Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Dream Narratives of Debris by Peter Schwenger

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The Dream Narratives of Debris
Peter Schwenger
Consider the so-called decorator crab. As it moves across the sea floor,
it covers itself with debris, such as bits of algae and sponge, which it attaches
to the small hooked hairs that cover its carapace. Most critical essays proceed
in a similar manner. Bristling with snipped-off quotations, footnotes and
bibliographical references, they adopt a protective coloration that allows
them to pass unharmed through intellectual deep waters. Nor is this only
superficial decoration: the body of the essay is often assembled from wide-
ranging sources, which in their conjunction may form an idea quite different
from any one of its components. The present essay is no exception to this
rule. It assembles itself out of bits and pieces of Freud, Piaget, Lévi-Strauss
and Baudrillard; and its examples are drawn from artists in various media:
Joseph Cornell, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Gorey and Donald Barthelme.
That debris (no disrespect is intended) is assembled here precisely in order
to make a point about the ways that debris is assembled – the ways that, in
the first instance, material residues give rise to certain narrative
arrangements, which are never so thoroughly assembled that they escape
from under the sign of debris. They have now been translated into mental
debris, and as a consequence partake in the kinds of associative processes
that also give rise to dreams. Narratologists have expended much effort in
the attempt to lay out narrative’s syntax. But the structuring principles of
narrative may be more akin to those of the decorator crab than to those of
the grammarian. Within the drowned world of debris, narrative and dream
clasp hands.
Joseph Cornell supplies our first example of such an encounter. On April
15, 1946, he took time out from constructing his boxes of assembled objects
to clean up his workspace. That night Cornell wrote in his diary: “Had
satisfactory feeling about clearing up debris on cellar floor—‘sweepings’
represent all the rich crosscurrents ramifications etc that go into the boxes
but which are not apparent (I feel at least) in the final result” (Cornell 128).
While it is common enough for an artist to feel that the completed work has
fallen short of the vision, it is less common for an artist to locate that vision
in the work’s material leftovers—in sweepings, debris, the residues of the
day. “The residues of the day” is of course a phrase taken from a book that
Cornell knew well and repeatedly cited, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.
There Freud asserts that psychological residues of the preceding day are
essential ingredients in the formation of dreams because they offer to the
unconscious points of attachment through which its impulses may be
manifested (562-64). The same thing can be asserted of Cornell’s material
version of the day’s residues: points of attachment—or in Cornell’s words
“crosscurrents ramifications etc”—determined the way his boxes were
assembled. Indeed, even before the assembling process began in that cellar
workspace, the material brought with it a certain psychological freight. For
Cornell’s projects were often generated in the course of hunting expeditions
among the junk shops of New York: his preliminary material was already
residue even before it ended up on the cellar floor. And out of this residue of
past days arose “impressions intriguingly diverse—that in order to hold
fast one might assemble, assert, and arrange into a cabinet” (Cornell, quoted
in Ratcliffe 46). Such an arranging of debris mimics not only the processes
by which dreams are assembled but also those by which narratives are
assembled, blurring the line between them.
A continuum between dream and narrative is outlined by Freud in his
essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” The continuum runs from
dream to day-dream to play to creative writing—but, as we will see, it by no
means runs only in one direction. If dreams are assembled from the residues
of the day in order to express a wish fulfillment, then in this regard night
dreams and the more consciously narrative day-dreams both serve the same
function. It is a function that in childhood has been served by play. Through
play, says Freud, the child “creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges
the things of his world in a new way” (143-44), thereby gratifying erotic or
egoistic wishes. This rearranging of things recalls us to the cabinets of Cornell,
which not only used toys but were themselves exhibited as toys, and so
described by Cornell himself in a diary entry: “perhaps a definition of a box
could be as a kind of ‘forgotten game,’ a philosophical toy of the Victorian
era, with poetic or magical ‘moving parts’ . . . . That golden age of the toy
alone should justify the ‘box’s’ existence” (Ades 29). The toy itself, however,
is less important than the state of mind that animates it, or is animated by it.
