc of experience, or a U-
shaped curve. Humankind begins in paradise, falls into the abyss, and
is redeemed with the restoration of paradise in the end. Comedy,
therefore, is inherently divine since the cohesion of social inclusion
banishes death. Tragedy asserts that the human irreparably fallen. As
Steiner argues, tragedy portrays the crime of man that he is, that he

exists. His naked presence and identity are transgressions . . . To come

into the world is to come into torture and death (129). Refusing the
comic and redemptive vision of Christianity, tragedy is a vision of an
intolerable life.

Our loose but powerful usage of the term tragedy to describe

multifarious experience is symptomatic of not only our tragic
sensibility, but also our traumatic disposition toward life that has
increased over the past century.

The consoling nature of fiction and a belief in eschatology signify life

as we wish it to be, Freud seems to tell us. Fiction mirrors our own
conflicts because characters work out theirs toward a resolution.
Clarence Walthout argues that fiction allows us to explore ways of
understanding the teleology of action and the possibilities of moving
from conflict to resolution (126). The conflict fiction represents,
Aristotle claims, does not necessarily reflect life as is, but life as it
could be. Likewise, fiction does not necessarily give us knowledge
about past human actions for Kermode, but to educe the forms of a

Aesthetic form is distinct from actual trauma. Whereas dramatic

representation has entelechy, the elements that structure a play into a
temporally cohesive whole, victims of trauma live with past events that
do not proceed through to completion. Trauma is bereft of teleology.

Although traumatic experience must be represented, it does not have

inherent literary form. Therefore, trauma continues into the present to
remain current in every respect. In fact the catharsis is always, like
sublime experience, temporary. There remains something else after we
release traumatic stimulation.
The gap between the actual and the aesthetic increasingly narrows in
our contemporary world, making the boundary between catastrophe
and fiction permeable. The instant videography of 9/11 alone testifies
to the immediate conflation of actual experience and its aesthetic
representation. Within moments of the two explosions of the World
Trade Center the terrorist attacks became a tragic production. The
ancient Greeks never confused the tragedy of a play with
circumstances in the actual world. Both were discrete categories of
experience. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, we apply the term
tragedy to a vast array of actual experience. Trauma and aesthetics
conflate in our contemporary world in ways that have never occurred
in history. Trauma victims are also tragic figures such that trauma has
become not only our actual condition but also our literary ethos.

There is no means by which we can gain closure or transcendence in

an epistemological sense. One can only create ontological or imaginary
spaces of closure to question the various worlds in which we liveand
the different worlds catastrophe createand the many selves that
evolve from inhabiting worlds.

In many respects Freud is a tragedian who not only reimagines

catharsis in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but also forces us to rethink
eschatology in light of our existential position caught between the
ultimate beginnings and endings that preoccupy theology.

In many ways psychoanalysis secularizes the Judeo-Christian struggle

between body and spirit. Freuds ideas extend and demythologize the
search for the soul humans conducted up until the nineteenth century.
His economy of the unconscious rewrites psychomachia: demonic
urges of the flesh struggle with the minds angelic defenses. The ego
wages battle with the id to gain mastery while the superego dictates
our moral negotiations in the world. Further, we are all victims of a
historically predetermined fall from grace. The psychosexual trauma of
the Oedipal dynamic forms the original event of a structural trauma
akin to Adams fall. Terry Eagleton claims, In this, [psychoanalysis] has
a good deal in common with what theologians know as original sin
(Event 212). The Adamic blueprint, Steiner writes, however
secularized, is unmistakable (New Lit. History, Winter 2004, 3).

Since the development of Romanticism in the late eighteenth

century, there has been a great psychological shift in he means by
which stories conclude. Although these shifts and complexities in
narrative closure have been evident since the beginning of story-
telling, the difference in the twentieth century is that authors and
critics become preternaturally self-conscious about narrative and
narrative endings. Modern narratives now close with what I will
tentatively call pseudo-endings. In the works I will begin exploring in
Part II, I see three general means by which narrative endings take form.
1) The story ends in a shocking act of violence, a sudden eruption in
the plot, or an epiphany that is normally unsettling; 2) the story
becomes circular, ending where it begins and beginning where it ends,
often as a means to evade the eschatological force of a linear,
providential plot or to reveal mythical or archetypal patterns; 3) and
most prevalently than the first two, a narrator makes a self-conscious
virtue out of the fact that nothing has been resolved in the narrative,

that the story has gone nowhere. Nonetheless, narrators who end a
narrative in radical irresolution create an odd epistemological or
ontological affirmation because of or in spite of irresolution. As we will
see, these three paradigms of narrative endings often overlapa
shocking ending can also create an irresolute ending, like horrifying
death of Pinkie in Greenes Brighton Rock; or an ending in which
nothing has been resolved can evolve out of a circular ending that has
gone nowhere, as in Waughs Decline and Fall. Even more complex, a
shocking ending, such as Sandy Strangers betrayal of Miss Brodie, can
lead to a circular ending: the novel ends where we began, with a vision
of Sandy behind the bars of a monastery.
The current age of critical methodology in which master-
narratives, organic unity and totalization has broken down for
discontinuity, irresolution and plurality has been loosely called
postmodern. The postmodern is in of itself an irresolute term:
post implies after, but with no indication of what is next. The term
is, in many ways, an overstatement, since any present time is always
modern, and we are always post time, coming after or proceeding
from a past. But postmodern is also a strangely oxymoron. In the
narrowest sense, modern means current, so that to designate our
time as coming after current time is to imagine that we live in a
proleptic era, a time in which what we experience in the present is the
future that has not yet happened. The least ambivalent interpretation
of postmodernism is that it indicates the end of an era and that the
postmodern marks an interim period before the beginning of a new
era. Hence, postmodernism is apocalyptic, if not in a Christian
millenarian sense, at least in a sense of crisis. Although
postmodernism is generally characterized by crisis brought about by
change and cataclysm in the contemporary worldthe decadence that
precedes the renewal of the world, such as the dropping of the atomic
bombs on Japan opened the atomic worlda feeling that ones era is

crisis-oriented is as old as Judeo-Christian tradition itself. We can see

the exigency of end-time in the intense and ambivalent ending of
Marks gospel. The apocalyptic ushers in a new world, but redemption
is possible only after the destruction of the old world. But today we
generally do not imagine the birth of a new kingdom, a New Jerusalem,
after the end of the world. World War I was not the war to end all wars,
but a transition to an even more horrific warand World War II
transitions to the absurdity of the atomic era when for the first time in
human history we have the power to annihilate the existence of all
humankind. The twentieth century poetic vision in response to the
atomic age tends to be nihilistic, reflecting Yeats rough beast
slouching towards a new but monstrous birth.
The shift from a belief in a cosmic apocalypse to a personal and
earthly ending is the result of giant paradigm shifts in our relationship
with the divine in the past two centuries. Philosophy and theology has
given up an attempt at proving the existence of a transcendent God. A
human sense of a benevolent and providential God dies in a century of
atrocity. It is difficult for both a novelist and a theologian to speak of
God with the same sense of hope, progress and positivism inherent in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the two centuries
preceding the twentieth, industrial, scientific and colonial progress
compelled the Western world to believe that they had a divine
mandate, that theirs was the providential civilization. But the Western
worlds sense of destiny was shattered by the horrors of World War I.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in Theology of Hope claims:
The millenarian hope transported what was eschatological
into history and imbued what was historical with messianic
passion . . . between 1914 and 1918, in the
annihilating battles of the First World War, the messianic
dreams of England, Germany, Russia and France turned into
apocalyptic nightmares of death . . . Just as

millenarianism draws eschatology into history in a

positive sense, in order to establish the kingdom of God
already here on earth . . . modern apocalyptic draws
eschatology into history in a negative sense, in order
already here on earth to enact the nuclear
Armegeddon (4-5).
When Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, he was not making
an historical proclamation from divine revelation but revealing a
cultural reality that the age of Christianity is rapidly coming to an end.
God has ceased to provide for unbelief. It would be a mistake to read
Nietzsches declaration as metaphysical doctrine. He wanted to
articulate melodramatically a direction and tone of culture. Nietzsche
announced a great refusal which the modern human had made. The
death of belief in a transcendent and providential God has led many
critics to call this a post-Christian era. Generally, the notion that our
age is post-Christian leads writers to inevitably equate the decline of
religion with existential grief. Nels F.S. Ferre says:
Modern man not only grovels in despair. Nihilism is the
style. All of a sudden the happy ending is taboo
throughout the whole world of literature . . . In religion too
there is a fad, if not a full-scale fashion, to announce the death
of the gods. The post-Christian era is upon us. Modern man, we
hear, has once for all outgrown Christian ideology (Finality
of Faith 6).
For many theologians who had to face an existential crisis in
theology in the twentieth century, the general shift away from belief in
a cosmological, ontological and metaphysical God could also be,
interestingly, the cause for creative celebration. As Thomas Altizer in
Death of God Theology claims, God must die in the world so that he
can be born in us (xi). The death of a transcendent God beyond us
gives birth to God immanent within us, in some ways a death that

gives fulfillment to Martin Luthers notion of the individual believer.

The emphasis in theology, reflected in literature, shifts form a
transcendent God to the incarnate God, the God born into history in
Jesus Christ. Frederick Hoffman claims:
One of the great metaphorical gestures is that of
maneuvering the metaphysical properties of the
Trinity into areas of secular improvisation
. . .God . . . is dropped from mans calculations as
unmanageable or too remote from the immediate needs
of self-adjustment to be tolerated with confidence.
Christ, the middle figure of the Trinity, gains immensely in
the exchange; and the human imagination is most active in
inventing new roles and settings for Him (319).
In our current post-modern, apocalypticwhateverage of
liminal belief, there appears to be as much to mourn as there is to
celebrate concerning the shift in our perception of God that Nietzsche
had prophesied. Christian vision suffers both loss and gains that
become reflected in paradoxical ways in literature. We have suffered
from a great loss of spirit as a result of the death of a transcendent,
providential and benevolent God; no longer can we rely naively upon
comforting myths of the past. At the same time, one of the greatest
developments in modern history is an emphasis upon the incarnation,
or the affirmation of the ordinary, that is a result of a secularized
culture. Revelation no longer comes mystically from above and only
for a select few or an elect. We experience the spiritual subjectively
from what Heidegger in Being and Time calls being-within-the-world.
The immanence of God makes fills our experience and our world with
sacramental signs that we must read and interpret. In short,
theological and literary thinking since the end of World War II tends
toward immanentist aesthetics.

