'Laughing at the laugh': unhappy consciousness in Nathanael West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell.
My life is a hesitation before birth.
(Franz Kafka) (1)
Reviewing the posthumous publication of the first collected edition of Nathanael West's novels in 1957, W. H. Auden diagnosed what he called 'West's Disease', 'a disease of consciousness which renders it incapable of turning wishes into desires'. In these narratives, Auden writes, 'All wishes, whatever their apparent content, have the same unvarying meaning: "I refuse to be what I am".' (2) Although, conservatively, he mistakes such wishfulness for the hubris of the individual who lacks the necessary drive to succeed in a modern meritocracy, Auden nevertheless accurately identifies an insistent sense of self-disavowal running throughout West's texts. In the author's short debut novel The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) this is exemplified in a passage that has become somewhat talismanic for West criticism. Elliptically interpolated into the 'Pamphlet' section of the narrative--supposedly written by schoolboy playboy John Raskolnikov Gilson--we discover the following:
An intelligent man finds it easy to laugh at himself, but his laughter is not sincere if it is thorough. If I could be Hamlet, or even a clown with a breaking heart 'neath his jester's motley, the role would be tolerable. But I always find it necessary to burlesque the mystery of feeling at its source; I must laugh at myself, and if the laugh is 'bitter,' I must laugh at the laugh. The ritual of feeling demands burlesque and, whether the burlesque is successful or not, a laugh. (3)
Thematically and stylistically, Gilson's comments on laughter strike a very Westian pose. They conjure the satirist behind whose invective there is no moral purpose and no 'ritual of feeling', merely a pessimism inherited perhaps from Spengler--so influential upon Fitzgerald et al.--or from Valery. (4) Kingsley Widmer reads this exposition of humour as 'reflexive[ly] modernist' and an example of the 'pained infinite regress' the critic associates with the stylistics of that movement. James F. Light, author of the first full-length study of West, notes that the writer, in his own words, was 'a satirist who felt in his bones "the necessity for laughing at everything--love, death, ambition, etc."'. West, Light reports, citing a letter to George Milburn, considered his own 'particular kind of joking' a mode in which 'there is nothing to root for [...] and what is even worse, no rooters'. (5)
Looking more closely at the passage from Balso Snell above, we certainly detect in it modes of 'regress' and negativity. Gilson's pamphlet laments the fact that its narrator is neither Hamlet nor a clown with a 'breaking heart'. Unlike his own, these roles, he says, are 'tolerable'. Why? Because the sad jester, like Lear's fool or Quixote's Sancho, is of course conventionally the secret repository of sense in a foolish world--the marginal figure who may speak the truth to power, a traditional role for the artist or intellectual too. Yet the guise of foolishness in the clown (or madness in the case of Hamlet) works really to confirm the character's pathos and the integrity of his/her inner nature, separate from external appearances. Such figures, for Gilson, tolerate themselves because, with a kind of 'insincerity', they can escape from their social roles into the authenticity of themselves. For Gilson's rather different species of interlocutor, on the other hand, such reassuring interiority is unavailable, cut out by the cold irony of the anachronistic, faux-Leoncavallian phrase "neath jester's motley'. Our sad jester, it seems, is really a sentimental cliche after all--a part West's narrator cannot play.
But clowns (and, indeed, theories of humour) continue to appear throughout the novel. 'What is more tragic than the role of clown?' asks Beagle Hamlet Darwin, Balso Snell's most agile mental and physical performer, later in the text. 'What more filled with all the essentials of great art?--pity and irony. Get it?' (p. 51). Clowns, he suggests, possess the same status and interiority as tragic heroes, using laughter to rail against fate. In phrasing his statement like a joke ('get it?'), Darwin, however, already casts doubt on the sincerity of his own assertions, framing an ambiguity that carries over to his other comments on the distance between performance and life, acting and self. Deriding the notion that life is all just performance, a view dismissed as a voguish 'catch-word of disillusion' (p. 50), at the same time he celebrates 'the superb Beagle: dancing, laughing, singing--acting' (p. 51), avowing that 'Life is a stage; and we are clowns' (p. 51). In fact, he presents the impulse to clown and to act as being one side of a desperate dichotomy: despairing of the 'dull roar of your misfortunes' ('your mother is dead, or your father, or your sister, or your brother'), 'Your first thought is to rush out there and cut your throat before [the audience's] faces with a last terrific laugh', he says (p. 51). Instead of doing this, though, you act, and the performance is nothing but pain, even as it appears to efface pain. Rather than choose the 'inner- directedness' of suicide, one attacks oneself from the outside, taking the part of the audience--the other--and laughing with them at oneself. Hence the clown oscillates between two roles, fully at home in neither.
At the heart of the laughter of such self-mockery is thus a kind of mise en abyme similar to what Simon Critchley thinks of as the pure smile: 'the highest laugh, the mirthless laugh, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the risus gurus'; the humour that, somewhat Socratically, turns against itself. (6) In West, however, such 'pure' self-reflexivity is impossible. Because his laughter involves a kind of self-externalization, it becomes the site of a certain agony; his joking is predicated upon an experience of excoriation, of being turned inside out. The trouble with a 'thorough' or pure self-mocking, he suggests, is that it can strive towards a feeling of greater self-authentication. Sometimes, that is, the more laughter gestures at self-abasement, the more elevated it becomes. There is an implicit egoism in it that Freud too notices in his 928 paper 'Humour': 'Like jokes and the comic,' he writes, 'humour has something liberating about it; but it also has something of grandeur and elevation [...]. The grandeur in it clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego's invulnerability', a commentary related to his account of Galgenhumour (gallows humour), in which a condemned man jokes about his own imminent death in order to rise above or even appropriate it. (7)
The Westian laugher, on the other hand, resists elevation, laughing at his/ her own laughter, and so at the other in the self that the latter represents. Self-feeling, in other words, is never allowed to become a meaningful, self-transcending consciousness; rather, it occasions a switch into self-mockery as if from another's point of view. In turn, this other is itself prevented from attaining the gravitas of feeling (even the feeling of bitterness) through a further laugh, a further division and a switch against this self. Hence we might say that the laughing self presented in Gilson's pamphlet is simultaneously undermined and yet indefinitely sustained by its own double capacity for dissolution and affirmation. Its peculiar combination of clown and tragedian is marked by an apparent self-fissuring whose reconciliation is constantly deferred. West's divided 'selves' work ceaselessly but fruitlessly to annihilate one another, like cartoon characters bashing each other's heads with mallets, offering nothing but recurrent violence, or the violence of recurrence.