Thus John Ruskin tells us that, deprived of conventional toys in his childhood,
he passed hours in tracing the figures in his carpet (Praeteritia 19), and Henry
James’s famous use of that image encourages us to see a narrative element
in the child’s daydream here. Still, that narrative element is scarcely a
conventional one. Cornell underlined a passage in his copy of Jean Piaget’s
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The Language and Thought of the Child that characterized child narratives by
“an absence of order in the account given, and the fact that causal
relationships are rarely expressed, but are generally indicated by a simple
juxtaposition of the related terms” (107; cited in Keller 107). Marjorie Keller
has argued that this indicates an anti-narrative bias in Cornell. But I would
contend that rather than eliminating narrative, or even “subverting” it,
Cornell moves the narrative element to a liminal space where it may play in
subtle and elusive ways. The liminality of this space is indicated by Piaget
later in his book when he states that a child’s characteristic ways of ordering
are “intermediate between logical thought and that process which the
psychoanalysts have rather boldly described as the ‘symbolism’ of dreams”
In the essay on “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” fiction occupies
a similar liminal space. For Freud, fiction naturally replaces the play that
adults are no longer allowed to indulge in, and it performs the same function
of fulfilling wishes. It’s true that Freud is here dealing with formula fiction,
written by “the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories,
who nevertheless have the widest and most eager circle of readers of both
sexes” (Freud, “Creative Writers” 149)—Violet Winspear, that is, rather than
Virginia Woolf. Yet these conventional, ready-made fantasies not only enact
the wish-fufilling daydreams of their readers; they may also become elements
in the assembling of dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud explains
that secondary revision tries to give to the disparate elements of the dream
a conventional narrative form: it “seeks to mould the material offered to it
into something like a day-dream” (Interpretation 492). At the same time it
can make use of day-dreams: it “will prefer to take possession of the ready-
made day-dream and seek to introduce it into the content of the dream”
(492). And of course this “ready-made day-dream” has often been made
and shaped by fiction.
Consequently, narrative fragments may appear in the dream, and the
dream as a whole may be cast, misleadingly, as a coherent narrative. Freud
In general one must avoid seeking to explain one part of the manifest
dream by another, as though the dream had been coherently conceived
and was a logically arranged narrative. On the contrary, it is as a rule like
a piece of breccia, composed of various fragments of rock held together
by a kind of binding medium, so that the designs that appear on it do not
belong to the original rock embedded in it.1
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The “designs” on the dream’s fragments may of course very well be narrative
designs, detached from their original coherency and jumbled. Narrative
debris, in fact—and also a mode reminiscent of the way the child jumbles
conventional narrative order. Piaget’s description of child narratives as
intermediate between a plot’s conventional mode of ordering and that of
dreams begins to deteriorate. For the dream ordering and the child’s mode
of ordering blur into each other; and neither is free of narrative elements,
fragmented though these may be. Finally there is the “binding medium” by
which the fragments are held together in their incoherent cohesion: is this
too a species of narrative principle? If so, it is disconcertingly less concrete
than Freud’s comparison would have us believe. The space we are
considering begins to take on the paradoxical qualities of a classic
deconstruction, as binaries break down and into each other. Dream is no
longer opposed to narrative, since its components may themselves be
narrative fragments; and when the surface narrative of the dream’s manifest
content is refused, it is only to be replaced with another narrative—that is,
Freud’s. Moreover, conventional narrative is said to serve the same purpose
as dream—the gratification of childhood wishes. Childhood itself, and its
characteristic ways of ordering the world, is thus not really “liminal”—if by
that we mean standing between two clearly separable realms—nor is it
“intermediate” as Piaget calls it. Difference has taken on the characteristics
of différance, and the line of argument becomes not only circular, but twisted
like a Möbius strip.
If such paradoxes of the narrative of debris are implied by Cornell’s
work, they also play themselves out in works by others, who often
acknowledge his influence. Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, constructed boxes
of her own in homage to Cornell.2 An homage of a different sort is her
translation of Octavio Paz’s poem to Cornell, “Objects and Apparitions.” It
appears in Geography III, a collection that itself adapts debris: the questions
asked in a discarded geography primer are used as the book’s epigraph,
acquiring in their new context a disconcerting poetic power. A similar
adaptation occurs in Cornell’s work, according to Paz’s poem: “refuse of
every moment, used” turns into “cages for infinity”; and “marbles, buttons,
thimbles, dice,/ pins, stamps, and glass beads” tell “tales of the time.” Time
and infinity interpenetrate in the apparitional state evoked by Cornell’s
objects. He has created a
Theatre of the spirits:
objects putting the laws
of identity through hoops.