The Two Narratives of the State of Literature

In a time that feels broken and yearning for easy closure, can
literature help? Can literature heal our wounds? Make us feel whole?
Can literature make us better people? These seem like goofy
questions, but they never fail to pester critical consciousness
Ever since Sir Philip Sidney wrote A Defense of Poesie, there has
been a subgenre of critical writing that defends literature by extoling
the virtues of poetry. From Wordsworths Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,
Shellys Defense of Poetry, Eliots Tradition and the Individual Talent
to Mark Edmundsons Why Reading? writers have sought to elevate
reading and interpretation to a nearly priestly occupation. The
defensive posture toward the value of literature increases as its
function in an increasingly industrialized and technologized culture
comes under question. What does literature do? is the perennial
question. What can literature do for me? What is the utility of
In the past decade this defensive genre has grown exponentially.
Dozens of books have come out with titles that resemble the self-help
genre of getting closure. How to Read Literature, How to Read a Poem,
How to Read Novels Like a Professor, How Literature Saved my Life
. . . And there are the why titles, such as Why Reading? Why
Literature? And recently a subgenre of the memoir has been growing in
which people explore the impact of reading literature on their lives. A
woman recently wrote her account of reading a classic work of
literature everyday for one year as a means to work through the
mourning over the death of her sister. A journalist near retirement went

back to Columbia, his alma mater, to retake the courses in Western

literature he had to take as a freshman, and wrote a bestseller about
the experience.
One would think that people had never been more enthusiastic
about literature. People want to read. And people want to read deeply
and closely. Based upon the Thomas Forresters surprisingly popular
books, people want to read like a professor, for some bizarre reason.
(As a professor I implore you, dont try to read like a professor.) Not
only that, but based upon the even more surprising success of Edward
Hirschs exceedingly enthusiastic book, How to Read and Fall in Love
with Poetry, people want to read poetry. Book clubs have never been
more numerous and diehard. The publishing industry increasingly
caters to members of book clubs, offering comments and advice for
group discussion at the endings of novels. Further, it would seem that
there is interest amongst the layperson to read and understand dense
academic argumentation on literature, evidenced by Harold Blooms
tomes that chart appreciative but complex criticism of the Western
canon and top the New York Times bestseller lists (to the ire and
jealousy of English professors). People want to know what to read and
how to read.
Not only that, but people want to write. Legions of writers in the
past couple of decades from humble backgrounds least likely to pursue
such a laborious venture have been writing novels and memoirs. MFA
programs, most of them granting a nominally useful degree after a
great deal of work and money, have grown from just a dozen or so in
the 1970s to the hundreds today. There is obviously a supply and the
University is meeting the demand. A publishing industry has exploded
in the past decade of books written by authors and poets explaining
the craft of fiction, poetry, drama, screenwriting, memoir, and creative
nonfiction. If there were no demand for instructions on writing a novel,
there would not be such a supply of books that provide it. Obviously a

lot of people want to write a novel, or they are at least fascinated with
the notion of writing a novel. Either way, people are drawn not only to
the wholeness of literature, but they also want to write a work
themselves. In short, it seems like the interest in literature is in a
But there is another narrative counter to this enthusiasm for
books, and it goes like this. Humanities are dying, if not dead. Growth
industries dictate the degrees students pursue. The university is
becoming a service industry as opposed to a center of liberal learning.
Newmans idea of a university is the defunct dream of a bygone era.
No one reads anymore. English departments are collapsing. Whatever
is left of the liberal arts have become the dens of godless leftists
feverishly indoctrinating students into liberal and secular humanism.
The interest in literature has enervated as its usefulness in an
industrial world becomes vestigial. Funding for literary scholars is
scarce and growing scarcer, and the paucity of jobs relegates
thousands of professionals with PhDs into servile adjunct work. The
lucky few professors who have tenure slovenly reap the benefits of
security, caring little for students education and leaving the dirty work
of teaching to subalterns. Scholarly journals are drying up, and the
writing they produce is unreadable. Cultural studies is absorbing
traditional English as attention draws to fast, disposable pop culture.
Caribbean postcolonial literature replaces Shakespeare. Batman
replaces Milton. Madonna and Lady Gaga replace Chaucer. Hardly
anyone reads poetry, unless they are the lyrics of pop songs. Poets in
particular are a rapidly endangered species. According to some
journalists, poetry is dead.
In fact, the narrative of the state of Humanities, particularly
English, is downright apocalyptic. Those who cry out in alarm over the
death of humanities speak and write in words of imminent catastrophe,
the closing of the mind, the coming end. Some English departments

take on the posture of the last guardians of civilization manning the

walls and the gates from the final rush of barbarians poised to take the
empire. Other English departments welcome the destruction, cheering
on the breech of the wall. Some students and professors see their work
as not only education but as revolution.
How could it be that enthusiasm for reading and interpreting literature,
and even producing literature, seems so intense at the same time as
the job of teaching and expounding literature is either so apparently
valueless or so revolutionary that it invites visions of apocalypse?
There is a very real disconnect between the dour pronouncements of
literatures death in academia and the apparent enthusiasm about
books outside of the arcadia of learning

Criticism versus Theory

Part of interpretations beleaguered state has to do with the bad

name literary theory has gotten as of late. Often theory is
distinguished from criticism as though each wants to maintain distance
from the other. Literary criticism does not want to suffer from guilt by
association, so to speak.
The study or science of different means of interpretation is
called hermeneutics. Since we are fairly used to the centrality of
interpretation in English, we forget that hermeneutics has gained
interest only fairly recently in history. We take hermeneutics for
granted. The idea that there ought to be a systematic study of the
ways in which we interpret text was not a pressing matter throughout
the middle ages and the Renaissance. In fact, the times in history when
people cared about the interpretation of text is rather infrequent.
Only when meaning becomes an urgent issue or when
ascertaining meaning becomes difficult does the study of
interpretation, or hermeneutics, become important. Most ages take the

meaning of texts for granted and form evaluations of literature. In the

eighteenth century, for instance, the major poets and critics, like
Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, reflect upon the nature and value
of literature, and form evaluative judgments of works. But they show
very little concern for interpretation. Most writers of the eighteenth
century, like ancient Greek and Renaissance rhetoricians, were
concerned with establishing principles of writing and what it should
accomplish. Along the way they would also raise moral and aesthetic
questions. But meaning is taken for granteda poem means and that
is the innate factas most ages are not self-conscious of the ways by
which one forms interpretation.
Before the twentieth century hermeneutics grows into a central
concern during two major periods, the Reformation and Romanticism.
Before the seventeenth century most people could not read (for most
people it was illegal to read), and there was very little dissemination of
text as the printing press was still fairly scarce. Reading was an elitist
and clerical activity relegated to monasteries. Plenty of royalty up until
the renaissance were illiterate as there was no reason for certain
monarchs to read.
The only text most people were familiar with was the Bible,
which everyone knew orally, through the ear alone. And the pope and
church hierarchy adjudicated the meaning of sacred scripture. It was
nobodys concern except for clerics to interpret the Bible. What the
Bible means was dictated. Therefore there was little contention
concerning belief before the Reformation. Up until Shakespeares time
it was highly unusual for anyone to step outside of faith to question it.
Belief was innate. In many ways, the growth of our modern idea of
individuality is as predicated upon the ability to question innate
religious belief as it is upon the growth of economic autonomy.
The Protestant revolutions emphasis upon reading the Bible,
made possible by translation and the printing press, made ones

relationship with scripture become rapidly personal. One cannot

overestimate the paradigm shift in thought that occurs when people
have a book, the Bible, in their hands, and when they can read it in
privacy and without oral dictate. There was a profound shift that occurs
during roughly the seventeenth century when reading the Bible
transferred belief from magisterium to the individual. One began to
think for oneself. The concern with interpretation suddenly becomes
central as everyone engages in trying to understand what is ultimately
very difficult material. The Bible is not only one of the most central
texts in the Western world, it is the most difficult to understand. The
first genuine studies of interpreting text, hermeneutics, evolved out of
this need to address the personal attainment of meaning concerning
the Bible. As Protestantism grew, people, both lay and clerical, began
to write treatises about interpretation.
At first hermeneutics was relegated to the interpretation of the
Bible. Up until the eighteenth century, sacred texts were the only ones
worthy of study. The value we place on the study of literature, we must
remember, is only something that grows in Matthew Arnolds Victorian
era. As the Protestant revolution evolved into democratic revolutions,
particularly in the eighteenth century, people self-conscious of their
position and rights within a state or nation grew more interested in the
nature of the laws under which they lived. As a result, hermeneutics
expanded beyond religion to incorporate the interpretation of law,
something that affects everyone living in a democracy or in a state
that desires democracy. The American Revolution was the result of new
literacy and the dissemination of printed material that interpreted and
professed the rights of people in the colonies. Thomas Paines
Common Sense, which sold over 200,000 copies in 1776 (making it,
per capita, the bestselling work in American history), did more to incite
Americans to revolution than anything else. As we know, it is
impossible for the law to escape hermeneutics today. The meaning of

the Constitution has vast consequences upon our daily life, as do the
ways in which we can parse law to our advantage.
Hermeneutics, therefore, is practiced when meaning becomes
very important to people, and when the objects requiring
interpretation are difficult.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truths superb surprise
As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
In her famous poem Emily Dickinson explores obliquity in the
poets attempt to approximate meaning, a sort-of job description of
poetic vocation. The poem alludes to the Bible and, like all of her
poetry, draws its form from hymns. There is a sarcastic inflection to
Dickinsons assertion of Truth, however, that distinguishes her work
from devotional poetry. By predicating Truth with all the Truth, and
describing it as superb surprise, she does more to make it
undecidable than she does to make it determinant. There is something
banal about the phrase superb surprise that, along with infirm
Delight juxtaposes the severity of blindness rather coyly. The poet
must circle around the impossibility of immediate explanation
whereas hymns express belief directly. Hymns do not try to play coy.
Her poem is about poetrys evasion of literal statement in its draw
toward mystery as opposed to theologys function to describe and

