copyright 1987 Doug Robinson




Three Dialogues

 Buber: Congealing the Whirl of Doom

"As long as the firmament of the You is spread over me, the tempests of causality cower at my heels, and the whirl of doom congeals" (Buber 59). The dialogue between you and me stops the apocalypse.


Isn't that naive? Typical theologian-humanist talk? If we could just get together and talk about it, the end of the world wouldn't come. If only world leaders would stop worrying so much about their dignity, their pride, and surrender to their human fears and needs, and meet their counterparts in open dialogue--then . . .

It's only naive if we agree in advance that such a scenario is impossible. If it's only improbable, it's not naive. It's preaching. Like OT prophecy.

A high enough degree of improbability becomes a practical impossibility. If you have to convert the whole world to ward off disaster, isn't your preaching naive?

If bad odds make you decide not to try at all, isn't your "realism" cowardice? Fear of failure?


What Buber is arguing is ludicrous: "the tempests of causality cower at my heels." Dialogue gives him power not only over human affairs but over the laws of nature.

The other way around: he gives dialogue power not only over human affairs but over the laws of nature.

What's the difference? It's still ludicrous.

There's a respectable philosophical tradition from the British empiricists to the phenomenologists that says causality is an imaginative construct. To say that A causes B is to place two events in a hierarchical logic that exists in our heads, not in nature. The culmination of evil precipitates the end of the world--as the Book of Revelation says. That objectifies history, makes it an It, an inert thing controlled by inexorable laws. Newton's Cosmic Machine. It also makes the I an It. "When one says It, the I of the pair I-It is said, too" (Buber, 54), as twentieth-century social science shows.


And dialogue makes the I a You?

To somebody else.

And how does that bring mastery over causality?

Not mastery.

"Cower at my heels."

You're right. But that's just overblown romantic rhetoric. It brings a relaxation of causality, say, a spreading it thin over and through countless dialogical interactions between I's and You's, nobody objectifying, nobody pretending their imaginative constructs are laws of nature.

Talk about overblown romantic rhetoric.


And the "firmament of the You." I don't want to have You spread over me like a tarp, smothering me. I'm not sure, in fact, but what Buber wasn't finally just a humanist apocalyptist. Isn't his vision of dialogue messianic, millennial? All his images in that sentence are of fixity: being wrapped up in the You, tempests cowering, doom congealing. Sounds like death, or a vision of humanist paradise as death. Stasis. If we've got to have some sort of mystical apocalypse, why not a dynamic one, like Poe's whirl of doom, which doesn't congeal but whirls ever faster toward a visionary revelation? Or Emerson, the I gazing into the It and seeing It as Me, incorporating It into the I and transforming both. Nature animated by becoming me. Doom not as judgment but as transfiguration, the recovery of the lost visionary human form in a transformative gaze into the mirror.


Buber would say: the problem arises there when the apocalypse delays, when the transfigurative incorporation fails. Then the I loses its precarious reality. Emerson in "Experience": "There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays around the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with" (52-53). Object, things: Emerson converses with an objectified world that can only be made real if the conversation can make it part of the self. Otherwise, it's sheer brute matter, forever alien. Otherwise, "dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion" ("Experience," 54). Emerson plays for high stakes, and when he loses, he bravely admits he's lost all: not only the real world, but himself as well.


He also bravely struggles back to a hopeful reconstruction of the situation. "Experience" ends on an up note. "Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart!--it seems to say,--there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power."

More romantic rhetoric.

Yes: but isn't that precisely what Buber is doing too? Clinging to a humanist dream against all odds, a humanism complete with mysticism and God but all the more human for that, and saying it can be achieved through dialogue, despite all?


Maybe you prefer R. W. B. Lewis's version of the apocalypse--or his version of contemporary American novelists' version of the apocalypse. "Contemporary American fiction, or the vein of it which I have been mining, seems determined to draw us on toward that cliff edge, or to watch with a sort of bitter contemptuous laugh as we draw ourselves on--only to leave us there, swaying ambiguously, just before the sound of midnight" (234). Draw us on, and themselves too: Lewis wants to say that, out of whatever childishly irresponsible anger at history, these writers want to end it, to bring it to a close, to pull the heavens down about our ears. If I can't live in paradise, nobody will. Is that better than holding out some hope for a better world?

It's the flip side of the same thing. Buber attacks Christian apocalyptic in "Prophecy, Apocalyptic, and the Historical Hour" in much the same terms as Lewis; he likes the ethical concerns of prophecy; but just inverting apocalyptic into an authoritarian humanism doesn't seem to solve anything.


"Authoritarian humanism"--in Robert Alter's essay on the contemporary American novel, attacking it as apocalyptic via Lewis and Buber, Buber looks a little different: "The fundamental difference between prophecy and apocalypse, as Buber describes it, is between courageous engagement in even the most threatening history, on the one hand, and a total withdrawal, on the other hand, from a history that has become unbearable. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Buber reminds us, were not oracles; they evoked the future as vividly as possible because they believed that human actions could determine what the future would be, and they wanted desperately to affect their auditors' actions" (62). The OT prophets' visions of destruction and salvation and of the God that threatened and promised such things were fictions, invented by the prophets to get the Israelites to internalize the law. Eschatology as ethics writ large.


Yes: internalize the law. Ethics as eschatology writ small. Bring doom into this world in the form of internal authority, the inner voice that tells you what's right and what's wrong, and what's right is always right for the ruling class, safe, harmless, and what's wrong is always dangerous to their power, threatening. This is Nietzsche, of course: "By now the reader should perceive what life's curative instinct, through the agency of the ascetic priest, has at least tries to accomplish, and what end is served by the temporary tyranny of such paradoxical and sophistical concepts as guilt, sin or sinfulness, perdition, damnation. The end is always to render the sick, up to a certain point, harmless, to make the incurable destroy themselves [this is what Buber's "apocalypse" comes down to] and the introvert the resentment of the less severely afflicted [this is his ethical prophecy, authoritarian humanism]. In other words, the goal is to utilize the evil instincts of all sufferers for the purpose of self-discipline, self-surveillance, self-conquest" (Genealogy, 265).


Dialogue can be more than that. It can liberate from self-conquest.


I don't know.


The problem with self-conquest from Nietzsche's point of view is that for most people it's all too easy. The "less severely afflicted" are looking for a master who will help them master themselves. They introvert or introject not only their resentment, but the mastery that helps them to overcome that resentment and thus to become usefully functioning members of society (where "usefulness" is externally defined). Self-conquest becomes an internalized channel of control.


Thomas Pynchon's sixties version of the same problem, from Gravity's Rainbow: "Well, if the Counterforce knew better what those categories concealed, they might be in a better position to disarm, de-penis and dismantle the Man. But they don't. Actually they do, but they don't admit it. Sad but true. They are as schizoid, as double-minded in the massive presence of money, as any of the rest of us, and that's the hard fact. The Man has a branch office in each of our brains, his corporate emblem is a white albatross, each local rep has a cover known as the Ego, and their mission in this world is Bad Shit. We do know what's going on, and we let it go on. As long as we can see them, stare at them, those massively moneyed, once in a while. As long as they allow us a glimpse, however rarely. We need that. And how they know it--how often, under what conditions. . . ." (712-13).


That's the I-It. The I-You--

Is just as tightly controlled as the I-It. "Each local rep has a cover known as the Ego," the I, and the rep makes sure that all relation is representation, all dialogue is socially acceptable. Dialogue, shmialogue. It's part of the Bad Shit.

It has been. It needn't always be.

Tell me how to stop it. "We do know what's going on, and we let it go on."

I don't know how. But I feel in my body that it's possible.


When Roger Mexico walks "(ow, fuck) right into the interesting question, which is worse: living on as Their pet, or death? It is not a question he has ever imagined himself asking seriously. It has come by surprise, but there's no sending it away now, he really does have to decide, and soon enough, plausibly soon, to feel the terror in his bowels. Terror he cannot think away. He has to choose between his life and his death. Letting it sit for a while is no compromise, but a decision to live, on Their terms. . . ." (713), he's right that he can't think the terror away--but maybe he could feel it away. They have programmed him, insofar as he becomes conscious of the situation at all, to lock himself into a paralyzing dilemma, one that seems to have only two, and two equally unbearable solutions, the solutions Nietzsche talks about: get the less severely afflicted to introvert their resentment (Roger so far, life on Their terms) and the more severely afflicted to destroy themselves (the chasm Roger's staring into now, death, annihilation). Maybe his affair with Jessica, an I-You dialogue of love, could reprogram him, liberate him from the System's deathly Either-Or.


It doesn't. It fails. Jessica goes back to Beaver. Roger joins the Counterforce, thinks that's going to offer him a third choice, but it's still only one or the other of the old two: "For every They there ought to be a We," the Counterforce's motto. "Creative paranoia means developing at least as thorough a We-system as a They-system" (638), but a We-system is still a system. Creative paranoia, too--sounds like a university course, Creative Paranoia 101. It sounds institutionalized. Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck says that "at the moment I'm involved with the 'Nature of Freedom' drill you know, wondering if any action of mine is truly my own, or if I always do only what They want me to do . . . regardless of what I believe, you see . . . I've been given the old Radio-Control-Implanted-In-The-Head-At-Birth problem to mull over--as a kind of koan, I suppose" (541-42). But: "given" a problem to mull over? Who's doing the radio-control-implanting here?


The Counterforce moves beyond the ethical self-conquest Nietzsche attacked to a liberating concern with play: Roger and Pig Bodine breaking up Their dinner party with sick jokes, Roger pissing on Their executive desks . . .

Yes. Rather than introverting resentment they retrovert it. Rather than introjecting control they reject it. But their solutions still leave them in bondage to controlled resentment.