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Identity makes these jumps because here nothing is one thing only:
A comb is a harp strummed by the glance
of a little girl
born dumb.
The apparitions evoked by these objects populate dramas played out in each
spectator’s “theatre of the spirits”: Cornell’s stated aim in his boxes is to
invite the spectator to “elicit further dreams and musings if such he might
care to do” (Cornell, cited in Ades 33).
Nothing is one thing only, as well, in Elizabeth Bishop’s curious prose
poem “12 O’Clock News.” Her subject matter is the midnight debris of her
own writing desk, which becomes transformed: the gooseneck lamp becomes
a full moon; the typewriter becomes a terraced escarpment; the typewriter
eraser becomes a fallen unicyclist-courier “with the thick, bristling black
hair typical of the indigenes.” In part this piece is a witty description of the
writer’s desk as a battleground. For instance, a large rectangular field, “dark-
speckled,” baffles “our aerial reconnaissance”: is it, we are asked, “an airstrip?
a cemetery?” Potentially both, once the object is identified as a typed sheet,
whose words may either take off or lie lifeless as tombs. But this piece is
also, as the title indicates, a news broadcast, reproducing the glib and
patronizing language of journalists. We are presented with a dugout on the
plain full of dead soldiers, all wearing white camouflage uniforms properly
meant to be used in mountain warfare. This, we are told, “gives further
proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childishness and hopeless
impracticality of this inscrutable people, our opponents, or of the sad
corruption of their leaders.” The “proof” becomes less convincing when we
realize that the dugout is an ashtray, and the dead soldiers in white are
cigarette butts. Bishop may here be satirizing American attitudes to her
adopted Brazil, attitudes engendered by the interpretive narratives of the
evening news. Finally, there is the element of play, surrealist but also childlike.
Like the child, the poet “creates a world of [her] own, or, rather, re-arranges
the things of [her] world in a new way.” But Bishop does this not without
irony, not without a deep distrust of the very narrative thread that she spins
out of her desk’s debris.
A similar distrust impels Edward Gorey to create The Inanimate Tragedy
(Fig. 1). Like much of his other work, this is a sly satire of narrative, especially
its more melodramatic nineteenth-century versions. The drama here is
enacted by a cast of characters that includes the No. 37 Penpoint, the Glass
Marble, the Two-Holed Button, the Half-Inch Thumbtack, the Knotted String,
the Four-Holed Button, and a chorus of Pins and Needles. Our tragedy opens
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with the chorus exclaiming “Death and Distraction! Destruction and
Debauchery!” At regular intervals the action will be interrupted with similar
exclamations, though these are not always entirely successful: “Discomfort
and Damage! Doom and Discrepancy!” The reiterated D’s order this litany—
but not without the twist of nonsense found in Carroll’s “Cabbages and
Kings” or certain alphabet books (like Graeme Base’s Animalia) which make
“alphabetical order” seem an oxymoron. The pins and needles presumably
reflect the state of suspense in which we are to be kept. However, suspense
(a pleasurable sense of non-knowing) modulates to bewilderment (a less
pleasurable version of the same thing), as the next frame tells us “Almost at
once the No. 37 Penpoint returned to the Featureless Expanse.” Almost at
once after what? Returned after what exit? We have here a mad in medias res,
which is never resolved in retrospect. And it only gets worse. The large cast
of characters are playing out a drama to which we do not have access. It’s
not just that we don’t have the answers; we don’t even know the questions.
At intervals X will tell Y what has happened, or make known to them what
has occurred, or acquaint them with what has transpired—all without
revealing particulars. Nobody tells us anything. Yet every frame of this drama
seems to be fraught with significance, even while the frames don’t always
link up with one another. Not only are the characters of this tragedy bits of
debris; narrative elements themselves have become a kind of bric-a-brac
that can be willfully shuffled on the whatnot.