systematize mystery. It is the function of tropes to find Success in

circuit, to avoid dangerous transgressions in making direct reference
to the divine. Naming the divine is one of Gods ultimate prohibitions.
Lightning is both the magnitude and terror of nature and God, but
the poem centers on what makes for Success in poetic
representation and expression, not faith.
The hymnal form of Dickinsons poetry gives the reader a false
sense of lyrical comfort. The alternating trimeters seem to turn her
subject matter, such as death, into catchy jingles, but she ensnares us
with unsolvable mysteries that encircle us with danger. All of her
poems ironically play form off of content, the jingle-effect estranging
us from the subject matter to create the surreal disorientation of a
dream. For Dickinson, poetry may be seductive but, in its draw toward
mystery and away from coherent explanation, treads dangerous water.
A reader enters at his or her own peril.
In the two-line poem, The Secret Sits, Robert Frost echoes
Dickinsons intimation of truth as hallowed, tempting, beguiling.
We dance round a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle and knows.
The secret sits in the middle like a smug blank space upon
which we can ascribe anything, but it is a blank that intimates
something foreboding: it knows. Whatever sits in the middle seems
to dare the reader to enter the ring and know it as opposed to
suppose it. Nonetheless, as the poem suggests, most of us dance
round a ring like diviners of meaning, children in a game, or
participants in a ritual. Truth rests in a center like a demon that must
be expiated. Secrets have wonderful and terrible potential for
revelation. There are those things we willfully and consciously conceal
for many reasons that can be psychological, legal or societal. Secrets
can be empowering. We like to keep our secrets because they are
something over which we have control. But secrets are also pernicious:

the secrets of shame; guilt over a crime at ones psychological

detriment; wielding power like blackmail over others. The withheld
secret leads inevitably to a reckoning. Revealing a secret can be as
much of a transgression as it can entail a virtuous or healthy act.
Something about unveiling a secret involves kenosis, the emptying of
the spirit.
In her socio-psychological study, Secrets, Sissela Bok argues,
concealment, or hiding [is] the defining trait of secrecy. It presupposes
separation, a setting apart of the secret and the non-secret, and of
keepers of a secret from those excluded. Secrecy and privacy are
inextricably linked. At a very early age we learn that a great deal of life
involves secrets. The toddlers increasing awareness of secrets and the
act of keeping a secret rehearse for the formation of privacy. Bok has
examined studies that prove that as early as the age of three children
help other children learn to find secret hiding places when they play
hide-and-seek. The toddler might be an ultimate egotist, but he
somehow learns the means by which to share his knowledge of secrecy
to other toddlers.
Most people imagine that poetry contains a secret only experts
have the code to crack. For most people poets seem to purposefully
exclude readers. In her famous poem, Poetry, Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.

She goes on to say of poems,

When they become so derivative as to become

the same thing may be said for all of us, that we

do not admire what

we cannot understand . . .

People who believe that poetry conceals meaning to exclude others

from its secrets are partly right. The means by which poets distress
language alienate most readers. Poets never reveal without concealing
the secrets they withhold, bending language willfully to conceal direct
statement. The means by which poets trope, swerving and deviating
around direct signification, becomes like an array of coded messages, a
puzzle, a labyrinth, a secret inscription.

The concision of Dickinsons poems does not mean they are brief
or simple. The form of Dickinsons poems creates self-referential
attention at the same time as it gestures to its own shape and
structure. Her poems seemingly closed nature makes them feel like
hermetic systems. The densely packed lyric is the crux of her work.
The clipped lineation frames expansive experience: death, infinity,
eternity, despair. The sing-song quality that makes them famous (they
sound like jingles) juxtaposes the frequently disturbing content. The
expansion of experience in constricted space forces one to dwell in her
poem. By the sweat of interpretation one struggles to open her work
with meaning.

There are endless ways in which events interrupt a sense of

coherence to life. Trauma, as we will see, results when familiar patterns
of expectation disappear. In order to cope with life in the middle that
has been interrupted by loss or violence, one must readjust the ways in
which to make sense of experience. It has become ubiquitous to
associate trauma with catastrophe, and indeed catastrophic experience
most violently rends lifes familiar meaning. The past century is

characterized by serial catastrophe. But there also needs to be an

understanding of the trauma of everyday life, which includes the many
ways in which experience requires one to reimagine the world. ***

History depends upon events, a chronology of serial moments

that, as Hayden White argues, transform into a story when one
emplots them into a narrative. To emplot ascribes value to certain
events or experiences in the same dire craft of selecting and
comparing that James attributes to the job of forming closure in a
novel. Events transform into history when the historian shapes a
chronicle into a meaningful pattern with a beginning and an end
rounding off the middle of a portion of life. White deepened our
understanding of history by revealing the salient links between the
factual and the figural entailed in any narrative concerning the past.
The retrospective analysis of the past afforded by the necessity of a
narrative ending place historical events into the context of how things
turned out. Generally a work of history does not emphasize the
meaninglessness of events. For instance, the typical high school
textbook of American history depicts a frequently providential story of
progress. Everything in the past, its glories and its atrocities, fits a
pattern of coherence. Nothing is left to chance. There are rarely
outliers in history represented as a broad sweep, which does beg the
pertinent question, what is marginalized in the act of forming concord?
We inherit the drive toward total coherence from the ancient
Hebrew effort toward selecting and arranging the canonical texts of the
Bible, deepened further by the ancient Church fathers, like Augustine,
who form a seamless linkage between the Old and New Testament. For
Kermode the concordance of the Old and New Testament is in fact the
paradigm of concordance between beginning, middle, and end by
which the novel evolves. The West derives its sense of and compulsion
for narrative closure from the Bible, a book with a definitive beginning,

an origin, and a consummate ending, an apocalypse. There are many

ways to examine how the canonical texts of the Bible structure a
coherent order, too complex to go into here. The two acts of closure I
want to touch on for the moment are the linkage between the Old and
the New Testaments based upon typology, and the epic arc of
experience the typological process achieves.

But getting closure heals trauma and resists interpretation in an

unusual way. Instead of achieving the goal of freedom and peace
getting closure promises, it involves perpetuating conflict. Like one
story replacing another in importance on The Huffington Post, closure
perpetuates the simulation of life on the move. Prior conflict has been
substituted, displaced, repressed or forgotten in the act of gaining

The Rage for Meaning / The Articulation of Trauma

The process of interpretation, the struggle to find a sense of

meaning through literature allows one to reconnect to the urgent and
intense concerns of traumatic experience without the threat to ones
life that trauma poses. Reading strongly affords one the opportunity to
surrender to lifes antinomies without the need to either perish or
triumph. Literature offers the increasingly scarce space to be

melancholy while not becoming an outcast, to get in touch with

darkness without surmounting to it. A book does not die. A book does
not threaten your life.
Therefore, reading also counters the all-consuming traumatic
sublime into which catastrophic experience too easily sinks. It is
reflexive to define trauma as inexplicable, unspeakable, unknowable.
These terms conveniently resist the stories that trauma can produce
and which need to be heard. Indeed, far from the suffocating
unknowingness attributed to the emotional suffering trauma entails,
the voice of emotional pain always has and continues to find verbal
expression. Trauma is not inexplicable and unspeakable. Instead, we
lose the willingness and ability to listen to its expression because we
avoid its interpretation.
The reluctance to listen to trauma is usually because it is
articulated in a literary language, the language of figuration that
represents experience in a richer, more distorted way than practical
discourse. Trauma is itself a complex but distorted experience that
pushes up against the limits of cognition, often going beyond the
circumference of what is familiar. Literary works are the most urgent
places in which to explore and inhabit these depths and limits of what
makes us most human. But we are losing touch with these literary
spaces, shrinking away from the difficult pleasure interpretation yields,
the emotional threat literature poses, and its cognitive demands. To
read is to encounter what it means to be human. The interpretation
required of literature preserves life because it makes it worth living.
Indeed, reading for interpretation is one of the best ways in
which to counter the dangerous allures of apocalyptic thinking that all
too easily consumes individuals and communities, particularly in the
new millennium. It is the very nature by which works of literature
achieve closure, how works enact their own apocalypses, which make
them temporal spaces where one can divine meaning from seemingly

senseless experience. Unlike closure accomplished through an

enumerated process from the Internet, the closure achieved by a
poem, a story or a novel is hard earned. A literary work, likewise,
makes demands on us, pleasurable nonetheless, but it is, in Percy
Shellys words, a difficult pleasure. It is a pleasure that yields greater
joy from a deeper and often disturbing confrontation with the self
through otherness that allows us to dwell in and reflect on our uncanny
position in the world where we recognize our own estranged self.

Enchanting Hypotheticals and Disenchanting Realities

The famous term, willing suspension of disbelief, comes from

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to
persons and
characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to
transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a
semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows
of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the
moment, which constitutes faith.
Coleridge attributes the moment when fiction enchants to faith.
The ability to project ones own imaginative construction of reality into
fiction transforms characters and actions into life. The imagination,
which Coleridge elevated to a level of divinity, transubstantiates the
frozen and dead figures of a text into flesh and blood. The rage to
create meaning transfigures linguistic constructions into Hamlet or
Leopold Bloom and turn plot and action into the feeling of actual
historical events. The make believe entailed in reading, therefore,
makes fiction serious and ludicrous at the same time.

The willing suspension of disbelief flirts with madness of a kind.

In the actual world belief in imaginary worlds is schizophrenia. Does
not reading, whether it is a novel or a film or television, improvise a
madness of sorts? The difference between schizophrenia and reading
fiction is that we can always bring our willing suspension of disbelief to
an end. The closure fictions produce keeps us self-conscious of the
distinction between fiction and reality. Although we flirt with madness
when we read fiction, we know that fiction has clear frames that allow
from departures from and returns to the actual world. In fact, Stevens,
as in The Idea of Order, emphasizes how poetry clarifies distinctions
between imaginative consciousness and our consciousness of reality
that deepen the meaning of both.

But a strict dichotomy between fictions and reality, madness and

sanity, seems untenable. Fictions permeate our everyday activities and
our experiences that we denote as reality. How might our
entertainment of fiction transform the actual world? In what ways are
the boundaries between fiction and reality permeable? Do we willingly
suspend disbelief in certain experiences in so-called reality? And what
happens when that which we call life as opposed to fiction offers us
unbelievable experience, when truth is stranger than fiction?

Ever since Plato there is a notion that prevails today that equates
fiction with madness. The Platonic conception was that inspirational
powers take over a poet, like demonic possession, that obscures
reality. Whereas today we hope the muses are on our side, Plato
equated muses with violence. Since the poet sees the world through
fantasy, fiction dangerously misleads an audience. Even worse, fiction,
with the power of rhetoric, can persuade an audience to adopt false
positions. It can inspire one to madness through influence, infecting
the mind like illness. The word influence derives from influenza.