Reflecting on his second novel Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), West homed in on this gestural quality to his work, suggesting the latter text as a 'novel in the form of comic strip', wherein 'Violent images are used to illustrate commonplace events' and in which, against a progressive chronology, chapters are as capable of going backwards as forwards. (8) Sianne Ngai finds something similar too in West's final novel, The Day of the Locust (1939), reading the jumble of speech comprising Homer's post-catatonic 'one thick word' in Steinian terms. The character's incoherent, self-replenishing gush of expression--'the flood [of words] was circular and ran back behind the dam again'--discards normative syntax, Ngai argues, for what she calls a stupefying and affective repetitiousness recalling Heidegger's description of poetry as 'the water that at times flows backward toward the source'. (9)
In the case of Balso Snell, the odd suspense created by a logic of endless self-production/destruction, or futile labour, is, I suggest, woven into the novel's very fabric, even functioning as the antinomy that generates the text. We discover its motif, for example, in the 'Phoenix Excrementi', 'a race of men [Balso] had invented one Sunday afternoon while in bed'. These figures, whom Balso suspects he might meet on his journey into the Anus Mirabilis' of the Trojan Horse, 'eat themselves, digest themselves, and give birth to themselves by evacuating their bowels' (p. 5) in a way we can compare to the laugh that turns against self-transcendence. In their transmutations between base material and human consciousness, the Phoenix Excrementi present the values of 'humanness' and a 'lower' materiality as mutually implied and yet, in practice, held in check; they show us a sort of endless struggle between the self as subject and as object.
In the light of this, I wish to read West dialectically, discerning something concrete or historically specific in the oscillations he shows us. Several generations of critics have been inclined to ascribe to Balso Snell a rather grand dismissal of culture as such: James Light hears its 'hysterical, obscure, disgusted shriek against the intellect'; Deborah Wyrick sees a Dada artwork that perversely 'celebrates that which it wishes to destroy'; while Jonathan Veitch notes in it a 'thorough housecleaning' of Western tradition. (10) Yet the persistence and involution of West's negations in fact correspond more closely, I suggest, to the movement of the 'Unhappy Consciousness' in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. The latter provides an appropriately dialectical model for explaining the agon of West's text and its dark humour for two reasons: firstly, unhappy consciousness describes the dynamics of a self-splitting we might associate with the laugher who laughs at him/herself--or, indeed, a culture that turns against itself--and secondly, it locates these kinds of feeling within historical consciousness, resisting explanation by subjective, existential, or psychological means. Through a reading of this section of Hegel's work, the present article will try to untie the Westian text and site the latter's particular poetics--of unhappiness, self-hatred, and mutation--more securely in the moment from which it derives.
Central to my argument is the notion that the stages of consciousness Hegel describes in his work make sense chiefly as forms of social consciousness. For the philosopher, the misery of unhappy consciousness is, broadly speaking, that of the disjunctive and mutually undermining experiences of master and slave as they coexist within a single 'mind'. Seen through a more Marxian lens, this condition can more concretely be considered as that of a social subject identified with the expropriative and exploited classes at the same time. Defined in a way that goes beyond Hegel's idealist designation, such consciousness mediates between the labouring body on one side, and an 'elevated' consciousness at liberty to dispose of the products of labour, on the other. Influentially, art historian T. J. Clark has suggested the petite bourgeoisie as the occupants of this intermedial position, arguing that the latter's cultural articulation of class liminality, exhibiting both anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian tendencies, is in fact the main impetus behind aesthetic modernism. (11) In the present study--concerned with the relation of unhappy consciousness to West's modernism--I suggest that such consciousness identifies more a fissured social subject than a group with split loyalties. West articulates what we can understand as the 'schizophrenia' (in the inaccurate, popular sense of dual personality) of an American society determined by the intertwinement within lived experience of the twin logics of mass production and mass consumption. Subjective unhappiness, for West--a writer of the 1920s and 1930s--is the fate of experience in Fordist modernity: the era in which the radically societalized individual must embody the tensions of society as a whole. (12) By preserving within his works an unresolved dialectic of 'psychic' struggle, the author resists the consolations of consumerism. Behaving something like the Phoenix Excrementi noted above, West's subject is aware that it simultaneously produces and--through consumption--destroys itself, only to produce itself again; it makes, is made and is unmade, by an industrial culture that is a culture industry, and so a consciousness industry, too. Through a process of production, exhaustion, and re-production, the condition of subjecthood mirrors that of the commodity itself: ever-renewed yet ever-the-same.