The resulting narrative is once again reminiscent of Piaget’s description
of children’s narratives where “causal relationships are rarely expressed,
but are generally indicated by a simple juxtaposition of the related terms”
(107). Gorey’s narrative is also reminiscent of the sense of significance
attaching to the most jumbled dreams, and the way they make leaps that
seem logical at the time, but utterly disconnected upon conscious reflection.
Indeed the “Featureless Expanse” that provides the setting for this tragedy
may be the one familiar to us from the dream paintings of Salvador Dali and
Yves Tanguy. Another fearless illogicality is the scene in which “The Glass
Marble, mistaking the No 37 Penpoint for the Four-Holed Button, pushed it
into the Yawning Chasm.” Leaving aside the question of how anyone could
mistake a penpoint for a button, we note the deliberate avoidance of the far
more logical confusion between the Two-Holed Button and the Four-Holed
Button. These inexplicable mistakes are juxtaposed to the “fatal mistake”
that is a familiar narrative motif. In narrative, though, elements of chance
and the arbitrary only contribute to a tighter ordering of the narrative pattern.
Even when death and destruction hold sway, as in the last act of Hamlet, the
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Illustration by Edward Gorey from “The Inanimate Tragedy,” © Estate of Edward Gorey.
All rights reserved.
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tragedy is restful, for we sense that the machine is working as it should.
Here, as one object after another dutifully falls or flings itself into the Yawning
Chasm, quite a different effect comes about. The arbitrariness of the
convention itself is exposed; so that as the Chorus of Pins and Needles joins
all the other characters in the Yawning Chasm, we cannot help feeling that
the debris of narrative itself has just executed a final mise en abîme.
Bric-à-brac, breccia, bricolage . . . . Claude Lévi-Strauss provides yet
another case of a narrative of debris—for that is what his most famous
comparison comes down to. Speculating on how the sacred narratives of
the tribe are composed, Lévi-Strauss finds the process to be like that of the
bricoleur, the odd-jobs man who keeps on hand the dismantled and left-over
parts of every gadget or machine he has ever worked on. Out of this jumble
he selects the components he needs to create a gadget suited to a particular
task—regardless of what task those parts were meant to perform in the first
place. The myth-maker’s narrative invention is similar: he may take from
other contexts images, symbols, narrative fragments, arranging them to
express a tension or a desired resolution that is psychological as much as it
is cultural—it is as if the myth is the culture’s dream.
This process seems to be homologous to Freud’s principles of dream
construction: bricolage and breccia are both images of the way fragments
from other contexts can be reassembled into significance by an elusive
“binding medium” that is ultimately a mental operation. It is the task of
both the psychoanalyst and the structuralist to bring that elusive mental
process to light. Indeed, some of their methods are similar. For Lévi-Strauss,
an important idea is one that occurs repeatedly in the narrative: “The function
of repetition is to render the structure of the myth apparent” (Structural
Anthropology I, 229). For Freud, “the ideas which are most important among
the dream-thoughts will almost certainly be those which occur most often
in them” (Interpretation 306). Both proceed by resisting the narrative coherence
of the surface, instead establishing associations among elements of the dream
that will ultimately reveal a deeper coherence—though their method of
establishing these associations is significantly different. Finally, in both cases,
the moment that analysis has achieved coherence, this hard-won narrative
is swallowed up by a continuing narrative evolution, thus once again
becoming a fragment of a newly elusive whole. Lévi-Strauss’s synchronic
analysis of the Oedipus myth, for instance (“The Structural Study of Myth”
in Structural Anthropology), must be situated in a diachronic space consisting
of all the variations of that myth through time. Of these variations, Freud’s
must be one, as Lévi-Strauss admits. And however fundamental Freud’s
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Oedipus complex may be in his psychoanalytic theory, when it is detected
in dreams it is always through fragments and tangents, entangled with the
residues of the previous day. In short, narrative returns to a state of debris. If
the analyst succeeds in disentangling the dream, his success may become
matter for more dreaming: Freud describes several dreams that seem to have
been designed to disprove his theory of dream as wish-fulfillment—and
thus to fulfill the dreamer’s wish that the theory be disproved. Freud himself,
that is, becomes a fragment in his patient’s dream narrative, often being
assimilated with other significant fragments such as the father. And this
process does not end until the mind does. Freud himself concedes that
there is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream
which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the
work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts
which cannot be unravelled and which moreover adds nothing to our
knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream’s navel, the spot
where it reaches down into the unknown.3
What he is decribing is a mise-en-abîme with a vengeance; into it
disappears the authority of Freud’s narratives as well as Lévi-Strauss’s, and
indeed the authority of narrative itself, conceived as coherence, structure,
order—as well as linguistically conceived versions of narratology.