Inspiration has not taken on healthier connotations until the romantic

poets elevated it to an experience of spiritual possession rather than
an illness or madness. Inspiration is a divine intoxication.
Shakespeare always portrays the thin line between imagination
and madness. In fact, Shakespeare seems ambivalent concerning the
power of the imagination as he explores the nature of play in both its
healthy and dangerous aspects. Although the nature of play is central
to A Midsummer Nights Dream the imagination remains equivocal
nonetheless. When the noble lovers return from their fantasia in the
forest, Theseus, greatly suspicious of the imagination, lectures
Hippolyta on what he believes are the dangers of fiction in the
frequently quoted passage:
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
A couple of centuries ago a person would agree with Theseuss
assessment, despite his fallacious neo-Platonism. But today we highly
value the very same aspects of imaginative play that Theseus
condemns. We engage serious discourse about airy nothing, figures
and events that do not exist without being considered crazy. It has only
been in the past century that discussing imaginary people who inhabit
literature is a job requirement for a profession and not a mark of
lunacy. As Terry Eagleton quips, In everyday life, talking about
imaginary people as though they were real is known as psychosis; in
universities, it is known as literary criticism (22).

Hans Vaihinger argues in Philosophy of as If (1924) that

hypothesis structures our understanding of the world. Scientists use
the imagination more than they depend upon empiricism by
analogically compelling possible concepts to fit reality. He argues that
no scientist can directly observe the phenomena of subatomic
particles, but they imaginatively construct the possibility for their
existence based upon observations that begin with hypothetical
assumptions. Quantum physicists conduct research and work on
entities that may not exist. Astrophysicists go so far as to postulate the
possibility of infinite universes while string-theorists argue for the
possibility of up byzantine dimensions to time and space.
As fantastic as contemporary physics sounds, the difference
between science and literature is that the hypotheses of science may
just be real whereas nothing about characters or events in fiction can
be proven. Without substantive proof to its hypotheses, science
remains fiction, which is why so much current quantum physics often
read like long prose poems about the universe. Even theologians must
assert a quantum of proof concerning God. If God becomes
hypothetical, theology devolves into a prelude to unbelief, which is why
belief always feels tenuously intimate with madness. When science
surpassed religion in its claims to truth in the nineteenth-century,
unbelief became a powerful force against Christianity as religion
became equated with fiction by the twentieth-century in ways it never
had in history. The rise of studies and classes called, The Bible as
Literature, is symptomatic of just such a shift. Theology is more
inclined today to speak of God in terms of poetic possibilities and
religion as an imaginative narrative construction of reality.
Nonetheless, God must be affirmed in some way or theology turns into
the same hypothetical realm of fiction. With nothing objective to prove,
literature explores hypothetical truths far more freely than science,
history or theology.

Literature allows for an infinite play with truth, which is why

Goethe, Shakespeare, Sophocles and many other authors continually
inspired Freud. When Freud was hailed as the discoverer of the
unconscious during his seventieth birthday celebration, he
admonished the speaker, claiming: The poets and philosophers before
me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific
method by which the unconscious can be studied. However, Freuds
claim to his scientific method has also been questioned. Karl Popper
argues that untestable hypotheses cannot be legitimately called
scientific. The only genuine scientific hypotheses are ones that can be
falsifiable, which is why he asserted that psychoanalysis is not a
legitimate scientific theory. A psychoanalyst can always reinvent a
reason to account for human behavior if one hypothesis fails. The
problem with Poppers argument is that it does not account for our
adherence to certain hypotheses, indeed our belief in them, despite
adverse evidence. That a hypothesis cannot be proven neither negates
its effects upon us nor does it suggest it will not be proven or altered in
some other way in the future. The question is the nature and context of
Adam Phillips claims:
These days, when we are not being told that
psychoanalysis is or is not a science, we are, perhaps
unsurprisingly, being told that it is an art. And since, as a
talking cure, its medium is mostly language, the arts with
which it bears most obvious comparison are the literary
arts. In the anxious quest for reassuring analogies . . .
literature, after science, has seemed the most promising. It
has been to writing and not . . . to the oratorical arts that
psychoanalysis has turned.
(Promises, Promises 1).

Literature, in fact, enjoys a double freedom from determinate

truth. Fiction is predicated upon as if at the same time as it does not
have to assert its inherently hypothetical nature. Literature does not
have to make explicit or lay bare its hypotheses. An author or poet
does not have to proclaim, Now I ask you to suspend disbelief,
except for the little ancillary disclaimer before a novel begins. As
Samuel Johnson claimed in his argument against Aristotles Three
Unities concerning drama, an audience assumes fiction as no one
confuses a performance with reality. Like an audience to a play or a
movie, when we open a novel or begin to read a poem, we expect to
enter a hypothetical reality. Our desire for truth when we read science
or history is far more exacting because we expect such work to have
claims to an objective reality, even when the lines between science,
history or theology blur with fiction. We do not expect scientists or
historians to lie to us whereas we are prepared for poets and authors to
do so. Before we open a piece of literature we are ready to submit to
the as if of fiction, and for the moment we have faith in the world
an author presents to us.
Everyday, however, we form powerful analogies between fiction
and the real world, connections that remain dominantly unconscious.
Our inattentiveness to the relationship between fiction and life is why
psychoanalytic criticism has been so alluring in literary studies. The
hypothetical as if of fiction forms a powerful metaphor of belief that
changes the way in which we understand what it means to be human.
And we generally remain unconscious of the effects of fictions of all
sorts upon our perception of reality. The transformational power of
literature, its ability to bring us pleasure despite the horrors certain
works present, and its ability to disturb us to the point that we return
to certain pieces to be disturbed all over again (just as we might watch
a horror movie a second time), continues to mystify us. We are drawn
to literature because, despite its fabric of lies, some kind of truth

evolves nonetheless, a textual weaving between truth and lies that

keeps us enthralled.
To return to A Midsummer Nights Dream, Shakespeare is aware
that reality constitutes a relationship between our imaginative
projections into it and the extent to which fictions can approximate our
construction of reality. Despite the fact that Theseus thinks the lovers
are nothing but a group of goofs whose overactive imagination have
made them loony, Hippolyta seems to convince him that their stories
resonate with a kind of truth.
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
Perhaps inspired by his imminent nuptials, Theseus ignores Athenian
law, invites the lovers back into society and allows them to marry.
Even though the lovers irrational and ephemeral experiences
with the fairies were a fantasia, an airy nothingness, the imagination
affirms something real in the end nonetheless. But Shakespeares
affirmation of imaginations constancy is equivocal at the end of the
play. He draws a clear distinction between reality and play when he
devotes Act V to the rustics ridiculous performance. The actors spend
an arduous but hilarious amount of time making sure that the audience
does not confuse their tragedy with reality. Perhaps Shakespeare
satirizes anyone who would argue puritanically, like many did in the
sixteenth century, that drama compels audiences to confuse truth and
fantasy. Fiction grows to something of great constancy, but play can
also be, as Hippolyta quips in the middle of the performance, the
silliest stuff ever I heard. It is interesting that Theseus, the rigid critic
of poetry, argues, The best in this kind are but shadows; and the
worst / are no worse, if imagination amend them, to which Hippolyta

replies, It must be your imagination then, and not theirs. If reality is

lacking, Theseus seems to claim, our imagination has to power to
rectify it, although explicitly he argues that a play is best when it
remains distinctly play. Instead Hippolyta seems put-off by the rustics
bad taste.
In his wonderful early essay The Poet and Day-Dreaming
(1908), Freud argues something that both Theseus and Hippolyta
recognize and the rustics do not: Notwithstanding the large affective
cathexis of his play-world, the child distinguishes it perfectly from
reality (45). Just as we do not confuse literary genreswe know when
we are reading a piece of history as opposed to a piece of fictionwe
also know when Shakespeare ends and daily life and its slings and
arrows of outrageous misfortune begins.
Daydreaming is a means by which an adult compensates for the
loss of imaginative freedom he or she reveled in as a child. As Freud
claims, when the child grows up and loses the ability to free-play, he
will adopt a substitution . . . instead of playing he begins to create
phantasy. For Freud, poets make play acceptable for adults by framing
fantasies in poetic form. Our reflexive willingness to suspend disbelief
over fiction resembles the adult activity of daydreaming. We substitute
the freedom we had to fulfill wishes during play as children by reading
or writing poetry. Daydreams allow us a space in which to freely
fantasize about anything. The daydream does not threaten reality. Only
the psychopath acts out on his or her darkest fantasies, like Macbeths
inability to resist the desire to put his murderous instincts in action as
hard as he tries to in Act I. Reading is a rarefied and directed form of
daydreaming. A conscious activity, daydreaming resembles the control
we have over imaginative ekstasis. When fiction transports us into its
hypothetical realm, we have the power to wake up, to snap out of it, to
return to reality.

The Subject versus the Self

My feeling is that people are hungering for meaning. But

professors (me included) and the universities where we work are
providing information for our students to process instead of books for
them to interpret. We are providing utilitarian methods of citizenship
instead of tools to make meaning. Therefore, they are losing the ways
in which the written word can make a life meaningful.
The digital world provides a certain kind of meaning. I am not
going to write a diatribe about the Internet or the Age of Information. It
makes no more sense for me to do so than to rage over the loss of the
typewriter. There is value in the fast, accessible, impulsive satisfaction
information provides. There is also value in the archives of research
readily available. Further, I think that discourse in such spaces as the
blog is valuable and produces new platforms for the dissemination of
thought and feeling. Every written word cannot rise to enchantment.
Consummate value would make literature indistinguishable from
At the same time one cannot blindly accept the march of digital
progress without critical self-consciousness. A majority of the writing
on the Internet forms an endless scroll of information. It creates
complete immersion into text that threatens give everything value.
Complete immanence of value ultimately makes all information
valueless. Again, there is a wonderful democracy in the splayed plane
of discourse in which every voice contributes to what Martin Luther
King called our garment of destiny. But what does it mean to read a
Shakespeare sonnet that is framed by advertisements for automobiles,
cruises, homeowners insurance, and online courses? What does it
mean to read a novel on a screen that shares space occupied by
Facebook updates? What is the effect of reading Hamlet on one half of
the screen while reading Hamlet made Simple on the other half?