Indeed, as Rita Barnard has noted in her study of West, the continuity of the culture industry as an integral aspect of planned, corporate capitalism spans the period of the author's literary production--the apparently disparate American decades of 1920s boom and 1930s bust. Even after the economic contraction following 1929, in the depths of the Depression the staging of World's Fairs, for example, pointed the way American business continued to wish to go. (13) Domestic industrial production was stimulated and reproduced through rapidly developing practices and patterns of consumption, the spectacular ideologies of which were disseminated via advertising, expanding print, film, and radio media, and through events such as expositions, all of which are represented in West's fictions. (14) Barnard invokes Warren Susman's notion of the 'culture of abundance' in this regard, pointing up the continued emphasis throughout the inter-war years on a Fordist, Taylorized economy in the service of which the state (with varying degrees of success and through both interventionist and laissez-faire policies) brokered and managed the frequently hostile relations between capital and labour. Far from being a period of reflection upon the voracity of capitalism, the Depression, as Peter Drucker suggests in Weberian fashion, was a triumph of economism, showing 'man as a senseless cog in a senseless whirling machine which [...] has ceased to serve any purpose but its own'. (15)
Thus, across his oeuvre, West satirizes bourgeois hegemonic strategies of conciliation between competing economic interests, suggesting even liberal, New Dealing notions of progress--social and technological--as the effacement rather than resolution of social conflict. This happens most directly perhaps in A Cool Million (1934) through the caricature of President Calvin Coolidge (1923-29): the American Fascist leader and huckster Shagpole Whipple. The latter provides the Hobbesian thesis that
Capital and Labour must be taught to work together for the general good of the country. [...] Both must be made to realize that the only struggle worthy of Americans is the idealistic one of their country against its enemies, England, Japan, Russia, Rome and Jerusalem. Always remember, my boy, that class war is civil war, and will destroy us. (pp. 242-43)
Whipple's cracker-barrel, militant Americanness--mirroring the rags-to-riches popular fiction of Horatio Alger upon which West bases his narrative--functions as the imaginary community that aggressively rejects 'old-world' class affiliations along with all other manifestations of political and ethnic 'subversion'. Whipple presents, rather, a stand for a disenfranchised 'middle class' hitherto 'crushed between [the] two gigantic millstones' of labour and capital (p. 188)--a view from behind which West warns of the emergence of an American style of Fascism. Behind Whipple's homespun rhetoric, that is, looms the image of a monolithic body politic populated by the happy robots (Karel Capek's 1920 neologism from the Czech for 'serf') of Fordism that we see at the end of the novel. (16)
Later, in The Day of the Locust, the 'cheated' petite bourgeoisie of neophyte Californians who loiter discontentedly around the periphery of West's narrative only to explode onto its centre stage in the novel's final, riotous scenes exemplify clearly the coexistence within 'one consciousness' of opposed tendencies:
All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labour [...] saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. [...] If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a 'holocaust of flame,' as the newspapers put it. [...] Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can't titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing. (pp. 411-12)
Here the imagined rhythm and quid pro quo of production and consumption, of work followed by leisure, career followed by retirement--the image within everyday life of a 'square deal' between labour and capital--is seen to be unattainable, its promise duplicitous. The supposed cycle of activity and relaxation turns out to be a flexion in which leisure is really dull labour and consumption and taste are forms of disciplined production, as violent in the images they employ as the violence upon the subject they entail. It is a situation in which, as Theodor Adorno puts it, 'No fulfilment may be attached to work, which would otherwise lose its functional modesty in the totality of purposes [and] no spark of reflection is allowed to fall into leisure time, since it might otherwise leap across to the workaday world and set it on fire.' (17) Their correspondent nullity draws the two sides of the work/leisure equation together: absorbed into praxis, culture threatens to lose its potential as a site for critique.
At Locust's climax, anticipated in central protagonist Tod Hackett's painting The Burning of Los Angeles, precisely such a crossover and conflagration is in fact depicted when a film star's failure to show up at a premiere becomes the occasion of mob violence. Instead of the possibly insurrectionist sense in which Adorno intends his 'spark', though, West imagines in the chaos of the crowd a self-wounding reproduction of the very violence, symbolic and actual, already meted out upon the same, slack bodies that have 'slaved for nothing'. The force of the final scenes of the novel, in which Tod's distressed howl merges with that of a police siren--'Like one of Roger Caillois's insects, Tod fades into his mechanized background, becoming an indistinguishable part of his environment', writes William Solomon--is their materialization of the social relations inhering within apparently free acts of (in this case, spectacular) consumption. (18)
So, while Barnard among others sees West's work prefiguring Debord and Lefebvre--'For West [...] the disintegration of the real into the image [...] is correlated with the domination of the commodity form', she comments p. 173)--the writer actually presents the other side of this. He reminds the reader of the antagonistic nature of a sociality that the fetishistic and, in Marx's term, 'hieroglyphic' tendency of the commodity form--especially its manifestation as media image--occludes and mystifies. Like Marx's famous, anthropomorphized wooden table--which, once it becomes a commodity, evolves 'grotesque' ideas 'out of its wooden brain' (19)--in the passage from Locust above, people become 'anthropomorphized' objects for one another, grotesque things--a motif peppering West's works. To 'consume' others frolicking in their love nests or perishing in 'holocausts of flame' is a type of Bergsonian comedy, a dance of foolish automata demanding from its audience Bergson's 'anaesthesia of the heart', or even a Schadenfreude that, I argue, is really also the enjoyment of an experience of self-reification. (20) A mirror for the antics of Gilson's clown noted above, the act of commodity consumption, spectacular or otherwise, is linked in West to a pleasure taken in the objectification or pain of an other who is, in fact, a proxy for the self. Through a kind of displacement in thought and feeling, one provides an alibi for taking pleasure in one's own disaggregation in alienated labour, repressing the latter as an immediate reality. We find this in nuce in Miss Lonelyhearts when the cynical journalists who deride Miss Lonelyhearts's empathy with his often grotesquely disadvantaged correspondents are described as 'machines for making jokes' (p. 84). West alerts us to the covert or even unconscious nature of the self-anaesthesia prerequisite for such pleasure, the consequent and pervasive undercurrent of feelings of jadedness, slackness, and disappointment. The chiastic switch between the experiences of viewer and viewed--between, for example, the subject and object of the spectacle evident at the close of Locust--are moments in which, for the reader, the unhappy consciousness makes itself known. Perhaps this is why, in his well-known article on literary violence, West suggests that American writing has to be violent to be authentic. 'In America', he writes in 1932, 'violence is idiomatic [...] violence is daily.' Unlike a European audience, scandalized by 'one little murder', for the American reader such events are more than familiar: they are the essential stuff of the culture of consumption. (21)
Balso Snell, then, is a key text for West criticism because, alone among the author's novels, it takes for its subject its own insertion into, and reification within, the cultural market. In it, West sets out to show rather than tell us that cultural work of the kind that wishes to resist recuperation--an autonomous l'art pour l'art aesthetic we might associate with some of the writing to which he alludes in the novel, such as that of Gertrude Stein-exists principally in or as the painful recognition of its own impossibility, which, in turn, perhaps allows a sort of possibility. (22) In this sense, his scepticism about the ability of aesthetic work to occupy some lofty eyrie is tightly imbricated with his notion of humour: art and humour both appear as the feeling of a movement between opposed positions rather than positive positions in themselves. In West, the idea of a work of 'pure' culture--together with its analogue, an abstracted, absolute, and ironic 'mind' unsullied by involvement in material life--is always confronted with its opposite, a consciousness reduced to the status of objecthood: often a battered body. Critical consciousness migrates, for him, into an obsessively recurring experience of objectification and humiliation.