Admittedly, structures and sub-structures will be found in any narrative.
But these coherences are only recognized as such through their contexts,
and are to that degree fragments; they are bound together by a force that is
allied less to grammar than to dream. Even this distinction becomes blurred
when Lévi-Strauss’s linguistically-based model is seen to share some of the
same problems as Freud’s dream rebuses.
The acknowledged master of the narrative of debris is Donald
Barthelme. It is Barthelme that Jonathan Culler uses to make a transition to
literary criticism at the conclusion of his essay on Michael Thompson’s
Rubbish Theory. Thompson, a sociologist, argues that rubbish occupies a
cultural space between the transient and the durable—a kind of holding bin
where any particular piece of rubbish may under certain conditions be
reclaimed as a collectible, that is, as something with durable value. Of course
not only collectibles have durable value: anything in the category of the
aesthetic makes that claim or at least aspires to it. In a novel like Snow White
Barthelme stakes his claim through rubbish. This becomes most explicit at a
point when one of the seven “dwarfs,” Dan, pontificates about the work
done by the dwarfs at a plant that manufactures plastic buffalo humps, and
its relation to overall trends in trash:
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Now you’re probably familiar with the fact that the per-capita production
of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5
pounds per day in 1965, the last year for which we have figures, and is
increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will
probably go up, because it’s been going up, and I hazard that we may very
well soon reach a point where it’s 100 percent. Now at such a point, you
will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this “trash”
to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it’s 100 percent,
right? And there can no longer be any question of “disposing” of it, because
it’s all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to “dig” it—that’s
slang, but peculiarly appropriate here. So that’s why we’re in humps, right
now, more really from a philosophical point of view than because we find
them a great moneymaker. They are “trash,” and what in fact could be
more useless or trashlike? It’s that we want to be on the leading edge of
this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that’s why
we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be
seen as a model of the trash phenomenon. (103-4)
The aspects of language that Dan refers to here need not be confined to
the linguistic “stuffing” he has spoken of earlier (e.g. “you know,” “sort of,”
“like”). Even the “durable” language of art can partake of the trash
phenomenon when it is detached from its context, thrown upon the great
slag heap of culture. So in Barthelme’s novel we have numerous
appropriations like “Then he became melancholy, melancholy as a gib cat,
melancholy as a jugged hare” (123) –this pillaged from Henry IV, Part 1. And
even when no direct quotation is involved, Barthelme’s sentences seem to
quote themselves, standing away from the page in self-conscious
construction. No mode is sustained long enough to become transparent.
Unpredictable juxtapositions, quirkings of the banal (“Spare the bat and the
child rots”) create a Chaplinesque comedy of language.4 And all this becomes
possible when language is viewed not as a transparent window to
signification but as a heap of disparate and concrete entities. Some
narratologists have hoped that the structures of language could provide a
model that would reveal the fundamental structures of narrative. But
Barthelme’s use of language implies that words do not have a stabilizing
objectivity, but rather the randomness of objects, objects that may be picked
up, turned around and—freed from their original connotations and
contexts—assembled in a comic bricolage. In one of his most quoted
pronouncements, he asserted that “Fragments are the only forms I trust”
(Symposium 26).
All this, too, is dreamlike. For, as Freud asserts, “words are frequently
treated in dreams as though they were things, and for that reason they are
apt to be combined in just the same way as presentations of things”
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(Interpretation 295-96). Things, of course, need not be related to each other
by any principle other than juxtaposition. So when in Snow White a dream is
narrated (124), it does not stand out in contrast to anything that could be
denominated a waking reality. Its curious logic is the same as that of the
novel as a whole.