Buber knows all about that: "But the severed It of institutions is a golem, and the severed I of feelings is a fluttering soul-bird. Neither knows the human being; one only the instance and the other one only the 'object.' Neither knows person or community. Neither knows the present: these, however modern, know only the rigid past, that which is finished, while those, however, persistent, know only the fleeting moment, that which is not yet. Neither has access to actual life. Institutions yield no public life; feelings, no personal life" (I and Thou 93-94).

But isn't he arguing against the very solution you (and Pynchon, I guess) wanted to offer Roger, love for Jessica--"feelings," the fluttering soul-bird of the severed I? Pynchon too realizes it won't work. Buber goes on: "Those who suffer because institutions yield no public life have thought of a remedy: feelings are to loosen up or thaw or explode the institutions, as if they could be renewed by feelings, by introducing the 'freedom of feelings.' When the automatized state yokes together totally uncongenial citizens without creating or promoting any fellowship, it is supposed to be replaced by a loving community"--a We-system, you might say. "And this loving community is supposed to come into being when people come together, prompted by free, exuberant feeling, and want to live together. But that is not how things are. True community does not come into being because people have feelings for each other (though that is required, too), but rather on two accounts: all of them have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to a single living center, and they have to stand in a living, reciprocal relationship to one another" (94). They have to have God, in other words. The mythologized early Church, I suppose.


For Roger and Jessica, late in Part One, that "single living center" is the Christ Child, isn't it? They find it--and Pynchon seems to place real hope in it.


Him. You.



They find it--but they can't keep it. They lose the vision of the single living center, and their affair is reduced to feelings. Two people brought together by the War. A little fucking to offset the dying. That's the Counterforce, too--not even feeling for each other, just feeling against the dead System.

Pynchon knows how difficult it is. No pie in the sky.

Just a rocket. Pynchon knows it's impossible.

Not impossible: just improbable.


When Roger says he has a choice between life on Their terms and death, even within the System's dualism he's simplifying drastically. Life on Their terms already is a kind of death. "Death has been the source of Their power" (539), the Counterforce's Father Rapier says. The System is a Calvinist/capitalist structure of power that replaced the authoritarian spirit-world of medieval Christianity with the authoritarian (mock-democratic) matter-world of science. But, reduced to scientific terms, the living earth became a dead rock, the dome of heaven an infinite void, God a totalitarian fiction. "What if there is no Vacuum? Or if there is--what if They're using it on you? What if They find it convenient to preach an island of life surrounded by a void? Not just the Earth in space, but your individual life in time? What if it's in Their interest to have you believing that?" (697). Our fear of dying drives us into Their arms; our frustration with a deathly, meaningless universe makes us enjoy the embrace.


So Pynchon's a Christian?

Of sorts. The evidence points pretty strongly that way.

He prefers the Middle Ages to capitalism?

No. Not medieval Christianity. A sixties, make-love-not-war Christianity. An ecological, back-to-nature Christianity: "The System may or may not understand that it's only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later much crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . ." (412). An anti-Vietnam-War, anti-Military-Industrial-Complex Christianity. A loving-community-with-a-single-living-center Christianity.

A Counterforce Christianity.

Maybe so.


My first thought when I read Pynchon on the maniac bent on suicide is Freud's death instinct. But my second thought is Buber's longing for fixity, for congealment and enwrapment. And my third thought is that rhetorically Buber holds hands with Freud in the same cookie-jar. "The hypothesis of self-preservative instincts, such as we attribute to all living being, stands in marked opposition to the idea that instinctual life as a whole serves to bring about death. Seen in this light, the theoretical importance of the instincts of self-preservation, of self-assertion and of mastery greatly diminishes. They are component instincts whose function it is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to organic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself. We have no longer to reckon with the organism's puzzling determinination (so hard to fit into any context) to maintain its own existence in the face of every obstacle. What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion. Thus these guardians of life, too, were originally the myrmidons of death. Hence arises the paradoxical situation that the living organism struggles most energetically against events (dangers, in fact) which might help it to attain its life's aim rapidly--by a kind of short-circuit. Such behavior is, however, precisely what characterizes purely instinctual as contrasted with intelligent efforts" (Freud 72). The System too wants to die in its own fashion, and it passes that instinctual need on to those who live in it. For Freud it is the great longing for stasis, for ultimate stability--which is what Buber wants, too, or what his rhetoric suggests he wants, despite all his overt talk of engagement with ongoing history. Buber's notion of dialogue may be just his attempt to die in his own fashion.


If you take Freud seriously, maybe that's all Buber's notion of dialogue is, yes. But the uncanny congruence between Freud's theory of the death instinct and Pynchon's analysis of the System suggests at least the possibility that Freud postulated the death instinct because the System taught him to. Deleuze and Guattari would certainly agree. Oedipus wants to die, so Freud thinks everybody wants to die. Capitalism is self-destructing, so Freud thinks our self-destructive impulses are instincts. "What we are really trying to say is that capitalism, through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against which it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear, but which nonetheless continues to act as capitalism's limit. For capitalism constantly counteracts, constantly inhibits this inherent tendency while at the same time allowing it free rein; it continually seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit. Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities" (34).


That's certainly congruent with Pynchon's attack on the System. French sixties, meet the American sixties. Deleuze and Guattari beat Pynchon to the gate by a year.

And maybe Buber's not so different: maybe his notion of dialogue is just his attempt to reenter the schizzes and flows: "Doubtless each organ-machine interprets the entire world from the perspective of its own flux, from the point of view of the energy that flows from it: the eye interprets everything--speaking, understanding, shitting, fucking--in terms of seeing. But a connection with another machine is always established, along a transverse path, so that one machine interrupts the current of the other or 'sees' its own current interrupted" (6).


That still doesn't clear Buber of his subtextual longing for fixity.

No. It doesn't clear him, but it reexplains it: no instinct, just a residuum of the basic word I-It capitalist society programs us to pronounce. It allows him to go on striking at the hard carapaces of that word in search of a path back into the schizzes and flows, back into the fluidity of connection with another "machine"--which is Deleuze and Guattari's own residuum of the I-It, I'd say, this talk of people and their imaginative and bodily parts as "machines."


The death "instinct" Freud postulated appears throughout contemporary American "apocalyptic" fiction--but not as an instinct, as a demonized caricature of capitalist society. For most of the so-called apocalyptic American writers, the impulse to reduce complexity to simplicity, the dynamic to stasis, the fluid to solidity--life to death--is the enemy, to be opposed in any way possible. Opposed especially when they find it in themselves, as most of them do.

What ways?

Outside the System and the Counterforce, Gravity's Rainbow is rife with ways of opposition, all more or less ineffectual, but all--well, they're the novel's only (and severely circumscribed) source of hope.

The System is probably too powerful to be overcome. And if it self-destructs, it will "drag with it innocent souls all along the chain of life."


If you follow Nietzsche, the life-or-death options offered by the System are equally deadly only if you remain a slave, only if you remain enslaved by the ascetic priests of late capitalism. The Nietzschean noble man in Pynchon, of course, developed via Rilke, is Captain Weissman a.k.a. Dominus Blicero: "It is a sign of strong, rich temperaments that they cannot for long take seriously their enemies, their misfortunes, their misdeeds; for such characters have in them an excess of plastic creative power, and also a power of oblivion. . . . Such a man simply shakes off vermin which would get beneath another's skin--and only here, if anywhere on earth, it is possible to speak of 'loving one's enemy.' The noble person will respect his enemy, and respect is already a bridge to love. . . ." (Nietzsche 173).


Blicero loves death with all the passion of the noble man. It's his answer to Their use of the fear of death to control us: love what you are supposed to fear, and you are free. "I want to break out," he tells Gottfried just before the 00000 is launched--"to leave this cycle of infection and death. I want to be taken in love: so taken that you and I, and death, and life, will be gathered, inseparable, into the radiance of what we would become. . . ." (724).


"You and I." Blicero speaks the I-You. Buber's hero steers too close to Nietzsche's and queers the dialogical pudding.


Blicero and Gottfried, Blicero and death, rocket and sky, rocket and earth, isn't that the reciprocal relation Buber wants to see between I and You? Isn't that Blicero's victory over the System, that he repersonalizes the world he destroys?

The radio he instals in the rocket's cockpit is a receiver without a transmitter. Gottfried, God's peace in death, is a silent partner in Blicero's dialogue with the cosmos. Blicero wants to fill Gottfried's ears with his voice; Gottfried's voice is powerless to respond, to resist or reshape Blicero's mad Romantic design. Lover and beloved, master and slave: in Blicero's Nietzschean (or Greek) imagination there can be no reciprocation even in love, perhaps especially in love. Love is a gift of power that empowers the giver.


Buber would say Blicero doesn't speak the I-You at all; he's like Napoleon, who wants to hear the I-You but not return it: "Indeed, this master of the age evidently did not know the dimension of the You. The matter has been put well: all being was for him valore. Gently, he compared the followers who denied him after his fall with Peter; but there was nobody whom he could have denied, for there was nobody whom he recognized as a being. He was the demonic You for the millions and did not respond; to 'You' he responded by saying: It; he responded fictitiously on the personal level--respondiing only in his own sphere, that of his cause, and only with his deeds. This is the elementary historical barrier at which the basic word of association loses its reality, the character of reciprocity: the demonic You for whom nobody can become a You. This third type, in addition to the person and the ego, to the free and the arbitrary man--not between them--occurs in fateful eminence in fateful times: ardently, everything flames toward him while he himself stands in a cold fire; a thousand relations reach out toward him but none issues from him. He participates in no actuality, but others participate immeasurably in him as in an actuality" (117-18).


Emptied out by his complicity in the System, Blicero would fill himself with the slavish adoration of his proteges, Gottfried, Katje, Enzian. But he can't be filled; only worshipped. And worship can't stir his sated synapses. Dead already, Blicero wills himself a demonic superman status beyond life and death, beyond the System, and seeks to achieve it through the rocket and the cosmic sacrifice of God's peace. The beloved--Gottfried, God's peace, God's earth--exists for him only by virtue of being destroyed, in love, by the lover.