We find this in Balso Snell when narrator John Gilson suggests that art should never merely flatter cultivated taste:
In case the audience should misunderstand and align itself on the side of the artist, the ceiling of the theatre will be made to open and cover the occupants with tons of loose excrement. After the deluge, if they so desire, the patrons of my art can gather in the customary charming groups and discuss the play. (p. 30)
Although there is obviously a recognition here of the paradox that, as Renato Poggioli puts it, 'the genuine art of bourgeois society can only be anti-bourgeois'--which is in itself another kind of self-mockery--the passage also indicates that the effects of cultivated taste described above operate equally powerfully within all contexts: one can imagine all too easily Gilson's 'charming' and serious discussion groups. (23) Analgesia' occurs on the level, that is, of both 'mass' and 'high' cultural forms. (24) In fact, the treatment of self as an object to be moulded underwrites a number of cultural tropes in the novel. It is through his art, for example, that Gilson compensates for a lack of outward beauty: a dull 'cousin to the Bird of Paradise [...] he has to exteriorize internal feathers' in order to please others (p. 26); obversely, his violent beating of his lover Saniette is redeemed in her eyes by the mention of Sade and Gilles de Rais--philosophers of the subjection of others (p. 29). Legitimized by a kind of cultural sophistication, pain transmutes to something else: acknowledging a Sadian scene, '[Saniette] weathered a second beating with a slow, kind smile' (p. 30).
As much as it is an image of recuperation, however, the figure of the excremental, or the return of the abjected, noted above, also works in a contrary direction to dramatize a momentary release for the instrumentalized body. Such reversals are typical of West's prose. In line with his model of a civilization entered by its anus or his images of humans remaking themselves from their own shit, disgust functions too as a sharp reminder of a materiality otherwise excluded from discourse. Gilson yearns for 'active pain', an exacerbation of the discontinuity of objective and subjective being rather than acquiescence to a pervasive, neutral 'irritation':
I tear off the cold sore with my nails. I scrub my salt-encrusted nostrils with the rough sleeve of my overcoat. [...] I am able to turn irritation into active pain for only a few seconds, but the pain soon subsides and the monotonous rhythm of irritation returns. O how fleeting is pain!--I cry. (p. 28)
Likewise, Janey Davenport, the giant hunchback, blooms with sores--'For me', says Balso reassuringly, 'your sores are like flowers: the new, pink, budlike sores [...] I shall cherish them all. O deviation from the Golden Mean! O out of alignment!' (p. 38). These temporary emergences of the distorted or pained body, I argue, will come to function as an important referent for the recurrent linguistic confrontations of self and other that animate West's novel. Already we might notice that in these descriptions, as also in Gilson's dualistic notion of the interior self as the heavily robed 'chauffeur', or automotive servant, of the exterior self (p. 29), there is a strange sense of two bodies in one here, one self growing out from another: what Jane Goldman describes as 'identity in process'. (25)
We should turn, however, to Hegel's model from the Phenomenology to see how it might illuminate West's text. Using modes of thought emblematized by the Greek Stoics and then Sceptics, and corresponding also to the relation of master and slave, Hegel argues that the unhappy consciousness is a position combining, but beyond, all of these. The initial basis for self-consciousness, Hegel suggests, can be identified with stoicism, the state in which conscious thought is first achieved and enjoyed (no mean feat) but one that is also empty and detached from the world:
The essence of this consciousness is to be free, on the throne as well as in fetters, throughout all the dependence that attaches to its individual existence, and to maintain that stolid lifeless unconcern which persistently withdraws from the movement of existence [...] into the simple essentiality of thought. [...] Freedom of thought takes only pure thought as its truth, and this lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself. (26)
Freedom here is the freedom to think despite one's worldly predicament (whether one is sovereign or in chains) and so the stoic's 'unconcern' about the world denotes the autonomous space of thought as well as the will through which the thinking self is asserted. Stoical liberty, as Hegel's most prominent French critic, Jean Hyppolite, has commented, represents 'precisely this identity of thought and will'. (27) But such self-willed, self-oriented thought, Hegel warns, is only ever a play of abstract forms. Stoicism's properly naive (because only we can see it) lack of worldly content creates a schism between itself as a pure, 'universal' form of thought on one side, and everything real it represses, on the other. As the philosopher points out, 'dependence always attaches' to individual thought and existence, however imperceptibly, so throughout the narrative of the unhappy consciousness he reminds us that all thought presupposes but often misrecognizes its other. Sometimes, for example, abstract thought cannot see its corollary in concrete existence.