Barthelme, like Bishop, wrote an evocation of Cornell’s aesthetic world;
it combines an uncanny, dreamlike quality with a precision of reference that
is very canny indeed. Here it is in its entirety:
I put a name in an envelope, and sealed the envelope, and put that envelope
in another envelope with a spittlebug and some quantity of boric acid,
and put that envelope in a still larger envelope which contained also a
woman tearing her gloves to tatters; and put that envelope in the mail to
Fichtelgebirge. At the Fichtelgebirge Post Office I asked if there was mail
for me, with a mysterious smile the clerk said, “Yes,” I hurried with the
envelope to London, arriving with snow, and put the envelope in the
Victoria and Albert Museum, bowing to the Curators in the Envelope
Room, the wallpaper hanging down in thick strips. I put the Victoria and
Albert Museum in a still larger envelope which I placed in the program of
the Royal Danish Ballet, in the form of an advertisement for museums,
boric acid, wallpaper. I put the program of the Royal Danish Ballet into
the North Sea for two weeks. Then, I retrieved it, it was hanging down in
thick strips, I sent it to a machine-vask on H.C. Andersens Boulevard,
everything came out square and neat, I was overjoyed. I put the square,
neat package in a safe place, and put the safe place in a vault designed by
Caspar David Friedrich, German romantic landscape painter of the last
century. I slipped the vault into a history of art (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt,
1975). But, in a convent library on the side of a hill near a principal city of
Montana, it fell out of the history of art into a wastebasket, a thing I could
not have predicted. I bound the wastebasket in stone, with a matchwood
shroud covering the stone, and placed it in the care of Charles the Good,
Charles the Bold, and Charles the Fair. They stand juggling cork balls before
the many-times-encased envelope, whispering names which are not the
right one. I put the kings into a new blue suit; it walked away from me
very confidently. (Teachings 112-13)
Structurally, the piece echoes a practice of Cornell’s described by Mary Ann
Caws: “A phrase or short text would be wrapped in an envelope with a tiny
picture, and that envelope placed within another, and so on, in an intricate
series of infoldings” (451). In Barthelme’s homage the clarity of this series of
containments is continually dissolved by surreal incongruities, made up of
typical preoccupations of Cornell such as nineteenth-century ballet and Hans
Christian Andersen, antique advertisements and weathered wallpaper. Nor
does all this containing secure meaning for us. The “name” hidden away
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from us at the start might be Cornell’s, but Cornell is just as likely to be the
contents of the “new blue suit.” And if that suit walks away “very
confidently,” the confidence is all on its side, not ours. Similarly the movement
“away” is another version of the direction taken by all that mental flotsam
and jetsam. Barthelme, perhaps alerted by his own practice, has here
fashioned an accurate parallel to Cornell’s art. For if Cornell’s boxes imply
elusive narratives, and invite the reader to provide others, they do not contain
narrative. Rather, they open up narrative to the unpredictable and endless
vagaries of dream: “cages for infinity,” Paz calls them. The paradox is doubled
when we remember that not infinity but specific and limited debris makes
up the contents of the box. What can be characterized as infinite is the
narrative-making impulse in the mind, continually elicited by the box’s
The narratives that are made in accordance with this impulse have less
to do with “meaning” than with seduction. I take this term from Jean
Baudrillard, who sees seduction as a fundamental rule, a rule opposed to
We are called upon at every moment to seduce (that is, to lure to immolate
and to destroy, to subvert and to ravish) that which the law summons us to
produce. The law imposes production upon us, but the secret rule, never
spoken, hidden behind the law, imposes seduction upon us, and that rule
is stronger than the law. (133)
While Baudrillard here emphasizes seduction’s power to destroy that which
production puts forward (forward etymologically: pro), seduction has its
own version of generative power –not straightforward as in a line, but
flickering through a series of tangents, touching at one point only and then
drawing apart (apart etymologically: se) through an infinite and
unpredictable range of possibilities. Seduction is provocative: it calls out in
us something, many things, beyond the law. So the spectator of Cornell’s
work is invited to think, literally, outside the box, to “elicit further dreams
and musings.”