What an enormous mockery of Buber's idea of dialogue. A democratized romantic myth that can't work.

Blicero's failure doesn't rule out the possibility.

No, but it brings home the extreme unlikelihood of its ever working. Blicero is like all of us: so wrapped up in ourselves, or rather so wrapped up in our own need not to be wrapped up in ourselves, our need not to notice our need, our willed ignorance of lack, that we have no libido left for other people, no You to speak to the people around us. Everything gets expended on ghostly images of other people, characters in the wispy movies we show in our heads. The I-You goes out, and reaches only the phantoms that stalk through our dreams, our own alienated mirror images. We seek other people's love without offering our own, and when we get it we can't trust it, it fails to warm us, fails to fill us. We raise the stakes--not as far as Blicero, most of us, not to cosmic, apocalyptic proportions, most of us. But we raise them far enough to render our lives a travesty of living.


Blicero like "all of us"--all of us men, you mean.

Don't women do the same thing? Blicero is the classic male writ large, of course, the careful macho reserve masking a vast arid emptiness masking fierce destructive anger masking a fear of loss, lack, attrition, lovelessness, masking finally that great insatiable need to be loved--but don't women have the same anger, the same fear, the same need? Don't they just mask it all differently, mask it with emotional dependency ("Do you love me? You never tell me you love me") and manipulation ("You don't love me, do you? If you loved me, you'd be nicer to me, you wouldn't say those things, you'd do what I asked") if they remain traditional, mask it with defensive emotional and intellectual independence if they've been liberated ("I don't need your love, I don't need anybody's," "liberation" in this context pointing us back to Blicero and traditional masculinity)? What's the difference, really, apart from these hegemonic masks, between men's and women's inability to partake in dialogue, inability to live in relation, inability to give themselves up mind and body to the relation, inability to love and be loved?


Does it have to be that way? Are we doomed to our lack?

Can it be otherwise? Can you give me an example that isn't just another mask?


Slothrop. How about Slothrop? He surrenders the ego-resistance that locks us up with our angers and fears and protects us from our needs.

Another romantic. Another Emerson, gazing deeply into Nature and becoming what he sees: "I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing [that's Slothrop, all right, nothing]. I see all [a lot of good it does me]. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God" (10). Slothrop with Geli Tripping on the Brocken. But it doesn't last, in Pynchon--"But the Brockengespenstphänomen is confined to dawn's slender interface, and soon the shadows have come shrinking back to their owners" (330-31)--or in Emerson--"Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. . . . But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. He sees that the structure still fits him ['I see all,' remember?], but fits him colossally" (Nature 42). Slothrop's scattering into the Zone is an Emersonian apocalypse as loss: "Never to be carried by a river. Never to look to a horizon and think that it might go on forever. No trees to climb, no long journeys to take . . ." Slothrop escapes Their clutches by escaping his masculine ego--and ceases to exist.


He ceases to exist as an ego, which Pynchon says is the Man's local rep anyway. He ceases to exist as an autonomous liberal subject, which is what the System would like us all to believe we are--but we aren't. We're enslaved through our egos to the System. Slothrop loses himself into the Zone, loses awareness of himself, dissolves out of human (especially masculine) self-consciousness back into the chain of life. His scattering feels terrible to us--because They want it to feel terrible. They've trained us to abhor the idea of self-loss, because the self is the channel of Their control.


You've bought into Pynchon's programmatic paranoia?

There are other ways of saying it. The autonomous subject is an illusion instilled in us by capitalist ideology; it motivates us to go on laboring for capital while allowing ourselves to be alienated from its value. That's the Marxist articulation. Here's the masculist articulation: the masculine ego is an illusion instilled in us by patriarchal programming; it motivates us to help maintain male hegemony while allowing ourselves to be alienated from our bodies (emotional health). As long as we go on believing that we are tough, rugged, autonomous men who "naturally" prefer to pour our energies into work rather than emotion, capitalist patriarchy stands solid. As Freud said (I'm translating through Lacan), "Where It was, I shall be"--but as Freud insists, the replacement of It with I is ideologically overseen by the Ideal-I, which teaches us to romanticize the I-It we speak (and we are programmed to speak no other) as an I-You.


So Buber's dialogue remains a pipe-dream. A romanticization of impossibility. A trace of relation that defers connection.

To the extent that Derrida associates all liberation from what he calls the metaphysics of presence, and what Marx calls capitalism, and what the feminists and their masculist colleagues call patriarchy--to the extent that he associates liberation from these systems with the fulfillment of deferred desire, he conspires in the systems he attacks.

And Buber doesn't?

Don't listen to Buber, then, listen to Deleuze and Guattari again: "As for the schizo [read Slothrop], continually wandering about, migrating here, there, and everywhere as best he can, he plunges further and further into the realm of deterritorialization, reaching the furthest limits of the decomposition of the socius on the surface of his own body without organs. It may well be that these peregrinations are the schizo's own particular way of rediscovering the earth. The schizophrenic deliberately seeks out the very limit of capitalism: he is its inherent tendency brought to fulfillment, its surplus product, its proletariat, and its exterminating angel. He scrambles all the codes and is the transmitter of the decoded flows of desire. The real continues to flow. In the schizo, the two aspects of process are conjoined: the metaphysical process that puts us in contact with the 'demoniacal' element in nature or within the heart of the earth, and the historical process of social production that restores the autonomy of desiring-machines in relation to the deterritorialized social machine" (35).


I think I prefer Emerson: "Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and the rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord! Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble" ("The Poet" 46). Emerson's ideal makes Slothrop's failure so clear: he does have the whole land for his park and manor. He is it. But what is he to do with it? What is it to do with him? If Blicero tries to incorporate the It into the I, Slothrop allows the I to dissolve into the It. The "forms with transparent boundaries" become the countries in the momentarily fluid (Deleuze and Guattari would say "deterritorialized") European Zone; the "outlets into celestial space" become the rocket, Slothrop's true father and true love. But his opportune condition will never yield itself fully to him, never yield him up the Text that he seeks. His only truly opportune moments are his repeated ignoble and accidental escapes from Them.


"Danger, and awe, and love"--Slothrop loves every woman he meets. His love for the treacherous Katje brings her (well, arguably) into the Counterforce. Arguably, too, his love for Geli Tripping gives her the witchy power over her lover Tchitcherine's brother-hatred, so that Enzian passes by him unharmed. Enzian survives his demonic-You Ideal-I Blicero, and his rival-sibling Tchitcherine, to become one of the novel's only fully alive characters--dialogically connected to his community.

Not thanks to Slothrop. Slothrop connects, I guess, but only indiscriminately and impermanently--which is, of course, his salvation. A committed love would tie him to place and time, would fix his connective options, and that would obviously allow Them to reincorporate him into Their designs. But the mobility and indiscriminacy of his connections is also a failure and a loss: "But her [Bianca's] arms about his neck are shifting now, apprehensive. For good reason. Sure he'll stay for a while, but eventually he'll go, and for this he is to be counted, after all, among the Zone's lost. The Pope's staff is always going to remain barren, like Slothrop's own unflowering cock" (470).


"Nothing can doom man but the belief in doom," Buber says, "for this prevents the movement of return" (107).

So all you have to do is stop believing in doom. What a crock. Buber believes in the autonomous subject too. "The belief in doom is a delusion from the start" (107)--just realize it's a delusion, and poof! it's gone. If it's an ideologically controlled and conditioned delusion, it's next to impossible to destroy.

But not impossible. Even you're saying "next to" impossible now--the first step toward liberation is realizing that conditioned belief is not immutable. "The scheme of running down is appropriate only for ordering that which is nothing-but-having-become, the severed world-event, objecthood as history" (107): what we now believe, what we have been conditioned not only to believe, but to believe that we must believe, that we don't believe but know, what we have been conditioned to forget we were conditioned to believe--all that is the nothing-but-having-become, Gegenständlichkeit as history, the standing-against or standing-apart as history. I stand over here in my little isolated enclave of subjectivity, you stand over there in your little isolated enclave of--well, sorry, but I've got to call it objecthood, you may think of it as subjectivity but you're too far away for me to partake in it, so it looks like objecthood to me. And because that's the way you are, that's the way you have to be. Your standing-apart-in-that-particular-fashion is inevitable. If you say, "It's only inevitable because you think it is, because you've been ideologically conditioned to think in terms of subject-gap-object," why that only means that for you I'm an object: your objection is contained in my subjection. This is the delusion Buber fights.

But look how he does it: "The presence of the You, that which is born of association, is not accessible to this approach, which does not know the actuality of spirit; and this scheme is not valid for spirit. Divination based on objecthood is valid only for those who do not know presentness" (107). The You is present for Buber in spirit; his appeal is to a geistliche Gegenwärtigkeit or ghostly presence whose "actuality" is the act of lying in wait (warten), the present moment as a waiting-towards (Gegenwart), an anticipatory almost-to-be (ta mellonta, Paul says) that, as ghost, is always already a once-was. Forever deferred and repeated in its very anticipation, the "present moment" as momentary absence becomes Buber's weapon against delusion. Some weapon.

And Derrida's fear of vulnerability, his fear of being found in a position of weakness and trust and belief, his compulsive need to gird himself with protective words, that need ideologically instilled in him (and you) by the patriarchal/capitalist/metaphysical system that generates "strong" men and "weak" women, "suspicious" thinkers and "credulous" feelers--that's your weapon against Buber's call to liberation: "Whoever is overpowered by the It-world [or by what Pynchon calls the System] must consider the dogma of an ineluctable running down [or ineluctable entrapment in systemic dualism] as a truth that creates a clearing in the jungle. In truth, this dogma only leads him deeper into the slavery of the It-world. But the world of the You is not locked up. Whoever proceeds toward it, concentrating his whole being, with his power to relate resurrected, beholds his freedom. And to gain freedom from the belief in unfreedom is to gain freedom" (107).