Hence Hegel particularizes the supposed 'universality' of stoical consciousness by ascribing it to those historical eras in which the thinker is forced to retreat from external 'universal fear and bondage' into a detached culture of thought (PM, p. 245). Although he is probably thinking of the end of the happy Athenian polis and the spread of Roman law, we might pick up more than a hint of the 'unreal city' of modernism here. The play with pure form has considerable resonance in this regard too. Something of the world-detachment of the stoic, in other words, must be attributed to the modernist writer as he/she withdraws from the reified landscape of the commercial world. For this reason, writers like Tim Clark and J. M. Bernstein (following Lukacs) see a species of unhappy consciousness in the space of aesthetic modernism. (28)
For Bernstein in particular, modernism supersedes previous artistic modes by offering a highly circumscribed reconciliation between the human subject and a society reified by capital. Through the 'unworldliness' of its formal innovation, the modernist work retreats from a society terrorized by abstract exchange in much the way Hegel sees a stoic retreat from Roman law. Although we might note in both these models a resemblance between the formalism of the artwork and that of the world from which it flees, as Richard Norman writes, one aspect of the unhappy consciousness is that 'both [master and slave] will typically compensate for their failure to achieve self-realization in the real world by retreating into an inner world of pure thought'. (29) With its roots really in historical substrate rather than autonomous cultural practice, the modernist work, for Bernstein, hence does the impossible, bringing together what has been objectively set apart. The freedom of aesthetic space is a necessary one but affirmed only in imagination, existing by ignoring the world outside art. Glossing Bernstein, Keith Ansell-Pearson remarks that 'the [modern] novel is free to experiment (form) but [...] its freedom remains trapped in subjective consciousness. The freedom of the novel is entirely fictional.' (30) This relegation of freedom to subjectivity--a mark perhaps more of Romanticism than modernism--ignores, however, the linguistic link to the historical world, an issue to which we shall return.
Similar sentiments towards modernist writing are expressed in more hostile fashion in the comments of Mike Gold, doyen of the plain-speaking realist left of the 1930s. Gold's 1934 judgement upon Stein, for example, expresses a typical disdain for the 'extreme subjectivism of the contemporary [or modernist] bourgeois artist' and thus the latter's 'reflection of the ideological anarchy into which the whole of bourgeois literature has fallen'. (31) For him, there is a belatedness in such work: apparently removed from actual social relations, Stein's writing is predicated by the ennui of her class. A leisure class, which exists on the labour of others [...] develops ills and neuroses. It suffers perpetually from boredom', he says. So, 'Blood, violent death, dope dreams, soul-writhings, became the themes of its works.' Living on the ghostly remains of others' labour, all that remains, we might surmise, are troubled dreams of self, separated from that upon which the self depends. This, Gold concludes, is 'the complete attempt to annihilate all relations between the artist and the society in which he lives'. (32) Similarly, writing of West himself, whom he knew, the critic remarks that 'His writing seemed to me symbolic rather than realistic, and that was, to me, the supreme crime.' (33)
On the face of it, West is certainly guilty of much the same, 'stoical' detachment as Stein, and his novels heave with the lurid content Gold describes. While we shall contest perceptions of the real detachment of aestheticism, both thematically and of course in its title, The Dream Life of Balso Snell clearly registers a turn away from worldliness. Indeed, in his publicity blurb for the novel West emphasizes the '"anywhere out of this world" device'--or the means of throwing off the 'mundane millstone'--by which Balso escapes 'the real world': a solipsistic dream of a journey into the rear entrance of the wooden horse of Troy. (34) West's reference here is to Charles Baudelaire, whose poem Anywhere Out of the World' from Paris Spleen (1869) compares life to a hospital ward from which one's soul yearns to escape. And like the Parisian dandy, Balso's refuge from a bad life is an attention to the self: the self as art. (35) From the outset, the eponymous, fictional poet in Balso Snell seems to orient the narrative around himself--the subject of the dream no more than the dreamer--in a move made clear when he is first about to enter the Anus Mirabilis'. Spying Nero's famous last words, 'Qualls ... Artifex ... Pereo!' ('what an artist is lost in me', or more accurately, 'what kind of artist is lost in me'), inscribed with extra, dramatic ellipses 'along the lips of the mystic portal', he uses his penknife to add the rejoinder, 'O Byss! O Abyss! O Anon! O Anan!' (p. 4). He thus answers the ambiguous question posed by the dying 'actor-emperor' (p. 4) as though it were asked by the horse's arse itself. The kind of artist who will get lost in the beast's entrails is the punning onanist who dwells, like the narcissist, in the empty well ('O') of the self and who lacks any need for an external object. Aside from its familiar role as camouflage for a Greek subterfuge, the 'marvellous anus' of the Trojan Horse thus represents both anality ('O') as a popular synonym for self-referentiality and the miraculous auto-erotic transformations of which art is capable.
Henceforth, West's text dissolves into an ever-changing, uncertain mise-en-scene populated by characters whose shape and identities shift and exchange only too easily: the naked nymph into whose mouth Balso sticks his tongue, for example, transforms immediately into 'a middle aged woman dressed in a mannish suit and wearing hornrimmed glasses' (p. 32). Other metamorphoses proliferate, often involving similar, surprising reconstructions of gender. The 'Mother of God' here has a 'feathered', or bearded, mouth in the darkness of which, one character poetically proclaims, 'I worship Christ | The culminating rose' (p. 10), a phrase ambiguous also in the respect that 'culminating', etymologically linked to 'column', interacts oddly with 'rose', the latter either a verb or a feminized noun. John Gilson, exhilarated by killing his neighbour, temporarily becomes a woman and enjoys his 'new' body as a source of libidinous self-pleasure: 'I caressed my breasts like a young girl who has suddenly become conscious of her body on a hot afternoon', he says, 'I imitated the mannered walk of a girl showing off before a group of boys [...] I died the little death' (p. 22).