Narrative must partake in what Baudrillard says of writing in general:
“it’s nothing but the projection of an arbitrary code, an arbitrary system (an
invention of the rules of a game) where things come to be taken in their fatal
development” (154). Those things may be words, words functioning as
things—the way they do, according to Freud, in dreams “where words,
emptied of their meaning, begin to function as things, and are all brought
back to the same primordial, brute, material state, to link together in their
material imminence, senseless (but not random) beyond all syntax and all
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principle of coherence” (Baudrillard 154). In short, dream as debris. What
Baudrillard is describing here goes some way toward explaining how things
may have a “fatal development” beyond syntax and coherence: they link
together in ways that inhere in their individual material natures (and are
thus fatal or fated) rather than in accordance with some overarching
organizing principle. But what, then, is the nature of their relation with
coherence, with the arbitrary code, arbitrary system, to which things come,
it seems, in order “to be taken in their fatal development”?
To ask this is to ask about the nature of the narrative game. The rules of
that game are not meant to produce knowledge but to hold it off—to delay
production long enough for seduction to have its effect. Structures of narrative
slow down the acquisition of meaning so that the more rapid play of the
mind has time to flicker fitfully, to play in the spaces where “meaning” is
not. This is doubtless something of what Baudrillard intends when he says
“going faster than the conceptual connections—this is the secret of writing”
(162). So the debris that makes up Gorey’s “Inanimate Tragedy” is not only
that of material objects but also that of narrative structures—structures that
almost invariably belong to what Roland Barthes would call the hermeneutic
code, whose function is to delay the too rapid advent of meaning (75-76).
Gorey gives us reversals, mistaken identities, miscommunications and
secrets, but here these are entirely divorced from the specious promise of
“truth.” In place of truth he gives us play, a play beyond the rules of the
game, or rather a play with the rules of the game. And this is perhaps the
most fundamental pleasure of the text:
Incalculable connections are the stuff of our dreams, but also of our daily
bread. We like nothing more than this crazy imbalance of cause and effect
–it opens fabulous horizons on our origins and on our potential power.
They say that seduction is a strategy. Nothing could be more wrong.
Seduction is a matter of these unexpected connections that any strategy
can at best only attempt to reproduce. (Baudrillard 155)
Cornell describes his box as a game, though its rules are significantly
“forgotten”—or as a toy that is “philosophical” in that it plays with the
relations between physical debris and the narratives that arise out of their
enigmatic conjunction. But I have been suggesting throughout this essay
that these narratives may not be as different as one might imagine from the
physical debris that evoked them. The work is on the one hand assembled
out of narrative fragments to create an apparent structure of meaning. On
the other hand, the momentum of meaning must be delayed enough so that
the plot’s machinery falls apart, from moment to moment returning to
Peter Schwenger88
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
narrative debris. And in the spaces between these fragments, a movement
of another sort can arise: not production but seduction, the flickering
combinatory play of dream.
Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax
The research for this essay was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada.
1. “Dreamwork,” 181-82. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud uses the same analogy of
“breccia, in which largish blocks of various kinds of stone are cemented together by a
binding medium” (419) to explain the fragmented nature of speeches experienced in
2. Two boxes are illustrated in Elizabeth Bishop, Exchanging Hats: Paintings, pp. 48-51.
3. Interpretation of Dreams 525. As the passage continues is becomes clear that Freud’s
metaphor for this “tangle of dream-thoughts” is rhizomatic:
The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from
the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch
out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought.
It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-
wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium.
Compare Deleuze and Guattari’s “Introduction: Rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus, where
a rhizomatic structure is played against the linguistic model of Chomsky (and by
extension of many narratologists). Deleuze and Guattari use a term that is also used in
this essay, and for similar purposes, when they speak of “the book as assemblage . . . a
rhizome-book” (23).
4. Cf. Lance Olsen: “His words are Chaplins and Keatons. They slip on themselves, trip
over their own feet in an attempt to mean something stable” (12) As in Chaplin, however,
there is an anarchic grace and wacky creativity that somehow makes the “stable” seem
very dull.
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