The democratization of discourse has made literature available

to everyone. The Internet has become a sort of Open University as
schools such as Yale provide some of their classes online for free. A
public interest in the deeper rewards of close reading and
interpretation evidences a desire for substance, for the type of organic
wholeness that information cannot provide. The problem is that English
departments continue to emphasize brokenness, fragmentation,
meaninglessness. The profession of literature values a hermeneutics
of suspicion, a process of interpretation that was once valuable, but
now works to demystify and disenchant literature, turning writing into
text that not only competes with advertisements in the margins but
belongs there.
Literature has always been political, whether explicitly or
covertly. It is nave to avoid the political contingencies a text either
hides or makes manifest. To teach a pure aesthetics or poetics of
literature to students would also empty out text of meaning and rob
students of the discourse literature can instigate. But there has been a
politicization of literature in the past few decades that dehumanizes
the value of literature by reducing literary text to mere information.
This is ironic. The political energy literature embodies ought to
emphasize the human, the polis, a community that struggles,
questions, and debates its values. But instead the goal has been to
setup antagonism by creating enemies in the abstract.
One can see this development of interpreting in the abstract in
the phenomenon known as readings. In advanced courses, or even
introductory courses, students are compelled to conduct readings of a
text, such as Marxist readings of Shakespeare, Freudian readings of
Woolf, Historicist readings of Whitman, and so on. Instead of reading a
work as something integral to itself and working outward from that
integrity, students read a work with an agenda formed and
prepackaged from outside the text. And instead of human meaning

imposed on a text, the student forces the text to conform to an

abstraction of thought. The interpretation conforms to the ideology
adopted. The reading does not produce the interpretation. In some
cases it would seem that one could conduct certain readings of a text
without the text itself. Instead of the Death of the Author, we have the
Death of the Text! It would be an interesting exercise to reverse the
formula, perhaps, and do a Shakespearean reading of Marx or a
Woolfian reading of Freud.
The same reduction of textual integrity has also worked its way
into the reader herself. Instead of a self, the reader has become a
subject, a reading subject, or a Marxist subject, or a culturally
determined subject. Since the 1980s it has become doctrine to turn the
human self into subject. The critical impulse was to expose selfhood as
an illusion. The self (in scare quotes) is a material construction, a
sign within a field of other signs, the product of material acculturation
and most intensely inherited from an Enlightenment elevation of
individuality. A hermeneutics of suspicion bolstered by Marx, Nietzsche,
Freud, and Darwin dismantles the integrity of the sovereign self, the
self as a centered and self-conscious human individual. Instead,
selfhood is socially constructed, the product of forces that determine
us. The interpretive work requires demystification to uncover the
extent to which we lack autonomy. Literature, therefore, makes
apparent the ways in which material forces construct not a self, but a
subject that is subjected to indeterminate forces.
Demythologizing selfhood does have its value. It compels people
to recognize injustice, particularly oppression that was, perhaps,
covert, not readily available for interpretation. It places the
examination of texts into a purely political landscape that allows one to
see forces that form hegemonies and determine the selfhood that we
had thought was free. It reveals the warring forces within us, the
unconscious that compels or impedes our desires. And it has aided us

in our awareness of voices that are elided by the dominant discourse of

any given era. The movement of historicist analysis has shown us ways
in which to gain empowerment.
But it appears that translating the self as a subject is not tenable
or enduring, at least for a majority of people who, despite the conflict
and trauma that makes them feel subjected to forces beyond their
control, feel a sense of selfhood nonetheless. There is a discernable
shift back to discussing the self in literary criticism today. One can only
go so far in reducing the human to a mere plaything of material signs
and forces before one grows weary of nihilisms allure. The rejection of
subjection is similar, I will argue, to counter-apocalyptic thought that is
almost as powerful as apocalyptic seduction. There is only so much
one can draw from fantasies of the end until one tries to salvage what
remains of value from a world that we perceive as broken and
valueless. And one of the things of rediscovered value is the Self and
literature, both of which are united in ways forgotten.

The Defense of Literature

There are many arguments for the value of reading literature and
the humanities. The most common are: 1) Literature is not utilitarian;
its uselessness (Oscar Wilde, All art is useless) is exactly what makes
it valuable for a culture that requires usefulness from everything. A
culture that forgoes aesthetic disinterestedness is one poised for
barbarism. 2) Literature is very utilitarian; it is useful because it offers
readers the ability to imagine possibilities, to stand in others shoes, to
gain empathy for plural points of view, to engage in argumentation. 3)
Literature reflects the culture and values of the time and civilization
that produced it. It provides a more inclusive and imaginative view of
the past than historical abstraction. 4) Literature can educate through
learning and pleasure, whereas philosophy and other disciplines

educate through abstraction. 5) Literature cultivates taste that allows a

civilization to endure. The work of reading and interpreting
masterpieces makes it possible for one to recognize greatness. It
resists low art and bad taste from eroding civilization. 6) Literature
offers opportunities to learn complex means of interpretation that are
applicable to other fields (a popular pitch of English departments). 7)
Literature embodies spiritual and even religious value, since religion
depends upon its ability to make stories (Christ ministered through
parables). Further, literature replaces the loss of religious faith in its
witness to transcendence. 8) Literature embodies material and political
value, making one more open and prone to enacting change, even
revolution. It has the power of propaganda.
As you can see, there are many ways in which to defend
literature, most of which contradict each other. Perhaps the biggest
value of literature is that there is no consensus concerning what makes
it valuable. This makes it harder to dismiss its importance.
But I think that there is a way in which to defend literature that
can include most of the above arguments. A literary work is a closure
without an ending. A poem is both closed (out of necessity it brings a
beginning to an end) and open (it is the site of plural analyses and it
promises more literature).
Matthew Arnold famously argued that studying literature entails
the disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is
known and thought in the world. Studying the touchstones of
literature elevates civilization above the ephemera of politics, work,
industry, and capital, particularly when religion begins to fail to do so.
In 1880, Arnold argued that poetry replaces religion in an industrialized

Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the

supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and

now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is
everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion.
Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact.
The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious

In effect, literature, like religion, can save us.

Very few of us, however, are self-professed Arnoldians. Be that as
it may, the relationship between studying literature and religion
remains powerful. Like many Victorians, Arnold saw the most crucial
issue of his day as a crisis of faith. When dogmas and traditions fail,
one can turn to poetry for consolation. He prefigures T.S. Eliot who
argues in Tradition and the Individual Talent that the great poets
since Homer constitute a sort-of apostolic succession. But unlike
Catholicism, Eliots program does not study the lives of the saints. Eliot
promotes something more Protestant: the study of poems, not poets,
the Word, not the Saints.
The argument that literature is secular scripture still retains a
great deal of currency. About sixty years after Arnolds religious
pronouncements, Wallace Stevens made a similar argument that
poetry replaces God. But Stevens Supreme Fiction, as he calls it, has
nothing to do with Arnolds belief. For Stevens belief in poetry
compensates for the loss of God as the dominant fiction. God served a
role as an ordering fiction that poetry replaces. For Freud, belief in God
is belief in fiction, albeit a dangerous one. What Stevens hoped would
replace belief in God is belief in fiction as fiction, turning poetry into a
good in itself. For Stevens, the Supreme Fiction means to believe in
fictions while recognizing that they are fictions, and discovering that
that is good enough.
Unlike most poets of the twentieth century, Stevens is most at
home with himself. A majority of literature from the late nineteenth

century until now, however, is marked by an acute and uprooted sense

of crisis. We live in times that feel traumatic as literature since the
early twentieth century becomes preoccupied with the catastrophe of
existence itself. The struggle between belief and unbelief, the
acceptance and rejection of God, is one of the most prevalent themes
in literature of the past century. But a crisis of belief is not a simple
matter in the context of fiction and poetry. The Modernist struggle
between belief and unbelief often results in literature that explores an
ambivalent middle ground: an inability to reject the God we resist.

Rage for Order

Wallace Stevens explores the ordered and rarefied realm of

poetry juxtaposed to the ordinary world the poem inhabits. A poem is a
closed object, separate from other objects, unique to itself. But a poem
also exists in the ordinariness of the world it both reflects and informs.
A question Stevens asks in all of his poetry is, does a poem have life
(ontology)? Does it have spirit? To what extent does an ending bring
meaning and value to a work (Death is the mother of all beauty)? To
what extent does closure elide inherent conflict or impose a false
coherence over contingent experience that Had to be imagined as an
inevitable knowledge/ Required, as a necessity requires.
In The Idea of Order at Key West, the speaker describes a
setting imaginatively altered by a woman he witnesses singing at the
edge of the ocean. The poem emphasizes that her song does nothing
to alter the natural world. The water never formed to mind or
voice,/Like a body wholly body, fluttering/Its empty sleeves. The
speaker calls the woman a maker, the Greek definition for a poet, in
order to make her activity distinct from the natural world that is not
contingent upon human activity.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.

The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we soght and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

Her song can shape perception, but it cannot alter nature. The sound
of her song and the sound of the ocean remain two separate realms.
Something about the woman singing makes the speaker think of
spirit. The nature of this indefinable presence of spirit becomes the
speakers cognitive conflict, something he needs to think through. If it
was only the dark voice of the sea, he speculates, If it was only the
outer voice of the sky the setting would express merely The heaving
speech of air . . . And sound alone. Her song, More even than her
voice amongst The meaningless plungings of water and wind fills
the setting she inhabits with an excess of experience we associate with

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single articifer of the world
In which she sang.

In fact the speaker claims that the woman singing has, like a poem,
come to embody a world complete in itself, a sort of heterocosm.
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except for the one she sang, and singing, made.