Norman Podhoretz compares West's mutations with the Walpurgisnacht of Joyce's 'Circe' chapter from Ulysses, in which men, as brothel-goers, are transformed into pigs. (36) The Joycean principle of endless alteration that he notes, though, works in Balso Snell less as plurality than as a protean reproduction of sameness, a kind of (auto) eroticized Westian monism in which, at a certain level, everything derives from the same 'substance'. It is an effect that underscores the solipsism noted above: images of and references to self-creation and sexless reproduction of every kind permeate the narrative, often linking with one another along chains of linguistic displacement, association, and pun. The Phoenix Excrementi ('Do not pooh-pooh this idea as mystical' (p. 9)) connect with Bergsonian vitalism and a Jamesian 'circularity' in nature, both highly influential ideas for modernist writing, while George Moore, the obscure Irish wit whose chief invention was his own literary persona, is the source of the epithet that art is a sublime excrement (p. 8). Later, describing the sexual union of Balso with Mary McGeeney, the narrator tells of the 'two becoming one':
The One that is all things and yet no one of them: the priest and the god, the immolation, [...] the incantation, the sacrificial egg, the altar, the ego and the alter ego, as well as the father, the child, and the grandfather of the universe. (p. 61)
The list ends in bathos and comic incongruity--'the Spirit of Public School 186, the last ferry that leaves for Weehawken at seven'--but is rendered as a dream-like juxtaposition that seems to encapsulate and reconcile an otherwise disparate universe within itself, reducing worldly oppositions and differences to features of literary style.
We might read all this as a variation upon the theme of the grotesque--after all, many critics have attributed this quality to West. (37) In his seminal study of the subject, Wolfgang Kayser defines the grotesque as a combination, humorous and terrifying, of heterogeneous elements drawn from different spheres in a manner that undermines perceptual and ontological categories. (38) It is a mode that the fluid genericity of Balso Snell seems to demonstrate and which to an extent also conforms to the notion of a fictional reconciliation between the writing subject and a world reopened to subjective impulses through aesthetic language. Kayser, though, cites Hegel's antipathy to such a construction, noting the latter's comment that the grotesque is 'pre-philosophical' because it obscures the relation between matter and spirit (or mind), an objection we find in Marx's critique of the commodity too. Reading Balso Snell as a dematerialization of the physical world into something like dream, we might notice a double aspect to the confusion to which Hegel alludes: the narrative is a stubborn subjective refusal to conform to the existent but it is, at the same time, inextricably bound to the existent--form of abstraction that struggles to recognize its own particularity and dependence.
On the one hand, that is, the novel is a dream of unfettered self-production and of soluble bodies whose organs are as mutable as words, producing nothing but more words: the articulation of radically subjective, often antisocial desires. The murder of the fat dishwasher, a pastiche of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, that Gilson describes with such viscerality--'he awoke at the touch of the steel and I became frightened and sawed at his throat in a panic' (p.21)--becomes, for example, something textual. The narrative of the murder subsumes the act, 'just as the secretions of an oyster cover an irritating grain of sand. As the accumulations grow and become solidified, the original irritation disappears' (p. 22). On the other hand, if we consider the interplay of narrators in the novel, the subsumption of materiality by subjective language seems more problematic. The third-person commentary upon the character of Balso with which the novel begins gives way to an exposition from Maloney on Saint Puce, which quickly becomes John Raskolnikov Gilson's first-person journal, then his 'crime journal', and finally his 'pamphlet,' each presenting a new persona that seems to undermine its predecessor. When Balso dreams of Janey within the larger dream of the text, the majority of her part is ventriloquized through the letters of Beagle Hamlet Darwin in a bewildering succession of echoes (pp.40-56).Darwin's first letter includes, for example, his narration of Janey's impersonation of Darwin's own literary voice. Discussing Janey's (unnatural) pregnancy, Darwin narrates Janey narrating Darwin narrating Janey:
Where did I read, 'In my belly there is a tangled forest of arms and legs.' It sounds like his stuff. [...] He'll get drunk and make a speech: 'Big with child, great with young--let me toast your gut, my dear.' (p.45)
For critic Jonathan Raban, this complexity is simply the 'shrill personality' of the author as it 'extrudes from behind the papery mask of his assumed style'. (39) We might suppose, on the contrary, that voices here are, rather, embedded within one another in a parody equally of authorial omniscience and of realist objectivity. As Tom Cerasulo writes,
Like a set of Russian Dolls of the unconscious, every writer Balso meets in his nightmare morphs into another writer who engenders still more writer characters. There are dreams within dreams; stories within stories; journals within journals; discourses within discourses. Everyone is a figment of someone else's imagination and ego. (Cerasulo, p. 64)
Darwin's (rather Hemingwayesque)letter is necessarily in inflected by Janey's voice, by the contents of her 'gut' (although, grotesquely, the baby gestates in her hunched back)as well as by the movement between epistolary, literary, and spoken idioms. His words are several degrees removed, that is, from their producer, always already conditioned by their imagined reception, reiteration, and commentary by 'others'. If we recall V.N. Volosinov's comment that 'Every utterance is the product of the interaction between speakers and the product of the broader context of the whole complex social situation in which the utterance emerges', Darwin's ventriloquism might then be more accurately regarded as an unsuccessful attempt to achieve mastery both over the word and over the others in whose mouths he recognizes the word must appear and alter. (40) His word is split, summoning Volosinov's notion of irony-an 'encounter in one voice of two incarnate value judgements and their interference with one another'--as an interference of interests preserves the contradictions inherent in his speech. (41)
For Baudelaire, noted early in West's novel (p. 5), laughter actually derives from a sudden realization of the body, catalysing a double-consciousness of the simultaneous interiority and exteriority of the self. (42) In Darwin's letter, this situation is socialized: what really splits his language is a contest over a (gendered) body. The letter--obviously a token of exchange--momentarily identifies as the pregnant body ('in my belly') before turning against itself, reducing itself to the status of vegetable ('forest'), animal ('great with young'), and fetishized part ('gut'), adopting and then discarding the voice of that body's owner to do so. In these oscillations we detect a labour of the disavowal of birth, of real others and real bodies that might emerge from the 'tangled forest of arms and legs'. As Elaine Scarry has pointed out, the work of a torturer is to separate the victim's voice from the body, to turn the former against the latter in self-denunciation; torture crushes the subjectivity of the body, a terrorization for which Darwin's usurpation of Janey's voice provides a figure. (43) Indeed, the telling confusion between the womb and the back--the one bent by toil--to which Darwin succumbs allows us to make a link between 'birth' and 'labour' more generally. For Darwin, the body as a site of human (especially female) labour is something linguistically unacknowledgeable, an insight leading us back to West's sense that culture as the handmaiden to praxis is itself a labour, one that works primarily and paradoxically to mystify precisely any consciousness of a suffering body at its centre. (44)
Conversely, as I suggested earlier, the 'unrepressed' (and often female) body in West challenges this discursive hermeticism. Elsewhere in the novel, for example, the ancient belief that 'hysteria was caused by the womb breaking loose and floating freely through the body' is mentioned. Cured by taming the womb with herbs to keep it 'away from the head' (p. 18), notes the narrator, the significance of such hysteria, as its well-known etymology indicates, is clearly its capacity to overturn or confuse the hierarchy of 'head' over 'womb'. (45)
As a literary strategy, then, the stoical retreat might wish to suppress referentiality in favour of forms of self-referentiality but in the latter we find, as we do in any form, a sedimented content that does not allow us to forget the material world: in this case a proto-sociality in which, even as it burrows inwards, the writing self reveals an allegorical and linguistic struggle with its determinants. The fluid monism of Balso Snell's interlocking images, voices, and bodies reminds us of a world where desire is caught by and absorbs interchangeable objects--a utopian, even Surrealist, version of the exterior world of the commodity fetish--yet it also highlights an innate tension inhering in the language of self, a depersonalization of the subject through exposure to its other. Writing the self, that is, seems always prey to a process of self-externalization and self-objectification. Through its formal stylistics, the aesthetic language through which particular selfhood is defined takes on an unmasterable alien quality, following the contours of a cultural labour that, elliptically, reminds us also of the rigours of alienated social labour as a whole.