Running down, Pynchon's critics say, entropy, is the great theme of his work. But Pynchon fights entropy wherever he finds it. He fights it in the "dialogue" between Maxwell's Demon and the "sensitive" (who may or may not be Oedipa Maas) in The Crying of Lot 49. To reverse entropy would be to avert the apocalypse, while yet preventing the congealment of reality into too restrictive an order. "Keep it bouncing" (Lot 49 134)--Pierce Inverarity's motto.

To reverse entropy would be to reverse time.

"There is a movie going on, under the rug. On the floor, 24 hours a day, pull back the rug sure enough there's that damn movie! A really offensive and tasteless film by Gerhardt von Göll, daily rushes in fact from a project which will never be completed. Springer just plans to keep it going indefinitely there, under the rug. The title is New Dope, and that's what it's about, a brand new kind of dope that nobody's ever heard of. One of the most annoying characteristics of the shit is that the minute you take it you are rendered incapable of ever telling anybody what it's like, or worse, where to get any. Dealers are as in the dark as anybody. All you can hope is that you'll come across somebody in the act of taking (shooting? smoking? swallowing?) some. It is the dope that finds you, apparently. Part of a reverse world whose agents run around with guns which are like vacuum cleaners operating in the direction of life--pull the trigger and bullets are sucked back out of the recently dead into the barrel, and the Great Irreversible is actually reversed as the corpse comes to life to the accompaniment of a backwards gunshot (you can imagine what drug-ravaged and mindless idea of fun the daily sound editing on this turns out to be)" (745).


A movie run backwards as salvation from time, decay, death. This is an aestheticist withdrawal into pure fantasy.

Quantum physicists say that at the subatomic level "time irreversibility is an artiface of the measurement process" (Zukav 239n). What if that could work in history too? What if it's in Their interests to have us believing that time is irreversible? "Springer," Slothrop protests at one point, "this ain't the fucking movies, now, come on," and Springer replies, "Not yet. Maybe not quite yet. You'd better enjoy it while you can. Someday, when the film is fast enough, the equipment pocket-size and burdenless and selling at people's prices, the lights and booms no longer necessary, then . . . then . . ." (527). Then the artist's dialogue with the universe may make it possible to reverse time, control entropy, avert the apocalypse. "Nothing can doom man but the belief in doom, for this prevents the movement of return."


"The form that confronts me," Buber writes, "I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the 'internal' things, not as a figment of the 'imagination,' but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not 'there' at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation: it acts on me as I act on it.

"Such work is creation, inventing is finding. Forming is discovery. As I actualize, I uncover. I lead the form across--into the world of It. The created work is a thing among things and can be experienced and described as an aggregate of qualities. But the receptive beholder may be bodily confronted now and again" (61).


Christians believe in the Second Coming of Jesus--any minute now. "I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world." Buber's no Christian, but his romanticism is a performative Platonism he borrowed from our Christian civilization. Pynchon has his fantasy of reversible time--his fantasy that the capitalist system will accidentally generate the tools (photographic equipment selling at people's prices) that will enable us to dismantle it. "I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world." I prefer Robert Coover's debunking of the hope that a superhero will appear to save us from ourselves, in The Public Burning. The Uncle Sam's Sons of Light versus the Phantom's Sons of Darkness, capitalism versus communism raised to a reassuring mythic level, where our own deepest programmed hopes seem to guarantee victory: "I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world," except that Coover hates it, rages against it, satirizes it savagely.

Coover's rage binds him, too, and blinds him. He is as blinded by rage as Derrida is by intellectual caution.


Coover's omniscient narrator, ironic voice of American myth in off chapters, when Vice President Nixon isn't narrating, says "it's almost as though there is something about the electrocutions [of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg] themselves, something down deep inside, a form, it's as though events have gone too far, as though there's an inner momentum now that can no longer be tampered with, the nation is too deeply committed to this ceremony, barriers have already come down, the ghosts have been sprung and there's a terror loose in the world, an excitement: if the spies don't die now, something awful might happen, the world's course might get bent--look! Out in the world, the frontiers are crumbling--but as the people draw back toward the center [America, of course] to restore their strength, they find an appalling void right where the axis of the earth ought to be, a big black hole inviting them to fall in and be lost forever! . . .

"Of course, some people scoff at this. They pretend not to see the black hole and they don't respond to the apocalyptic funk" (211-12).


You don't get as angry as Coover is without some kind of vision of the way things ought to be. He's an outraged idealist. And I'm betting that that ideal vision for Coover might be something like Buber's idea of dialogue--if he'd let himself look at it.

You mean you propose to read the novel so as to reify Buber's text as Coover's subtext.


Coover does have an alternative to myth, and it's woven into the fabric of Richard Nixon. Nixon spends most of the novel--when he's not out embarrassing himself with demonstrators or cab-drivers--doing research on the Rosenberg case. Uncle Sam, who keeps shazamming himself into and out of President Eisenhower, puts increasing pressure on Nixon to toe the official line, but in his ploddingly earnest way Nixon follows his own interpretive path. Especially in chapter seventeen, "The Eye in the Sky," Nixon turns sharply from the mythic conception of the Rosenbergs as traitors and atom-spies to see them not only as real people, but real people not unlike himself, real people whose fate might even have been like his (or his like theirs) had this or that turning point gone differently. And his research lays the imaginative groundwork for his astonishing tete-a-tete with Ethel Rosenberg in Sing Sing prison the night of the execution--in one sense the novel's fulcral dialogue, the one chance we all have (Coover, Nixon, the reader) to shatter the satirical shell of myth and (literally) grasp human reality, to be "bodily confronted," as Buber says. Nixon begins by talking rather authoritarian sense to Ethel, but when she gives him a leftist harangue in return, to his own surprise he grabs her in his arms and starts kissing her: "I'll be goddamned! I thought. This was what I'd been planning to do all along! Fuck all the phony excuses I'd made to myself, this was what I'd come all the way up here for, I'd been bent upon this clinch since I'd fled the Capital, maybe before, maybe since last night already, or out at Burning Tree--this brink, this body, this mouth!" (437) And through the kisses and caresses they talk, bodily and verbally interact in a way that's frequently ludicrous ("My mother wouldn't let me take music lessons!" "I nearly died of pneumonia!" "I have terrible backaches!" "I get hay fever in September!" [442]), but that still engages our sympathy, makes us laugh at ourselves along with the characters, affirms our humanity along with theirs. Nixon may be wrong about this, but he feels now like he's stepped out of the movie theater of myth and into the freedom of the real world: "In this long chaste embrace, I felt an incredible new power, a new freedom. Where did it come from? Uncle Sam? The Phantom? Both at once? From neither, I supposed. There was nothing overhead any more, I had escaped them both! I was outside guarded time! I was my own man at last! I felt like shouting for joy!" (442). The hangdog self-image Nixon has been projecting onto the Rosenbergs throughout the novel comes alive for him now too, incarnate in Ethel but in ways that surprise him: "'It's so strange . . . waiting to die,' Ethel said softly. It was incredible this rapport, this perfectly reflected image, it made shivers run up and down my spine. Or maybe that was her fingernail. But there was another, one whom fate had sent him for his salvation. . . . 'I never dreamed . . . anything like this . . .'" (440).


The "perfectly reflected image" is distorted, of course.

Of course. That's the way these things go. The perfectly reflected image is what Emerson wants, the apocalyptic self-reflection that will transform him perfectly into his true self, the visionary self he sees reflected in the mirror of nature. Nixon's dialogue with Ethel Rosenberg keeps derailing him, turning him away from the monologue his politician's mind is always putting together, forcing him to look at things freshly--

"Freshly"? I suppose you mean things like "But there was another, one whom fate had sent him for his salvation."

All right, melodramatically. But dramatizing your life, acting it out, can open up new paths of learning.

Maybe dramatizing your life can do that. I doubt melodramatizing it can. That's just imposing a new pattern on experience. You think you're stepping outside guarded time, when you're stepping into is another conditioned illusion, another fiction you've been programmed to believe is real.

And then the fiction fails you, falls short of experience, something in the real world resists your attempt to force it into a ready-made pattern. That's what happens to Nixon: Ethel interacts with him but in ways that tug his melodramatic imagination out of shape. Which is precisely how Buber says dialogue works: "Fate and freedom are promised to each other. Fate is encountered only by him that actualizes freedom. That I discovered the deed that intends me, that, this movement of my freedom, reveals the mystery to me. But this, too, that I cannot accomplish it the way I intended to, this resistance also reveals the mystery to me. He that forgets all being caused as he decided from the depths, he that puts aside possessions and cloak and steps bare before the countenance--this free human being encounters fate as the counter-image of his freedom. It is not his limit but his completion; freedom and fate embrace each other to form meaning; and given meaning, fate--with its eyes, hitherto severe, suddenly full of life--looks like grace itself" (102).


I guess stepping bare before the countenance is what Nixon does when Ethel gets his pants down around his ankles, writes "I AM A SCAMP" in lipstick across his bare ass, and thrusts him out the door--straight from Ossining to Times Square, where Uncle Sam and the assembled company await him. There's the success of Nixon's (and Coover's, and your) Buberian dialogue.

That's the strangest, most inexplicable event in the whole novel. Not the jump in space, from the execution chamber at Sing Sing to the stage in Times Square--Coover's no realist--but the sudden reversal of the tete-a-tete, its reduction from a ludicrous but real and potentially redemptive dialogue to a throwaway.

"Real"? It's a scene in a novel. And maybe Coover's point is that there is a danger in reading any scene, in a novel or in life, as "potentially redemptive."