If the poem ended here, the experience would be marooned in

abstraction, hermetic, leaving the speakers aesthetic revelry oddly
emotionless, even pedantic. As if to emphasize human connection,
however, the poet addresses Ramon in the penultimate stanza in a
moment of epiphany.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,

Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

The description certainly sounds like magic now! Despite the

poems distinction between nature as creation and human as maker,
something about the womans song has altered the setting and infused
it with beauty. It is indeed enchanting. The song has cast manmade
objectsthe streetlights, the boats, the lights glowing from the masts
into a spiritual glow that is, at the same time, firmly rooted in the
ordinary world. It has brought these objects to life by arranging them
in a world that had been previously inchoate. The boats turn the ocean
into a map and the lights atop masts become sidereal. By portioning
and arranging reality, poetry forms the lights into emblazoned
zones, the imaginary lines traced between stars to plot constellations.
The memory of the song transfigures the setting into a picture of
experience that the speaker frames to make available for artistic
The Idea of Order at Key West is in the tradition of ekphrasis,
which means a poem about a work of art. In this case the poem is

doubly ekphratic. The poet describes the woman singing, and then he
describes the reimagined setting after the song has poetically
transformed it into a picture. Perhaps this climactic moment of charged
vision will inspire the speaker to write a poem, perhaps the poem we
read. The word inspiration, of course, is closely related to the word
spirit, a wind that breathes life into inanimate matter. All of Stevens
poems are, in some ways, about the poet breathing life into the
ordinariness of things.
It would seem the penultimate stanza would be a fitting end. But
the final stanza serves as falling action to the poetic narrative at the
same time as it breaks the suspension of disbelief.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,

The makers rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

One almost wishes the poem had ended with the visionary second to
last stanza. But the poem moves with the temporal structure of drama:
the woman enters, sings her aria unaware of her audience, and exits,
after which the speaker offers an epilogue. The final lines sound
somewhat hyperbolic and pedantic. They sound suspiciously like a
paraphrase of a plays Epilogue reminiscent of Pucks farewell to the
audience in A Midsummer Nights Dream.
It is easy to miss that the penultimate stanza is a question.
Nature is no longer innatenature is no longer naturalbut staged for
evaluation. It has become a still life. In a tone of aesthetic
disinterestedness, the speaker answers his own question in a way that
subtly disenchants the fullness of experience. He attributes the
transformation to the poets rage for order, his desire for keener

sounds to clarify the noise of nature. But the compulsion for order
threatens to drain the beauty from the experience. It is easy not to
notice the subtle shift in which reality is suspended at the end.
The modernist rage for order

In one of his letters, Keats described what he called negative

capability, a state in which a poet is capable of being in
uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after
fact & reason. Literature places us in such a position in which we can
dwell within brokenness without necessarily feeling it incumbent to fit
everything into coherence.
In The Theory of the Formal Method Boris Eikhenbaum argues
that literature is a battleground where one treads with caution, and
that authors and poets continually struggle for survival. Concerned
with promoting a science of literature, he draws the terms struggle
and survival from Marx and Darwin. But the terminology of battle and
survival is not that far from our academic notion of literature as work
that produces a literary work. The poet works on a poem, produces a
work, and the critic goes to work on interpreting it. The critics work
entails doing battle. And if a poem is successful, we often announce,
it works!
Work is also a word endemic to trauma. Sigmund Freud calls the
process to overcome loss the work of mourning. The struggle to
overcome neurosis entails working-through trauma. A victim of
trauma survives catastrophe and struggles with or works through its
effects. And we tend to refer to the struggle with both physical and
emotional distress as a battle. A patient battles illness. Freud couches
psychoanalytic processes in martial terms. Conscious and unconscious
are in conflict. The unconscious forms defenses in preparation for
attacks or assaults from external threats. In coping with the trauma of

everyday experience, the goal of repeating experience and working-

through effects is to gain mastery over events that could potentially
cripple us. And the goal of consciousness is for the human, in a
Darwinian sense, to develop powers of self-preservation in order to
circumvent the extinction the id desires.

This work will combine an anatomy of narrative (known as

narratology) with examinations of the individual experience of time
when reading, or time-consciousness (known as phenomenology). The
former tends to be more scientific whereas the latter is more
philosophical. Science and philosophy have always been strange
bedfellows. Physicists of time who incorporate philosophy always risk
the disdain of purists while philosophers who adopt the more stringent
claims of science often risk looking un-philosophical.
The wonderful aspect of literary criticism is that it can entertain
science and philosophy without committing to either. Fiction is based
upon hypothesis. Every story is predicated by as if. The critic,
therefore, can remain open to the endless possibilities that hypotheses
offer. In other words, as a literary critic I have the freedom to play with
interpretation. It is a pleasurable freedom that has grown increasingly
lost in the constraints of a hyper-specialized world of English. The
economic demands of a service culture have also divided the study of
English into ever narrowing areas of specialty. It is my hope that the
exciting freedom to play with interpretation in this book will inspire you
to suspend disbelief, as Coleridge famously says, and enter into the
frequently ludic world of meaning-making even though interpretation is
very difficult business
I will attempt to reconcile eternalist and presentist perspectives
of time in the context of the readers temporal experience in narrative
and lyric. For the purposes of literary analysis, I will shift these terms to
the categories of clock-time as opposed to mind-time, or cosmological

time as opposed time-consciousness. Narrative or lyrical theory has a

tendency to aspire to science, which means that literary analysis
becomes fraught with absurdly superfluous technical terminology.
(Look up a guidebook or introduction to narratology. The terminology
will leave you cross-eyed.) Jargon has its place, and every discipline
needs its technical lexicon. But my goal is to make the subject of
temporality and closure in literature readable for anyone, and to make
the experience exciting and pleasurable. I believe that the issue of
closure and endings is urgent: our perception of time has changed
such that we feel a thickening sense of coming at the end of an era, if
not the world. The issue should inspire us to read and value literature
more deeply as we become aware of how much time we are losing to
do so. There is an ethics of reading at stake, I believe, that has
implications on how we live in the irreversible process of moving
toward our own personal endings. I will try, then, to use as little jargon
as possible while always defining my terms in the context that I use

As William Carlos Williams says at the opening of his famous poem, so

much depends/ upon the readers willingness to see the poem as a
thing in itself. That is in fact the point of Williams poem. Framed by a
selective vision, temporally suspended as a snapshot, everything in the
poems reality, or its thingness, is bound up in the red
wheel/barrow, the glazed rain/water, and the white chickens. No
matter how frustrated my students get the first time they read this
poem, all of them admit that they stare at it for a while. They stare in
disbelief or confusion. Or perhaps they stare in vigilance for the poem
to do something. So I tell them that, in a sense, the poem has achieved
something: it draws attention!

The Beauty of Finitude

But this middle position where we all exist torn asunder, as

Augustine says, between past and future, is not a just a ghastly
paradox. The sheer fact that life is temporally limited not only allows
us to be ethically self-conscious about our actions, but it also makes
beauty possible. Selection and limitation is essential to draw form from
the contingency of life. A narrative or lyric might be imaginatively
boundless, but, as forms, their power derives from the narrow temporal
space they inhabit. Their power derives from finitude. The ways in
which the irreversible process in the forward movement toward an end
provides life with a rage for order, to quote Wallace Stevens,
generates our inexhaustible drive to make fictions.
The creative process always operates under the threat of time.
We cope with the inevitable end by turning lifes various and many
exigent events into points of closure from where we can make new
departures. In our rage for order, we are mental cartographers, plotting
points of experience that make connections with other experiences
within the space we live through time. The ability of authors and poets
to configure the various plot points into a temporal form makes
literature such an essential calibrating function in life. Fiction and
poetry are like global positioning devices that situate us in the many
spaces in the world and guide us through the labyrinth of what it
means to be human in our connection with others and otherness.

* * *

The beauty that form makes out of finitude is bittersweet.

Endings entail loss. We all experience the odd and conflicted
combination of satisfaction and sadness when we are about to reach
the end of a really good book. It is a mixture of bittersweet feelings

that intensify as we flip the last remaining pages. If we have grown

particularly intimate with a good book, we might put off reading those
final pages in order to defer the departure from something that has
become the equivalent of a new friend. Most of us defer goodbyes. No
matter how much you might console yourself in knowing that the book
itself is not going to leave, you still have the wistful, even painful,
feeling of loss when you reach the last page.
Mourning is a process, often ritualistic, of working-through the
pain of loss or the pain of something that has come to an end. For
Freud, mourning results from the loss of an object that is irrecoverable
whereas melancholy results from the failure of the rituals of mourning
to work-through loss and get closure, a term we will examine closely
in the next chapter. We do not associate endings with gain. Instead,
mourning seems more like a period one must pass through in order to
leave loss behind.
There is a great deal to gain from loss, however. I argue that one
should revel in the wistful feeling of loss experienced at the ending of a
book. In our fast culture that values convenience, one is inclined all too
easily to snap the book shut when the reading is done instead of
allowing the blankness after the final words to speak to us. There is a
lot to be learned by dwelling in the feeling of loss that, paradoxically,
accompanies the sense of satisfaction after one finishes reading a
book. Christian liturgy practices similar meditative pauses at the
endings of various rituals during a service or mass. Amen after a
prayer, which means let it be, gestures toward silences that invite us
to dwell in the blankness from which the next prayer forms.
Loss and gain are two sides of the same coin. A departure is an
arrival at the same time. It is what T.S. Eliot means in Four Quartets,
What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We manage the pain of loss, whether it is the death of a loved one,

leaving a place of familiarity, recovering from violence, by engaging in
interpretive activities that provide trauma a semblance of closure. We
could tentatively call them activities of mourning.
Even if you live everyday perpetually sentimental for the past,
however, life moves on. Thats the bitch of time. You might not want to
depart from the past and let go of the lost object, but the future arrives
anyhow. One of the few fundamental truths about time is that it moves
inexorably forward.

Jacques Derrida, in an uncommonly lucid moment, explains the

complex temporal structure of belatedness.
This radical otherness with respect to every possible mode
of presence can be seen in the irreducible effects of
deferred action . . . In the otherness of the unconscious
we are dealing not with a series of modified presents
presents that are past or still to comebut with a past
that has never been nor ever will be present and whose
future will never be its production or reproduction in the
form of presence (162-3).
Derrida goes on to explain that everything already begins with a
reproductionwe know the world through its simulations, its fictions,
and the memories we make for the futureas deferral always
reconstitutes our sense of presence by signifying experience drawn
from repositories of meaning which was never present (164).
I have a lot of disagreements with Derrida, particularly his notion that
delay can never produce presence. The notion of presence, tied up as
it is in the temporal slipperiness of meaning, is a thorny issue we will
revisit throughout.

Literary endings and closure prepare us for endings in life.

Further, literature prepares us to anticipate endings. I am aware that
this is a strange claim. We do not usually think of anticipation as
something we prepare for. We do not anticipate anticipation! To be
more specific, narrative anticipates a future that can be understood
retrospectively in the present as a memory. This thickly layered
present formed by reading performs the ways in which we understand
and prepare for the many different endings we encounter in both life
and in fiction.