Hegel himself suggests that thought moves away from self-involvement through a 'yearning', or longing, that reminds it of itself (PM, p. 257). Such a yearning is a signal, perhaps, of 'others' already inherent in the notion of consciousness. Mutual recognition is, after all, the telos of his work; 'yearning' marks the degree to which the self is not self-identical but an image also of another. And, indeed, it is in response to this dawning perception of the necessity of mediation between self and other that, in his description of unhappy consciousness, the figure of the sceptic steps in.
Scepticism, for Hegel, 'is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is' (PM, p. 246). Where in stoicism consciousness simply apparently ignored the world, taken up with positive self-willing, in scepticism thought reaches out, recognizes and negates that world: consciousness is securely defined against a differentiated externality. 'By means of this self-conscious negation', Hegel says, 'self-consciousness procures for itself the certainty of its own freedom, and thereby raises it into the truth' (PM, p. 248). This, for him, is actually the very spirit of comedy: a happy consciousness that laughs at everything, utterly at ease, and which is absolutely ironic. The contingent details of the world, each one apprehended and negated, knit together, then, as confirmation of the infinitude of the ironic self such that 'every differentiated existent becomes a difference of self-consciousness' (PM, p. 247). Here, we might say, we have the satirist (or clown), who shows us the world as utter foolishness. Or indeed the bourgeois who readily separates public and private existence, as do the figures of Hamlet or the sad jester to whom I referred at the beginning of this article. Scepticism secures and supplants the stoical self by marking off--signifying--the exterior world. So scepticism, as elsewhere in Hegel's thought, happily relinquishes the worldly object in order to assume an egoistic symbolic mastery over it. (46)
In West, as we have seen, however, this kind of perspective is impossible because, through a sense of the sociality of language, the abstraction of the sign is always attenuated by interference from its material referent. Furthermore, in Balso Snell the writer's apparently self-affirming irony works upon a world that is already pointedly artificial, taking as its primary sources some of the iconic anterior texts of what is now called modernism. Victor Comerchero sees the novel as 'an unconscious proclamation of influences and interests', an intertextuality writ large in parodied modernisms such as Balso's prayer, 'O Beer! O Meyerbeer! O Bach! O Offenbach! Stand me now as ever in good stead' (p. 4), which of course recalls Stephen's final invocation of his figurative father from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, references to Joyce, Stein, Dostoyevsky, and others work throughout to locate Balso Snell as an intervention within a broadly modernist writing practice. (47) In his study of West, Alistair Wisker suggests the writer is exploring 'the possibilities in parody as a literary technique and the implications of parody as a human problem'. Whatever the 'humanness' of the problem, West seems to consider parody an inevitable part of writerly technique: as I have suggested, his 'parody' here in fact consists of restating or even reinstating the object for 'stoicism', providing a corrective to the view of modernist writing that relegates the latter entirely to interiority.
Thus West's turn on the insularity of the modernist artist renders aesthetic detachment as neither elective nor, as Gold suggests, economic. Nor, for the novelist, is the reconciliation offered by aestheticism by any means anaesthetic, as the thematic violence and shifts of perspective in his texts demonstrate. Artistic distance is less a dilettantish luxury than a return to consciousness of a knowledge and feeling of the painful diremption of acculturation in modern sociality, an agony ineluctable for the consciousness in internal exile. This, he seems to say, is subjectivity. Artistic withdrawal into an imagined lordship--a parody of the bourgeois individual--quickly shows its other side: like Freud's repressed, Hegel's 'universal fear and bondage' cannot be excluded here; in fact it constitutes the work.