But think of the structural logic of it. Was Ethel faking her part in the dialogue from the start in order to play a practical joke on Nixon? If it's an act, it's a brilliant but entirely unmotivated one. Was it all a sham? Did Nixon never go to Sing Sing, never see Ethel, was this another one of his masturbatory fantasies? If it was, when did the dream start? Who wrote the inscription on his ass? Pat asks him sarcastically later what it's supposed to mean. How did he get onstage?

It's a novel. Anything can happen.

Anything can happen in Uncle Sam's world. But Coover constantly contrasts Nixon's world with Uncle Sam's. Nixon can feel pain. Nixon's pain is reality to him.

Maybe Coover just cut off Nixon's retreat from myth, shoved him unceremoniously back into Uncle Sam's world, where any kind of miracle can happen. Back into wonderland.

Or maybe he never left wonderland. Maybe the meeting with Ethel in Sing Sing was a pocket of diluted fantasy that looked something like reality, and that Nixon charged with the power of redemptive and liberating reality.

Maybe it's what Buber said would happen: you free yourself of your clothes and meet fate at the door. Undressing, Nixon is trying to throw off the weeds of mythological subjection; but he gets his pants caught on his shoes and knotted up around his ankles. "This free human being encounters fate as the counter-image of his freedom." The thing is, fate is not his completion; completion is his limit.

But in that limitation he is completed--as completed as he ever will be. Buber wants to escalate our miredness in history to a romantic triumph, but a less wishful statement of his thesis would be that it's possible to find a completion in limitation, even if only a completed ongoingness.


I don't agree that the fulcral dialogue in the book is the one Nixon has with Ethel in Sing Sing. I think it's the one Coover closes with, the painful one Nixon has with Uncle Sam in his bedroom, that grotesque anal-rape/election scene where Uncle Sam plants in Nixon's ass no lipstick inscription but a proleptic token of his election as President. Fifteen years from now, Uncle Sam is saying, I will incarnate myself in you: "you been ee-LECK-ted!" (530). That scene retroactively explains the whole book. It's all been Nixon's fumbling progress toward election, toward the Presidency. None of this freedom stuff, this dialogue between equals; I really don't think Coover can bring himself to believe in all that. That's all part of Nixon's President's Progress. The dialogue is between father and son, and it is specifically Oedipal, or Nietzschean--a repeat of the one-way Blicero-Gottfried dialogue in Gravity's Rainbow, where the buggered son becomes the vehicle or incarnation of the father's transformative vision.


Except that this time the incarnation is narrated by the victim, the vehicle, who is no silent partner but a futilely protesting and bathetically suffering human being.

Yes--in fact, it would be just as plausible to reverse the active-passive alignment and make Nixon the active partner, Uncle Sam and the whole election-rape the creation of his imagination: the embodiment of both his masochism (the morbid streak in him that thinks everybody's out to get him) and his ambition (the hunger for the Presidency). In that light Harold Bloom is more helpful than Martin Buber. The son creates the father just as the father once created the son; each is the imaginative vehicle of the other's self-presentation, each conjures up the other in a creative act of aggression against time. The father incarnates himself in the son in order to confer his power on him, but this conferral places the son in a subordinate position with respect to the father. In order to assert his own presence, then, the son incarnates himself in the father, recreates the father as a real authoritative presence, authoritative enough to confer his presence on him the son, and thus subordinates the father to him. By substituting "political" for "poetic," "politics" for "poetry," and "leader" for "poet" in this formulation from Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, we can elicit a powerful interpretive key to The Public Burning: "Political Influence--when it involves two strong, authentic leaders,--always proceeds by a misreading of the prior leader, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful political influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western politics since the Renaissance [we're going to have to say since the Greeks], is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern politics as such could not exist" (30).


For that matter, the same applies to novel-writing as a political act: Coover-as-ephebe politically correcting Nixon-as-precursor by writing this novel in the precursor's voice. Think of the self-saving caricature, the distortion, the perverse, wilful revisionism of the novel, the torturous twisting of painful events, events that still anger Coover two decades later, into savage satire. Is it surprising that the novel should be so baffling, so frustrating--and yet so emotionally powerful?

That's all there in the novel, I'm sure, and in the act of writing it. But Nixon won't reduce entirely to a satirically corrected and usurped precursor. Coover knows Nixon's pain, and makes his reader feel it too. The rape-election may be satirical myth, but Nixon's physical suffering makes it more than myth--makes it what Kathryn Hume calls a mixture of the mythic and the naked, a mixture of imaginative patterns (plots) imposed on reality and the irreducible reality of human suffering. Nakedness with Ethel may have been symbol for freedom; nakedness with Uncle Sam is symbol for the fatality of freedom, the limitations upon completion. Nixon was elected in 1968--dream come true--and resigned in 1974, three years before The Public Burning--dream turned nightmare. This isn't just satire; Coover wants us to identify with Nixon not only for satiric purposes, but for emotional growth, growth into emotional complexity.

That doesn't rule out Bloom. Here's another passage from The Anxiety of Influence, with "President" for "poet" and "Presidency" for "poem": "When a President experiences incarnation qua President, he experiences anxiety necessarily towards any danger that might end him as a President. The anxiety of influence is so terrible because it is both a kind of separation anxiety and the beginning of a compulsion neurosis, or fear of a death that is a personified superego. Presidencies, we can speculate analogically, may be viewed (humorously) as motor discharges in response to the excitation increase of influence anxiety" (58).

No, nothing rules out Bloom as long as we let Freud content us (however grumpily) with our "lot"--that is, with our ideological entrapment inside Oedipus.


Buber postulates a dialogical encounter outside Oedipus: "The You encounters me. But I enter into a direct relationship to it. Thus the relationship is election and electing, passive and active at once: An action of the whole being must approach passivity, for it does away with all partial actions and thus with any sense of action, which always depends on limited exertions.

"The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one's whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

"All actual life is encounter" (62).


Yes: postulates. But how does he propose we move outside Oedipus? "I require a You to become"--but how do I find one? How do I stop grasping at Its and open to a You? For all his angry talk about dualism, Buber is finally just a dualist without a therapeutic program: no liberating path, no practical steps out of the political and psychological I-It into the I-You. "I enter into a direct relationship"--yes, but how? Deleuze and Guattari do the same thing. "We must conclude that, strictly speaking, incest does not and cannot exist. We are always on this side of incest, in a series of intensities that is ignorant of discernible persons; or else beyond incest, in an extension that recognizes them, that constitutes them, but that does not constitute them without rendering them impossible as sexual partners. One can commit incest only after a series of substitutions that always moves us away from it, that is to say, with a person who is equivalent to the mother or the sister only by virtue of not being either: she who is discernible as a possible spouse. . . . The possibility of incest would require both persons and names--son, sister, mother, brother, father. Now in the incestuous act we can have persons at our disposal, but they lose their names inasmuch as these names are inseparable from the prohibition that proscribes them as partners; or else the names subsist, and designate nothing more than prepersonal intensive states that could just as well 'extend' to other persons, as when one calls his legitimate wife 'mama,' or one's sister his wife. It is in this sense that we said we are always on this side of it or beyond. Our mothers and our sisters melt in our arms; their names slide on their persons like a stamp that is too wet" (160-62). The implication is that the Oedipal inscription that names mother mother and sister sister is not socially or psychologically real. All you have to do to dispel an ideological inscription is to demystify it. The separability of names and persons: that's Augustine, isn't it, the label theory of meaning? Or it's Saussure, signifier and signified, with an arbitrary relation between them. "Incest does not and cannot exist" because "incest" is just a label or a signifier that stands in an arbitrary relation with what it signifies, and therefore cancels what it constitutes.


"In incest," they say later, "it is the signifier that makes love with its signifieds" (210).

The word incest, empowered by the prohibition, makes love with the parent or sibling? Rubbish. The name of that game is, Let's Have Fun With Saussure.

Not with the parent or sibling; with the incestuous lovemaking. And makes it incestuous by making love to it.

The word fucks the fucking. Fucks it over, Deleuze and Guattari want to say. If anything I'd say it's the other way around: the fucking fucks the word, the two bodies trace out the word with their caresses.


But the word was already etched onto the bodies by the father's prohibition. "The meaning of a word is its use in the language"--Wittgenstein (#43). And use is subject to social conditioning. When you say sister, you mean mother. You don't desire your sister, you desire your mother. It's sick to desire your mother, so you're sick. Every boy desires his mother, but Oedipus can help you fear your father enough to repress your desire for your mother and try to become like the father you fear. That way you can learn to hate and fear yourself, deep down, but repress that self-hatred and self-fear and project it outward onto your wife and your son. That is the proper displaced "meaning" of the word sister in Oedipal. Within the Oedipal inscription, incest does exist. When the word is situated in a history, as all words are before linguists get hold of them, the thing it describes always exists. It's already traced onto the body. It dwells in the body as a feeling (a shrinking, a soreness, a burning, a trembling--when the word describes a taboo like incest) and speaking or thinking the word can summon it up, like keying in a macro on a computer.


If fucking fucks the word, it does so not in the sense of tracing the word onto the body, where it has always already been traced by the father's prohibition. Fucking fucks the word in the sense of rubbing out the father's word, fucking it over.


Fucking precedes the word by fifteen years in Vonnegut's despised novel Slapstick: "Until the eve of our fifteenth birthday, Eliza and I never heard anything bad about ourselves when we eavesdropped from the secret passageways" (59).

The reason they never heard anything bad about themselves was that they pretended to be idiots, suppressing their linked genius to protect it from their parents. What was that pretense if not a repressive response to an unspoken but still preexisting prohibition?