The Interruption of Literature

Harold Bloom offers his four principles of reading in the

unfortunately titled How to Read and Why: clear your mind of cant; do
not attempt to improve your neighbor or neighborhood by what or how
you read; do not fear to read by your own inner light; and finally, be an
inventive reader. I am indebted to Bloom for what I interpret as his take
on forming a clearing space in his prerogative to open the self to
creative freedom. For Bloom, there is no salient relationship between
the difficult pleasure of reading literature and the public good. It is not
an activity, he argues, that helps someone other than you.
Bloom also promotes another facet of reading: One of the uses
of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change alas
is universal (21). It might be a morbid notion that reading is a
preparation for death, but so are most activities. Reading provides
readiness for change, and all change reflects the renewal that
eventually leads to death. The most salient connection between
reading and death is that a work of literature enacts its own ending.
The future of a literary work is already realized before we read it.
Reading is, in effect, an experience of belatedness. It is no coincidence
that a common phrase is, Im catching up on my reading.

We expect of fiction what horrifies us most in life: an end.

Endings in fiction and life are inevitable, but we desire the former and
resist the latter. Reading, therefore, plays a dual role seemingly at odds
with each other: it resists death at the same time as it prepares for it.

There is a sacred and secular trajectory in literary history by

which authors have contended with endings. In the ancient and
medieval world, apocalypse is the literal, ultimate, and revelatory end,
a notion that transforms into tragedy by the renaissance in a well-
known argument of Frank Kermodes The Sense of an Ending that will
figure prominently in this study.
In his classic study, Frank Kermode reduces the basic elements
constituent of a plot to the sound of a clock. We cannot bear the
interminable designation of its sound as tick tick tick tick, so we say
the sound of a clock is tick tock. In doing so, we have imposed a plot
upon a series by juxtaposing tick to tock, thereby offering a sense of
completion. The plot begins with tick, moves through the pause in the
middle, and ends in tock.
Moving up with a bit more complexity, E.M. Forster famously illustrates
the minimal elements that differentiate between statement and story,
fragment and coherence. The King died and then the Queen died is a
disparate series of events, like the serial nature of tick tick. However,
The King died and then the Queen died of grief achieves a basic
fabric of plot as died of grief allows difference to form ticktock.
Disparate statements link into a sense of beginning, middle, and end.
The Kings death results in the Queens death from grief, allowing for
temporal movement (the word emotion means motion) that
intimates a story

I have contrasted time as an innate and abstract concept to

temporality, the ways in which we provide time with a structure. But
lets make time a little less abstract and speak for a moment in terms
of chronology, particularly as a way to make more sense of the unique
past future tense of all literature.
Chronology is the bare sequence of events verbalized in the form
of a chronicle, the linear order of things as they occur without the
explanation and coherence of plot. Chronology is a step up from what
Paul Ricoeur calls cosmological time, or clock-time, which is bereft of
value or significance. Temporality derives from the human imposition
to structure clock-time by molding or imposing a configuration over
mere sequence. A chronicle, therefore, is time transformed into a
temporal structure in order to redeem it from pure contingency. It
orders mere consecution with eventful markers.
None of us lives life conscious of times passage as mere
sequence. We would lose our minds. All of us are chroniclers. We keep
calendars of some sort, whether it is one that hangs on our wall or
stored on our cellphones. Usually we scribble into the grid of days
during each month an important event, an upcoming appointment, a
reminder. Additionally, most calendars are produced with important
holidays indicated. These are the chronological markers that form a
Notice, however, how many days on a calendar are empty. No
holiday, no important event or upcoming appointment. This is like the
dominance of white space on the page of writing. These blank spaces
on the calendar represent the unorganized gaps or durations of time
that we associate with mere sequence. Frank Kermode calls purely
sequential, unorganized time, chronos. In contrast, kairos is the time
that we bestow value or that we distinguish from usual duration
because of holidays or important events.

Not only would pure sequence be unbearable, it would also be

meaningless. In terms of clock and calendar-time, we give meaning
that we can live with by organizing days around events, heightened
time or kairos. However, we need chronos, or pure sequence. Daily life
perpetually charged with significance would also be unbearable.
Everyone has experienced the need for uneventful time after a period
of busyness or a time of crisis. One often takes time off from work in
order to experience dull sequence.
We try to provide ourselves with a temporal guide or roadmap
when we construct a plot summary out of a work of literature. But you
can immediately recognize how temporally unique literature is when
you try to turn a piece of fiction into a chronicle. A chronological
account of a novel is almost always woefully inadequate. Although the
two are often conflated, there is a big difference between chronology
and plot. A plot is not a chronicle but the configuration, or emplotment,
of events into a structure that rarely follow a chronological sequence.
To create the chronology of plot would require abstracting the plot from
the narrative discourse and reducing it to a rearranged chronicle of
events. The clock time of a novel, therefore, would look like an
enumeration of events placed into a serial order. H WHITE -
The means by which a plot is narrated constitutes the narrative
discourse, the ways in which the story is told. The configurative
dynamic of plotting and the many aspects of voice that provide a plot
with its viewpoint and discourse swallows chronology into its own
organic world that does not refer to a so-called real world in the same
way as an account of something that happens in actual daily life. Since
there is no clock time in fiction, it has the license to do things with
chronology that, for lack of a better word, is illegal in other written
forms. Plot and discourse makes a works chronology unique to that

particular work and inseparably part of the integrity of a narrative as a

The impossibility to reduce a work of fiction to a chronicle,
however, does not annul the dependence of fiction on clock time. It is
impossible to reject chronology even from the most temporally
distorted narrative. In fact, a narrative that explicitly rejects chronology
only draws more attention to the brute reality of the sequential and
forward movement of time. For instance, in Slaughterhouse Five, Billy
Pilgrim witnesses a World War II movie run in reverse so that the B-52
bombers suck all of the bombs back up into the bomb bays,
reconstituting destroyed cities in the process; the bombs return to the
factories where they are dismantled. Billy extrapolates beyond the
movie and imagines time continuing to reverse so that everyone
reverts back to Eden.
The famous scene is obviously a moral fantasy, but it does not
reject chronology by reversing it. It only emphasizes even more
through trenchant irony the inexorable movement of time forward.
Billys inability to confront the moral implications of the horrifying past
makes him resist the brute reality of temporal causality, which spells
out dire consequences for his mental health. He remains stuck in a
present in which he wants to believe his existence has no moral
consequence. Vonnegut might revel in temporal shenanigans in his
novels, but he does not, by any means, endorse escapism.
In Times Arrow Martin Amis appropriates Vonneguts backwards
film sequence for a more extended examination of the moral
repercussions of time and causality. He depicts a SS doctor from
Auschwitz moving backwards in time from the 1970s so that, when he
reaches 1945, he rescues prisoners from the gas chambers instead of
exterminating them. Like Vonnegut, Amiss extended and ironic joke
only emphasizes the moral weight of irreversible time and causality;
hence, the titles reference to the arrow of time. Chronology affirms

how time moves in a sequence and the unavoidable moral implications

of actions. In its creation of temporality, fiction rejects chronology to
perform these moral implications, but a rejection of linear time cannot
ultimately reject forward motion.

As a result of digital videography, narration that follows events

as they occur happens in real time. We will look at the phenomenon of
real time and the digitization of the present in Chapter 4. For now,
however, I want touch on how our digital age rapidly recontextualizes
the immediate past. (DEFINE) The dominance of mechanical
reproduction has made us increasingly driven to record and dissect the
now, the immediate moment of time. TRANSITION
For instance, the television-show 24 simulates the real time of
the minute-by-minute twenty-four hour day in the world of secret
agents chasing terrorists. A digital chronometer appears beneath the
screen to create the suspense of a countdown, except that it counts-up
toward some explosive climax in which Jack Bauer will save the nation.
The count-up in the footer of the screen reminds us of where we are to
the second, emphasizing an inexorable forward movement. With little
time to save the day, every action has ruthless consequence (which
means that our heroes often do morally reprehensible things for the
greater good). The real time of the program also thickens the
experience of sequence by orchestrating numerous parallel plots and
depicting simultaneous events from multiple points of view oftentimes
by fragmenting the screen.
The real time of the program, however, is a semblance. It uses
chronological time to contract the elements of a thriller, generally
occurring over longer duration, into highly charged sequences of action
divided up by minutes and seconds. 24 intensifies the serial nature of
conflict rising to a particular and explosive climax that is the staple of
the thriller genre. Conflict advances up the classic pyramid of action in

a series of highly charged, instantaneous nows. Each episode works

its magic to hook the viewer: the speed by which events occur leaves
one in a state of suspense by the end that can only be satisfied by the
next weeks episode, that inevitably defers the climax. But the
program also plays perfectly into the sense of a perpetual state of
crisis during the post-9/11 terrorist threat when we were, in many
respects, addicted to the media serialization of events. Like repetition
compulsion, the serial catastrophes of 24 distended into an inexorable
progression allows us to cope in an entertaining way with the very real
experience of events in real time many of us witnessed on television
that day.
Most clock-time, however, is fairly empty. Sequence is not usually
thrilling. Samuel Beckett is more aware than any author of entropy and
wasted energy. His plays all depict inexorable and unredeemed
progression in which there are no heightened moments. They fill time
between the beginning and the end with the minimum required to
create movement in plot, foregrounding the leaden weight of
chronology. The more that a narrative filters out its games with time
that draw the reader into a story, the closer it gets to the experience of
time that no longer needs the accouterments of fiction. The closer that
fiction represents pure duration, the less necessary it is.
Chronology might be imaginatively impoverished, but fiction is
merely an alternate way of representing duration. But we dont read
fiction to be reminded of this. In fact, we read fiction to distract
ourselves from how mere progression from day to day drains life of
meaning. We read fiction to experience the unique and thick
configuration of characters, events, and objects within highly charged
space where everything has value.
In its rejection of chronology, the novel affirms time-
consciousness. Time-consciousness reaches a height in modernism
when novelists subordinate chronological or clock time to

phenomenological or mind-time. The novel begins to flaunt its freedom

to roam in time in a temporal slipperiness that remains intense up until

Time-consciousness increases in the late nineteenth century, and

reaches intensity in the literature of the early twentieth century that
was preoccupied with reconciling the past with present experience. The
predominant question of the modernist author or poet is, how can one
redeem time from the contingency and vicissitude of modern life?
Time-consciousness shifts after World War II not by necessarily
rejecting the past, but by incorporating its conventions as conventions
in contrast to modernism, when authors and poets treat the past
almost religiously. Modernist authors are more inclined to find
something transcendent and revelatory about the past in ways that
look nave to the postmodernist, for whom time generally takes on a
more eternalist view: tense and aspect, the past, present, and future,
have equal and depthless value.