"We were supposed to have no intelligence, and to die before we were fourteen" (28): their idiocy was a diagnosis. They thought they were supposed to be like that. That their parents wanted them to be idiots. It's not until the eve of their fifteenth birthday that their mother cracks, lets out the loathing for her neanderthaloid twins that she has suppressed for all those years: "I hate them, I hate them, I hate them" (66). And expresses her deepest wish: "I would give anything, Caleb, for the faintest sign of intelligence, the merest flicker of humanness in the eyes of either twin" (69). When the twins overhear this, they make a poster for their parents saying they can be "AS SMART OR AS DUMB AS THE WORLD REALLY WANTS US TO BE" (70). "Thus did Eliza and I destroy our Paradise--our nation of two" (71).


Yes, it's a myth of a fall from paradise, we're back in the Garden of Eden, but unlike the Bible's Garden, in this one the prohibition precedes the creation. It's not just a prohibition against sibling incest in this particular family. It's a bourgeois prohibition against hating your children. That one gives Eliza and Wilbur fifteen years of artificial paradise at the expense of their mother's sanity.

You blame them?

No: the prohibition, which was inscribed so firmly on Letitia's body that her prohibited desire took fifteen years to claw its way past the censor. It's also a prohibition against loving your children--too much. Loving them hopelessly. And all love is hopeless: it can never hope for requital. Requital is an undeserved reward for not hoping--or for not demanding. Love in the Oedipal inscription is too taxing, so the prohibition provides for a reserve, a holding-back, a wait-and-see: if you love me a little, I'll love you back, just that much or a little less, in case I get hurt. The parental rule is: demand from your children the love you never got as a child. Demand that they show their "love" for you by obeying your rules, the rules you worked so hard to obey when you were small in your pathetic attempt to demonstrate your "love" for parents who were afraid to surrender their reserve, and make sure that one of the rules you set is: don't get too close. Don't demand too much from me. I don't have much to give. If I give, I'm afraid I'll lose everything.


Those two prohibitions--don't hate your children, don't love your children--generated Eliza and Wilbur's paradise. Indifference was the key.

Because they had each other. Parental indifference meant--that they weren't oedipalized, right? That there wasn't a ban on incest. They didn't get Oedipus because their parents thought they were too stupid to "resolve" him, and they didn't need Oedipus because they had their connection: "Thus did we give birth to a single genius, which died as quickly as we were parted, which was reborn the moment we got together again" (50). Nor was it "incest" yet. The prohibition that defines their connection as incest and separates ("schizzes") them for most of the rest of their lives doesn't come until their mother breaks the ban on hating her children and they in turn break the ban on showing their intelligence. The "scientific" ban imposed by the pediatrician who defines them as idiots in infancy--a ban akin to the racist inscription that equates difference in appearance with subhumanity. They look like monsters, so they must be idiots. That ban says: you must be what you look like to others.

"He [their father Caleb] was sick with guilt, of course [when he discovered their poster], over having allowed intelligent human beings, his own flesh and blood, to be treated like idiots for so long.

"Worse: His conscience and his advisors had told him before that it was all right if he could not love us, since we were incapable of deep feelings, and since there was nothing about us, objectively, that anyone in his right mind could love. But now it was his duty to love us, and he did not think he could do it.

"He was horrified to discover what our mother knew she would discover, if she came downstairs: That intelligence and sensitivity in monstrous bodies like Eliza's and mine merely made us more repulsive.

"This was not Father's fault or Mother's fault. It was not anybody's fault. It was as natural as breathing to all human beings, and to all warm-blooded creatures, for that matter, to wish quick deaths for monsters. This was an instinct.

"And now Eliza and I had raised that instinct to intolerable tragedy.

"Without knowing what we were doing, Eliza and I were putting the traditional curse of monsters on normal creatures. We were asking for respect" (74-75).


Is it "as natural as breathing" to "wish quick deaths for monsters"? Or is it inscribed on our "nature" by the socius?


The breaking of all the assembled bans in the course of a night and a morning precipitates their first witnessed sexual connection, which precipitates the definitional prohibition on incest: "We made good on Eliza's promise of perfection, as I have said.

"The only trouble was that the two of us, in the innocent process of checking and rechecking our answers, wound up under the table--with our legs wrapped around each others' necks in scissors grips, and snorting and snuffling into each others' crotches.

"When we regained our chairs, Dr. Cordelia Swain Cordiner had fainted, and our parents were gone" (104).


Incest is activated in a distancing or schizzing: parents from children, brother from sister, psychiatrist from consciousness (verbal readiness, the ability to impose words on reality). And from that moment of activation on, Eliza and Wilbur define their relation in terms of schism: recriminations, lawsuits, snide jokes behind the back, etc. Until they meet, and touch. "We became a single genius again" (127).

And in so doing they deactivate incest. Deleuze and Guattari were right: incest does not exist. "It is in this sense that we said we are always on this side of it or beyond. Our mothers and our sisters melt in our arms; their names slide on their persons like a stamp that is too wet." When Eliza touches Wilbur, they become a single genius, not Eliza and Wilbur Swain, not Betty and Bobby Brown, not sister and brother, but--

An orgy. Fucking fucks the word.



"The magic triangle with its three sides--voice-audition, graphism-body, eye-pain--thus seems to us to be an order of connotation, a system of cruelty where the word has an essentially designating function, but where the graphism itself constitutes a sign in conjunction with the thing designated, and where the eye goes from one to the other, extracting and measuring the visibility of the one against the pain of the other. Everything in the system is active, en-acted (agi), or reacting; everything is a matter of use and function. So that when one considers the whole of territorial representation, one is struck by the complexity of the networks with which it covers the socius: the chain of territorial signs is continually jumping from one element to another; radiating in all directions; emitting detachments wherever there are flows to be selected; including disjunctions; consuming remains; extracting surplus values; connecting words, bodies, and sufferings, and formulas, things, and affects; connoting voices, graphic traces, and eyes, always in a polyvocal usage--a way of jumping that cannot be contained within an order of meaning, still less within a signifier" (Anti-Oedipus 204) like incest.


"We went berserk. It was only by the Grace of God that we did not tumble out of the house and into the crowd on Beacon Street. Some parts of us, of which I had not been at all aware, of which Eliza had been excruciatingly aware, had been planning a reunion for a long, long time.

"I could no longer tell where I stopped and Eliza began, or where Eliza and I stopped and the Universe began. It was gorgeous and it was horrible. Yes, and let this be a measure of the quantity of energy involved. The orgy went on for five whole nights and days" (128).


The fucking fucks incest. Fucks Oedipus. Fucks its way back to what Deleuze and Guattari call the territorial inscription with its "way of jumping that cannot be contained within an order of meaning," and maybe back past that too, into the deterritorialization they associate with the schizo, that we saw with Slothrop before: "The schizophrenic deliberately seeks out the very limit of capitalism: he is its inherent tendency brought to fulfillment, its surplus product, its proletariat, and its exterminating angel. He scrambles all the codes and is the transmitter of the decoded flows of desire. The real continues to flow." They scramble all the codes; they transmit the decoded flows of desire. Only the They is now an I-You, in which the It-inscription of the I and the You has dissolved into the relation, the dialogue, the conjoined bodies, the fucking.


It's also destructive as hell.

"As for why nobody broke us up or summoned help: Eliza and I captured Norman Mushari, Jr., and poor Mother and the servants--one by one.

"I have no memory of doing this.

"We tied them to wooden chairs and gagged them, apparently, and set them neatly around the dining-room table" (129).

This is not, I take it, precisely what Buber had in mind. It is, of course, more or less what Deleuze and Guattari have in mind. Or body.


In his prologue Vonnegut calls the book "the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography" (1), by which he says he means he is writing it, in some sense, about his own dead sister Alice, or about his sense of their sibling bond. "It would have been catastrophic if I had forgotten my sister at once," he writes about the time after her death at age fifty-six. "I had never told her so, but she was the person I had always written for. She was the secret of whatever artistic unity I had ever achieved. She was the secret of my technique. Any creation which has any wholeness and harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind" (15).


But now Alice is dead.

"Yes, and she was nice enough, or Nature was nice enough, to allow me to feel her presence for a number of years after she died--to let me go on writing for her. But then she began to fade away, perhaps because she had more important business elsewhere" (15-16).

But now she's dead in both senses, in her body and in Kurt's. He "felt" her "presence" in his body for a few years, kept writing to that feeling--until it began to fade. The body ground for his I-You faded. And his books started going becoming mannered, like late Hemingway. What was a real dialogical relation became an experiential pattern to be imposed on life.


Buber puts that dying to relation in terms of God: "Man desires to have God; he desires to have God continually in space and time. He is loath to be satisfied with the inexpressible confirmation of the meaning; he wants to see it spread out as something that one can take out and handle again and again--a continuum unbroken in space and time that insures life for him at every point and moment" (161-62). Another word for that is theology.



The desire to spatialize what can't be known into a map and permanize it in plastic. "Life's rhythm of pure relation, the alternation of actuality and a latency in which only our strength to relate and hence also the presence, but not the primal presence, wanes, does not suffice man's thirst for continuity. He thirsts for something spread out in time, for duration. Thus God becomes an object of faith. Originally, faith fills the temporal gaps between the acts of relation; gradually, it becomes a substitute for these acts. The ever new movement of being through concentration and going forth is supplanted by coming to rest in an It in which one has faith. The trust-in-spite-of-all of the fighter who knows the remoteness and nearness of God is transformed ever more completely into the profiteer's assurance that nothing can happen to him because he has the faith that there is One who would not permit anything to happen to him" (Buber 162).


Kathryn Kramer has a rather more secular version of this in A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space: "They [Cyrus's girlfriend Fritz and her uncle Sigismund] were also in the habit (which drove Cyrus into a frenzy and made him refuse, after the first nerve-wracking experience, ever to play with either of them again) of agreeing upon changes in the rules mid-game. ('It's immoral!' he raged. 'Don't you understand that if you change the rules in the middle it can damage a position that was built according to the first rules? You think you're going to play one way and all of a sudden your strategy is meaningless--don't you see?' No, they didn't see at all; they could not understand his desire for fixed conditions. 'It's boring to do the same thing all the time,' they protested, mystified at his distress)" (115). Fixed conditions: the fictions men need to protect themselves against their fear of the unknown. Surrender them. Give in to flux. Open yourself to relation. Let it hurt, but let it change, bend, shift.


Fritz is also a brilliant if (in traditional terms) erratic violinist: "She could not, Pierre [her mentor] insisted, simply improvise on stage! Some strategy--however subtle and unusual--must be adhered to! She must give people something to take home with them! 'But I don't want them to take what I play home with them!' she replied, scandalized. It was enough that they were to be allowed to listen at all! Pierre had practically spluttered, trying to convince her. 'Yes, it is all very well, you are nervous, you have never been away from home in your life, but it makes no difference! None of these things are adequate excuses for what you propose to do. Call me old-fashioned if you like . . .' (it had never occurred to Fritz to do so), 'but my deepest belief is that to produce a tension and not to resolve it, in full consciousness of what you are doing, is morally reprehensible and must be prevented! What difference, my dear, does it make how magnificently you play, if there is no order in your music!'


To "give people something to take home with them": that is, to give them an experience rather than a relation. An I-It to impose on their experience, not an I-You. To teach them to cut into their flows in a pre(in)scribed way rather than ripping out the inscribed barriers to the flows.


"Fritz had not understood him in the least--not, that is, until this moment [when she noticed that Cyrus was lying and had been lying for some time]. She now did see. If she could find out Cyrus's hidden knowledge, it, like the introductory chord in a musical composition that contained the organizing principle of the whole, would render intelligible the battle that had been at play between them in recent months, maybe always" (223-24).


The hidden knowledge is that Cyrus's grandfather Charles Street, a onetime general in Intelligence, is Fritz's father Dagobert Ludwicker, a deposed prince who, ashamed of his happy youthful incest with his sister Xilipheupia, leaves home without a trace, changes his name, joins the army, gets married, becomes a general, etc.--comes back twenty years later for a single night with Xy, leaves her again, this time pregnant with Fritz. As a general in "Intelligence" his job was to gather information and keep it secret--a job he gravitates to out of his need to protect the secret of his own incestual love.


"Intelligence" translates as "repression."

Or "anality." Information-retention. And he passes it on to Cyrus, who is driven to find out who his grandfather is--but, like his grandfather, to keep the knowledge secret once he finds it. "Our modern societies have instead undertaken a vast privatization of the organs, which corresponds to the decoding of flows that have become abstract. The first organ to suffer privatization, removal from the social field, was the anus. It was the anus that offered itself as a model for privatization, at the same time as money came to express the flows' new state of abstraction. Hence the relative truth of psychoanalysts' remarks concerning the anal nature of monetary economy" (Anti-Oedipus 142-43). But it's even truer of an information economy, where money too becomes a digital code on a credit card or key-sequence, where ever more anal-retentive file-protection systems are devised to monopolize information against the schizo-hackers that would ferret out all the institution's dirty little secrets, where government and business retain information as a matter of course, withhold it, protect it against the incursions of their "citizens" and "clients," the mommies and daddies that supposedly keep them alive but really (they know it!) only want to steal their precious poop! "Only the mind is capable of shitting" (143), Deleuze and Guattari say, and in an information economy the bodily minds of the users and the electronic minds of their computers guard their data-power-shit with all the fierce jealousy of the despot guarding his dignity-power-shit or the classic capitalist (Uncle Scrooge) guarding his money-power-shit.


There are no computers in A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space. Only that famous oxymoron, military intelligence.

Nor are there visitors from outer space. Only the need to amass enough intelligence about our world to be able to provide outside observers with a cogent explanation for the apocalypse: "A handbook for visitors from outer space, Charles had ordered him to write. It would EXPLAIN THE ENTIRE WORLD! He remembered thinking how it would suddenly appear everywhere, like Gideons Bibles; visitors from outer space, consulting it, would understand what had happened in the world to make it come to an end. But if you grew up expecting the world to end--even though it might be next to impossible to actually imagine this happening: the whole world just stopping, the war to end all wars (once the First World War had been that) maybe even being started by one crazed person in a vindictive moment--it warped your thinking; you looked at everything with a jaundiced eye; and you could never relax your vigilance. If you did, and everything blew up while you weren't looking, it would be your fault" (181).


Kramer sets up apocalyptic expectations in an italicized "afterword and preface" called "The House at the World's End," about an empty house, with all kinds of cosmic hints about an empty world, a world emptied of humans by the last war. But the novel isn't about the apocalypse, it's about human relationships, about secretiveness and knowledge, the kind of frantic and destructive search for knowledge that secretiveness fosters, and about the dialogical relaxation of anal-retentiveness that can lead to



Survival, anyway. Ongoingness. Limitation and completion, without perfection.


Charles Street locked the secret of his sibling incest up his anus, never told his wife anything about his life before he met her. Love is dangerous: it whispers give, give. Let go. Let loose. Open up. Release. NO. Charles Street couldn't retain his secret and his stable life both; retention is implosive; eventually his wife left him, his daughter ran away from home, he resigned his commission in Intelligence. Later his daughter invited him back into her home, and he passed his need to spy and retain to his grandson Cyrus, who spends most of the novel spying and retaining, and destroying all of his relationships.

Except, in some sense, his semi-incestuous affair with Fritz. She's his mother's half-sister, his aunt, I suppose that's not normally proscribed as incestuous, but of course the shadow of incest hangs over their affair--the incest that spawned Fritz and that Cyrus withholds from her.

And she leaves him for it--for lying, for not telling, for being so far up his grandfather's (her father's) ass that he truly believes the world will end if he tells (it'll be his fault! you did it you dog! you told!). In what sense doesn't he destroy his relatioship with her? She walks off.

His secretiveness makes tangible to her the cocoon of secretiveness the men in her life have wrapped her up in. The palpable non-echo of her own I-You (it disappears into a black hole) shakes her out of her blithe Buberian assumption that everyone is as open to relation as she is, brings her to the brink or the breach at which she must decide whether to adjust herself to the world or what--and walks out, chooses the "what." Just what, Kramer doesn't say.

But the relationship is destroyed.

With Cyrus. Maybe not with the world, with other people. And in any case the pain of losing Fritz opens Cyrus up too: "'Oh, well,' Cyrus said brightly, `what's a little incest among relatives?'" (328). This in Kramer's recognition scene: by this time she's shifted her foreboding apocalyptic mood into comedy, the end of the world into the end (by revelation) of the dirty little secret (incest), and when Cyrus discovers that his new girlfriend, Arabel, was conceived by a passing man whose name her mother doesn't remember, he contemplates the possibility that it might have been his father (who had been in the right place at the right time) with equanimity. "What's a little incest among relatives?"


The novel closes at Cyrus's parents' house in Arborville: he arrives to find it empty, the house at the world's end, the one from the "afterword and preface," which you now go back and read. Now Kramer's constructed a whole new interpretive context to read it in: Cyrus's parents are over marching in the Memorial Day parade, where Cyrus soon joins them, and waves at Arabel in the upstairs window of the now no longer empty house as they pass. Now there are no hints of apocalypse in the "afterword and preface." Only comedy.

Oh, the hints are still there. They've just been redirected. Controlled. Like Buber clamping down on the apocalypse through idealized dialogue. Kramer has led us by the hand through her changing of the rules to a, what--a comic revision of Barth's tragic view, an acceptance, in any case, of ongoing life, and we're to accept it with her.


Barth has a scene, or a story, actually, in Tidewater Tales that looks back to the ending of the novel Kramer wrote for him at Hopkins and later published as A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space, "a 'story' in Peter's notebook called 'Apocalpyse,' never submitted for publication and here printed for the first time [here in Three Dialogues for the second time], in its entirety" (141):


One drizzly Baltimore November forenoon, as from an upstairs workroom window of our little house I mused over the neighbors' lawns--some raked clean, some still leaf-littered--and considered whether

For that, Peter had explained, is how--in the first-person narrative viewpoint from which each of us leads life--the world can end, whether at that whether "I" am felled by a coronary or thermonuclearly incinerated by an ICBM meant for Washington, D.C., but slightly diverted by a minuscule error in its inertial guidance system. The twin facts are (first) that we are on the one hand so lulled by ubiquitous narrative convention that we may indeed forget, reading a realistic story [like this one], that in it even the meaningless is meaningful, it having been put there by the author just to remind us that real life comprises much meaninglessness. When, in a story, nothing happens next, that is the thing that happens next: The nothing becomes a thing, which, we may be sure, the author will quickly cause to be followed by the next thing, a more conventionally dramatic thing, and on goes the story. Whereas (second) in fact, nothing is no thing, and our story does not at all necessarily go on, for the reason that our lives are not stories. (142)


Like hell they aren't. This bothers me about Tidewater Tales, Barth's refusal to metafict. On the next page Barth has his dual narrator say that, whatever happens to them, "all will be equally 'meaningless,' inasmuch as in fact, so far as we can tell, we are not characters in a story" (143)--but Barth knows, and we know, and Barth knows that we know, etc., that they are characters in a story, and that fact is something that he has always insisted on before, even in Sabbatical, where the Author's intrusion was fairly innocuous--

You mean, premodern.

Okay. He's writing this story about two people remarkably like himself and his wife, though they are younger and older and have very slightly different professions (Peter the short-story-writer-in-residence at the University of Maryland is closer to Barth the novelist-in-residence at Hopkins than Fenwick was in Sabbatical, Susan the English-professor-cum-schoolteacher was closer to Shelly there than Katherine is here, and if that weren't enough, he has Peter and Katherine meet Fenn and Susan and all the other characters from Sabbatical, only now with their "real" names, before Frank Talbott wrote that book and changed his own name to Fenwick Turner and everybody else's to something else, and this seems to me a pointless invention--why not just keep the names the same? Sabbatical knew it wasn't written by Fenwick Turner or Franklin Talbott, it knew it was written by the Author), and he's setting things up to guide his reader to a certain view of the world. It's all purposeful. Why deny it? It's an attempt to trap the reader in realism, and I don't see why Barth of all people has to make a move like that.