McClatchy goes on to suggest that the Roman setting might

represent Hechts experience of guilt. After his traumatizing service in
Europe during World War II he returned there on a fellowship in the
1950s to luxuriate. He cites a passage from a letter Hecht had sent
him concerning the poem that offers insight into the childhood
memories he worked into it.
As for "A Hill," it is the nearest I was able to come in that
early book to what [T. S.] Eliot somewhere describes as an
obsessive image or symbol something from deep in our
psychic life that carries a special burden of meaning and
feeling for us. In my poem I am really writing about a
pronounced feeling of loneliness and abandonment in
childhood, which I associate with a cold and unpeopled

landscape. My childhood was doubtless much better than

that of many, but my brother was born epileptic when I was
just over two, and from then on all attention was, very
properly, focused on him. I have always felt that
desolation, that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed in
an uninhabited natural landscape at its bleakest.
Although Hecht attributes his method in the poem to Eliot, his
description of an obsessive image in nature is more evocative of
Wordsworths spots in time. Hecht seems to share Wordsworths
obsession in The Prelude with certain desolate landscapes as memorial
connections to childhood.

Awakening from a dream or vision is a popular romantic motif. The poet

undergoes a sublime and sensational experience, but he or she must
struggle to remember and recreate the experience by transforming it
into verbal expression. For the romantics, like Coleridge, Wordsworth
and Keats, poems become less about the dream vision and more about
the artistic activity involved in recreating it.

What proceeds from the not yet of the apocalypse? What

replaces the belief in a literal end to the world? Although Yeats ends
the poem with an ominously open-ended question, there are many
answers we could retroactively supply from our position in the twenty-
first century. As Harold Bloom comments, the poem belatedly was
regarded by Yeats as a prophecy of fascism, whose representatives in
Mussolini and Franco the poet was to support. And he goes on to
argue that we commit our own misprision upon Yeats, who would not
have shared our horror. The Second Coming is a celebration of the
rough beast, not a lamentation. Neither a Christian nor a humanist,
Yeats was an apocalyptic pagan who would have looked on and
laughed in what he called tragic joy(185-6).

Like Yeats speaker we suffer from the trauma of survival, left to

conjure new projections of imminent catastrophe. In a post-apocalyptic
mentality, we are not traumatized by the possibility of Armageddon;
we are traumatized that the world has not come to an end when
everything suggests it should. We imagine the world coming to an end,
and then look back from the future at what we have lost from the past
wondering what remains of value that we can salvage. The speaker of
The Second Coming works-through post-war trauma by conjuring
further conflict. His vision is both personal and racial: it comes from his
own ability to create personal symbols combined with the collective
and unconscious symbols of the West, but poetic expression does not
organize into a consoling coherence. Instead it shifts the emphasis of
trauma from its immediate historical contingency into a repository of
mourning over the loss of millenarianism. Deliteralizing the apocalyptic
ending distends poetic vision into a prophecy of further catastrophe.
Although I understand Blooms argument that Yeats celebrates the
beast as perhaps a new aesthetic annunciation, I am not sure I entirely
agree. The poet might revel in the strange pleasure that arises from
tragedy, but the speaker of the poem seems not to know what to make
of his vision.

The speakers revelation is immediate, but now I know, awakens our

suspicions. The beast is a composite of images from the Book of
Revelation, Shellys Ozymandias, a Sphinx-like being and a private
symbol hatched from Yeats imagination. In its composite manifestation
it takes on the form of condensation in a dream. The superimposition
of various images into one amorphous beast vexed to nightmare
suggests a dream that must be turned into verbal expression.

It is important that the beast is to be born. Yeats turns

apocalyptic truth into the power of Western desire to give shape or will

into being something monstrous. And it remains ambiguous whether

the speaker or we are meant to revere its sublime force. (As we all
know, Yeats was attracted to fascism and desired a sort of world
Forming new modes expression in a modern world in which
familiar categories of meaning enervate but remain necessary
becomes the crisis for many modern poets. What do you salvage from
metaphysics to make it new, as Ezra Pound exhorted, without
becoming drawn back by tradition? How do you reconfigure reality
without rejecting reality? Stevens project is almost a search for the
ultimate heterocosmic aesthetic: a consummately autotelic object that
reality requires nonetheless; the poem that creates divinity that has no
external reference to the transcendent except one that refers to its
own divine fiction: the supreme fiction. Without the foundation of
absolute truth toward which poetry had once signified, the modern
poet must construct a new stage in *** because
It has not always had
To find: the scene was set: it repeated what
Was in the script.
He compares the previous centuries to a production deadened by its
repetitive performances. Freed from metaphysical assumptions, poetry
has now become concerned with the strenuously cognitive work
required the craft poetry, The poem of the act of the mind. There is
no longer a need to search for truth beyond that which the mind can

Since the beginning of history mortality has been the biggest

threat of nihilism for any civilization. The incredible works and ideas in
Athens during the 5thC BC that constitutes the foundations of Western
civilization arose in resistance to dangerous apathy posed by the
finality of death. Instead of responding with what difference does it

make? (Athenians often did assume such fatalistic attitudes that

philosophy attempts to correct), the Greeks prove that forms of closure
could make all the difference in the world.
Every era pursues dreams of permanence by attempting to
create out of the contingent morass of experience a meaningful
continuum. Establishing monuments that will outlive the ravages of
time is one of the biggest reasons why cultures in every era produce
literature. A civilization wagers its own permanence in the face of
inevitable entropy. To varying degrees the threat of nihilism posed by
finitude urges civilizations to value artistic production.

Perhaps because of my own egotistical view as an English

professor, I argue for the necessity, indeed the prerogative, of
literature. As much as we value literaturepeople read more
extensively now than ever in historythe institutions that support
readers devalue literature at an alarming rate. Financial and
administrative support in higher education has undergone a wholesale
shift from the liberal study of humanities to an education that caters to
growth and service industries. Despite the fact that people read
extensively and that the study of literature has waned very little since
higher education began to shift toward a service model around 1970,
English has become little more than a department that supports
cultural literacy. (In a sense, English has regressed back to the polite
education of the technical schools in England in the mid-1800s.)
This shift in value is not marginal to the concerns of this book. The
devaluation of literature in higher education is at the center of what I
will call terminalism, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of literatures
death that beleaguers contemporary culture and increasingly alienates
people from a sense of historical situation. There comes a point when
the alarmist assertions that literary study and the book itself are dead

serves as the impunity for institutions to kill off its study. This
alienation has been protracted by the byzantine ways in which
digitized culture and the accelerated archiving of information creates
what Mark Currie calls the rapid recontextualization of the present.
What people generally read extensively is a fragmented digital
replication of a recycled and recent past that distends the present in
the creation of a thick presentism, which obfuscates a felt sense of
the past or future.

Even if science develops a grand theory that thoroughly explains

time, it is unlikely that it will change perception enough that our
fascination with temporality in fiction will end. The Copernican
revolution is one of the greatest paradigm shifts in our understanding
of place in the universe, but our literary drive to explore our place in
the world has not changed that much as a result. Darwin radically
changed the unique status of the human, but fiction continues in its
rage to understand what it means to be human. Human being still
remains as unique as it was when we believed that God singularly
created us.
The resilience of literary concerns in the face of immense
historical and scientific change is an amazing phenomenon. The
universal themes that preoccupy authors have not changed all that
much since Homer. Further, the continuity of structures we use to
create meaning and literariness is equally resilient. We might do more
experimental things with form, and genres might evolve from other
genres, but the basic structures that make lyric or narrative
recognizable have remained fairly stable in time.
Stare at this page for a moment.

Instead of focusing on the words, the black marks on the page,

try to focus on the white space that surrounds them. It is difficult to do
because the presence of writing gives form to the blankness that
dominates nonetheless.
We often forget how much writing occurs in this blankness. The
white of the page is, in some ways, like the mysterious black matter
that occupies most of space. There is an unconscious struggle at work
when reading in which we resist the annihilation that this void
threatens. How temporal structure emerges from this void with
language can teach us a great deal about our understanding of not just
literature, but all of the ways in which we try to make sense of things in
life, particularly things that tend to defy understanding.
My book aims to make a different contribution to trauma studies
by examining in part the blankness not only at the end of narration or
lyricthe white of the page where no more text follows that announces
the endbut also the blankness that surrounds all of language. It is a
void from which we give shape that I call forms of closure.

It is no surprise that trauma theory has discovered the more

sublime language of theology. The threshold of knowledge, which Karl
Jaspers calls the limit-situationdeath, great moral decisions,
catastrophestransforms into the beyond that we equate with
transcendence. ****

***This is out of place, BUT, this is also where I want to bring in

apocalypse. So is the Dickinson poem. This whole opening to
chapter four is a jumble.

As tragedy becomes less a form and more a metaphor for the

trenchant antinomies of the human condition, it grows increasingly

intimate with the traumatic sublime. Like tragedy, traumatic events

test the limits of human understanding. Trauma is expressed in terms
of what exceeds the human capacity to take in and process the world.
The excess of human experience catastrophe creates compels us think
beyond the human. Like apocalyptic language, trauma is always
expressed in discourse that speaks beyond itself. Kant equates the
sublime to the unthinkable of God, that which is beyond
representation, serving as the historical injunction against representing
Him. Like Jacques Lacans the Real, Kants sublime is the conjunction
between cannot say and must not say, the point where language stops.
Judith Herman alludes to the sublime in the opening of her
groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery: The ordinary response to
atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of
the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of
the word unspeakable. Trauma theory examines what cannot be
mastered by knowledge. As Elie Weisel says about his testimony to the
Holocaust: I have not told you something about my past so that you
may know it, but so that you know that you will never know it. The
terror of the sublime often that results from catastrophe accounts for .
In The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto argues that numinous
experience, an encounter with holiness, is not consoling, but terrifying.
The otherness of holy experience is an overwhelming encounter with
mystery, a phenomenon akin to a state of shock that he calls
mysterium tremendum.