He's trapping the reader in a sense of his or her own powerlessness in a godless universe, which he still calls the tragic view. It's just that now he refuses to give his characters or his readers the ultimately reassuring sense that there's an Author who shapes our lives to meaningful ends. Besides, I wouldn't exactly call the novel "realistic." The characters meet Oedipus and Nausicaa, Don Quixote, Scheherezade on the Chesapeake, and you want to call it realistic?

Of course. Those people claim to be characters from those old fictions, but Barth leaves the possibility open that they're just good story-tellers--realistic tellers of fantastic stories. And for the most part you've got what Barth has Peter Sagamore describe as "a novel in which next to nothing happens beyond an interminably pregnant couple's swapping stories" (427).


Notice that Peter writes his "apocalyptic" short story in a first person that sounds more like John Barth than Peter Sagamore: "our little house" in Baltimore, which is what the Barths have and P and K do not (they've got an apartment). Could that be a metafictional touch? When Peter writes a story, he writes it not as an author but as the Author?

A subtle touch, if it is one. Some people refer to their apartments as houses. Maybe it's a row house.


But there are interesting possibilities there. Barth did write that story, of course, and also writes the third-person commentary on it that he attributes to its author, Peter Sagamore.

But if he embeds himself in the story as the voice in the upstairs workroom window, he's already at two removes from the authorial voice controlling the shape of the whole fiction, two steps of increased powerlessness over the fiction's flow.


Do you suppose he's up there reading the end of Kramer's Handbook, about Arabel looking out the upstairs window of the house in Arborville? Considering whether to give her an A?

A for Arborville, or for Arabel, or for Hester's A that Leslie Fiedler and Philip Young claim was really an I--?

He's up there considering whether the end of the novel works. Considering whether the house really does stand at the end of the world (or only at the end of the book (or whether the end is in the beginning)). Bringing his student Kathryn ("Katie") into the novel and renaming her Katherine, Peter's wife, trying to give her another chance past the end of her novel. Pronouncing judgment, the Divine-Judge-as-Teacher, on the success of a would-be apocalyptic fiction.

You keep trying to empower Barth's authorial persona, to elevate it to apocalyptic (or what in American Apocalypses I called diacritical) power over the course of the lives not only of his own characters but of his students as well.

But he has that power!

But he's struggling to relinquish it, to let it slip away, slip through his fingers. To slip back into life. Surrender. George Giles did it. Now he wants not only Peter and Katherine and the reader to do it, but John Barth to do it too.


He should stop writing.

No. That's a false dichotomy: either you write or you live. Writing is living too. He's alive when he writes, and writes to live: has to live his writing and write himself into life.

That sounds like the earlier Barth, not this fellow who you tell me has adopted the tragic view of metafiction as well.

"Adopted"? When hasn't he had it? When was Barth ever sanguine about metafiction? Reread "Life-Story" in Lost in the Funhouse.

Reread the "Dunyazadiad" in Chimera, which Barth rehearses in the Scheherazade story in The Tidewater Tales. In the "Dunyazadiad" Barth makes it clear that he's Sherry's genie, metafictional author of the fiction he's just been shazammed into, and their encounter solves both Sherry's problems and his own. In Tidewater Tales you have to have read Chimera to know that this "Djean" is "John" Barth, and not only can Barth not solve Scherezade's problems in either capacity--as Author or as Djean--but we never even find out how her problem is solved, how she gets back to her "place and time and order of reality--PTOR, as we came to call it" (590).


I think Barth makes it pretty clear here too that Djean is the Author

--the metafictional appearance you were looking for. But you're right, he's a strangely powerless Author, a stymied one. As is quite right in the realistic metafiction Barth now wants to create:

"The story he had been in process of inventing last Monday, he now revealed (the one in which he'd hinted Scheherazade might once again appear), was literally that: a story in which a man who once magically visited Scheherazade now wishes that she could visit him, so that if what he's done must be essentially what he'll do, it might be done at least as spiritedly and wholeheartedly as before. In short, that story was this story [literally: it's The Tidewater Tales], and, like this one, it was not only unfinished, but stuck.

"Sighed Shmah I should have known: postmodernism. Boyoboy.

"Yeah. When me and the guy in the story were trying to think up a way to bring Scheherazade here, I came up with the WYDIWYD trick, and Blam! There you were, in the story. That same afternoon, Blooey! There you were, in our boat. Then you didn't fade, and it occurred to me that that was just the right complication for the story, so I put it in: how the novelty wears off, and the problem gets to be not only how to get you back home but what to do with you in the meantime. You know what I mean: what you're to do with yourself till your time's up.

"If it ever is! cried Scheherazade.

"Now look here, said Shmah: This is serious. I could let my feelings be hurt, but I'm not going to. . . .

"Please don't, Djean urged her. There was nothing romantic about it, except the romantic idea of inspiration.

"Now you're hurting her feelings, his wife pointed out. But better hers than mine. Let me see if I have this right. The WYDIWYD trick happened in your story first and then in our lives, but the no-fade problem happened to us before you put it in your story. If cause and effect are being passed back and forth, the ball's in your court.

"Scheherazade wiped her eyes. You're very sharp, Shmah.

"She is that, Djean agreed.

"Oh, I can analyze to beat the band, Shmah acknowledged. But invent? Forget it.

"I can't do either, said Scheherazade. I only tell, tell, tell.

"Well, I invent, Djean declared, and so does the fellow in my story. Believe it or not, I invented him too: We don't have much in common besides Scheherazade and this problem. And the ball is in our court, evidently. The trouble is, it's stuck there. You don't just write WYDIWYD or TKTTTIT or Go away and make it happen; I've tried that, for all our sakes.

"He touched Scheherazade's arm. In my opinion, WYDIWYD got you here because it was dramaturgically appropriate, excuse the expression. And your nonfading went into the story because it was appropriate, dramaturgically. But WYDIWYD pure and simple won't get you home, because that isn't good dramaturgy. He looked from one to the other of his listeners. We're prisoners of dramaturgy.

"Do you mean to say, appalled Scheherazade began.

"Exactly. And they've thrown away the key" (603-604).


Is that metafictional enough for you? They aren't prisoners of realism, they're prisoners of a most fantastic dramaturgy.

Fantastic my fanny. It isn't good dramaturgy for the mere phrase "What you've done is what you'll do" to get Scheherazade home in a realistic novel. Dramaturgy isn't an absolute. It's generically controlled. Barth wants his characters to feel trapped, unrescuable by an auctor ex machina, because it's appropriate for people to feel trapped in the world he feels himself living in. It fits his tragic view of reality.


I think we also find out how Scheherazade gets home--though I'm not sure I understand it.

It's a mystery. Tragically conceived, reality is full of mysteries that never get solved.

This one does, or there are hints at a solution, which is much more fantastic than realistic.

They must be mere hints, then, in this novel. Are you talking about Chip's number-crunching in "The Ending"?

Yeah: he figures out that Scheherazade got zapped back home at "just possibly the very moment" (643) when Peter and Katherine conceived their twins.

"How does that arithmetic get Scribbler Djean off his plot-hook, P wants to know, and Scheherazade back to the Islands of India and China? Chip says he's only crunching the numbers; it's not his story, and we Sherritt-Sagamores are too busy nursing and diapering these days (and easing back into our rent-paying labors while working up our coupled viewpoint for The Tidewater Tales: A Novel) to give it much thought" (643).

I don't know either. The conception seems to have shazammed her home

--but what does that mean?


How about this (and you'll like this one, it's metafictional as well as fantastic): the twins that are conceived at that moment, Barth hints, and whose conception may have sent Scheherazade home and got Djean (and his creator?) off the plot-hook, are Jack and Jill (654) Barth, the twins that Barth and his sister grew up as, the twins that Barth has been trying to bring to incestuous union throughout his writerly career, and now--well, what does he do now? Realizes that incest isn't the treasure, it's only a key to the treasure, and only one key: another is regression to childhood, rebirth as an infant, as two infants, a boy and a girl, a girl and a boy, each with its own placenta but both hooked to the same mother, both floating in the same ocean of story.

Talking about their parents, their futures, their lives. Yes.

And telling stories: Barth has Katherine say that when she tells the story of the swan prince of Queenstown Creek, the embryonic twins "are calling the narrative shots, not me" (507). "Jack and Jill" form a "narrative committee" (509), a dual narrator like Peter and Katherine, like Susan and Fenwick, like Djean and Shmah dialoguing the book, spinning its tales out of their embryonic intercourse.

You think they're fucking in there?

Social intercourse. But they are curled up together like George and Anastasia Stoker in the Tapelift to the Belly of WESCAC, or like Wilbur and Eliza Swain taking the IQ test in Slapstick, opposite-sex twins on their way to (re)birth, talking and snuffling each other's bodies in total abandon, total surrender of adult self-protectiveness, total infantile regression. Telling stories out of that regression, and maybe transforming the regression in and through the act of story-telling into (re)birth. Maybe the innovation in Tidewater Tales is Barth's impregnation of Katherine with himself and his twin sister Jill, his insemination of the story with a dual Author as embryonic twins, boy and girl, Jack and Jill. And maybe that gets Djean off his plot-hook, sends Scheherazade home to her husband and children and grandchildren.


And maybe our dialogue is the same kind of cute trick. Doug and Don Robinson pretending to be two voices, when most of the time we develop a unified argument monologically. Father and son, united in patriarchal ideality, chiming in to complete each other's thought.

Maybe so. You want me to sit the next one out?

Three Dialogues Contents

Buber | Bakhtin | Wittgenstein | Works Cited

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