What West articulates, then, is the rub that generates the unhappy consciousness proper. Sceptical self-consciousness, with its voracious appetite for destruction and unquenchable self-confidence, must fall victim to its own negations and see itself in the other that is negated. Taking itself to be the essential, unchanging arbiter of everything beyond itself, scepticism is forced by its own logic to admit to an ineluctable complicity with and need for that other. It has to regard itself as in fact a contingent product of what it has hitherto deemed inessential and meaningless. From a feeling of absolute sovereignty, sceptical consciousness experiences a sickening plunge into absolute abjection. Such consciousness, Hegel says, cannot bring these two thoughts of itself together. The sceptic, like the stoic, is naive:
[Scepticism] finds its freedom, at one time, in the form of elevation above all the whirling complexity and all the contingency of mere existence, and again, at another time, likewise confesses to falling back upon what is inessential, and to being taken up with that. (PM, p. 249)
In the parlance of the Phenomenology, scepticism thus exists only 'in-itself': it has direct experience of itself, but lacks the being 'for-itself' of real self-consciousness. The development of a consciousness that acknowledges the travails of scepticism is what Hegel calls the unhappy consciousness--a consciousness that knows about its own turbulent self-splitting. 'Consciousness of life, of its existence and action', he writes, 'is merely pain and sorrow over this existence and activity; for therein consciousness finds only consciousness of its opposite as its essence--and of its own nothingness' (PM, p. 252, emphasis added).
Unhappy consciousness is not, then, just the feeling of being, by turns, master and slave; more particularly, it describes the consequent sense of loss and insufficiency that pervades each side of consciousness, suggesting at every turn that 'life is elsewhere' and that consciousness lacks self-presence. We might recognize this 'jaded' condition from West's novels, cited above. In a sense, this state is as much the movement between elated mastery and miserable abjection as it is the experience of either condition; a countervailing movement cancels affirmation of either position. So we might be struck at this point by the resemblance between this condition and the antinomies that generate West's humour. Like Hegel's model, each side of the self, in West's description, laughs aggressively at the other in order to achieve mastery but becomes, in turn, object for that other. Monadologically, the divided self is cast in the image of the divided whole.
Critically, West's attention to violence has been seen as, variously, a robust homage to burlesque, a metaphor for social or sexual impotence and frustration, a symptom of technicized modernity and also of the true nature of the existential condition. (48) One could also point to the tropes of cruelty and the machinic body characterizing modernism more generally in order to explain its ubiquity in West. In the present study, however, I have argued that West's notion of humour is inextricably tied to his presentation of a violently split social subject. We might even extend into the domain of the reader its principle that one must laugh at all sentiment, all reconciliation. The writer turns on its head the notion that, in the spectacle of violence, 'Humour provides the glue that prevents the subject from recognizing him/herself as the object of mutilation.' (49) The reading subject, as much as the narrative subject, knows, on the contrary, that there is little by way of Schadenfreude here and that he/she is the object of mutilation.
If West links pain with aesthetic production, demonstrating that the actuality of subjective unhappiness is not merely a matter for intellection but is experienced as affect and feeling too, Adorno finds a deep root to this when, in Aesthetic Theory, he writes:
Ultimately, aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image. What later came to be called subjectivity, freeing itself from the blind anxiety of the shudder, is at the same time the shudder's own development; life in the subject is nothing but what shudders. (50)
The image of the shudder as the primal moment of the aesthetic describes an involuntary acknowledgement that inherent in the 'outside' of what is given as worldly is always dread and anxiety about the world. World-detachment has, Adorno suggests, always implied an unhomely recognition of worldliness, providing another figure for the unhappiness under discussion, this time, however, based upon the element of feeling.
And it is through its feelings that unhappy consciousness yearns for resolution--the wish for the alleviation of dread is a yearning articulated through many imaginative formations standing in for actual resolution, one of which is the 'stoicist' aesthetic. (51) Hegel, for his part, looks to the history of Christianity for the imaginative reconciliation between individual subjectivity and what he calls the 'world beyond'. The trap that awaits any such move, though, as Judith Butler points out, is that of the recapitulation of a 'split' between mind and body that excises feeling and physicality in its structuring of a putative wholeness. She argues for a reductive dualism in the philosopher's work, suggesting that the momentarily triumphant side of consciousness identifies itself as unchanging (Hegel's term) and transcendent strictly by comparison to the lowly and contingent body of its rejected and inessential other. 'Implicit in this dual structuring of the subject', she writes, 'is the relation between thought and corporeality, for the unchangeable will be a kind of noncontradictory thought, the pure thought sought by the stoics.' (52)
In other words, the mastering consciousness appears as the absolute, bodiless subject in distinction to the object-self that must appear as a particular thing. Hegel's proposition that the Christian Church is the sole possible mediator between these poles leads, for Butler, to the inevitable conclusion that, 'because the body cannot be fully denied, as the stoic thought, it must be ritually renounced'. The final terms of the sequence of reconciliation-where the Church as a community of wills allows access to God-becomes then a kind of deferral:
Whereas in all the earlier examples of self-negation pleasure was understood to inhere in pain (the pleasurable aggrandizement of the stoic, the pleasurable sadism of the sceptic), pleasure here is temporally removed from pain, figured as its future compensation. For Hegel, this eschatological transformation of the pain of this world into the pleasure of the next establishes the transition from self-consciousness to reason. (Butler, p. 51)
We might argue that in fact, for Hegel, the idea of subjects mediated through reason is the goal of historical enlightenment, not an ideological superstructure. Mediated through the commodified wish-images of mass society, on the other hand, social subjects clearly remain this side of the pleasure principle, the two sides of the unhappy consciousness continuing to discipline one another, producing a pain that is displaced onto an other in a negative imprint of intersubjectivity.
So, by way of conclusion, we might turn to West to discover another notion of how this process might conclude, one that does not suggest reconciliation exactly but a moment of insight. What holds the two sides of consciousness together, we might recall, are signs. In the context of his description of the loss of the historical Christ, or the impossibility of the actuality of the universal idea, Hegel makes a similar point. Regarding the slippage whereby specificity cannot elevate itself to unchangeability, nor vice versa, 'Consciousness', he says, 'therefore, can only come upon the grave of its life' (PM, p. 258, emphasis added). Conscious realization of what is lost in the splitting of consciousness is thus articulated by a sign which negotiates or at least registers the claims of either side. He goes on to suggest that consciousness must 'cease trying to hold on to what has thus vanished' (PM, p. 259), but this is because he looks forward to the life beyond. What West tries to recover, conversely, is something of the immanence of language. To this end, he generates a narrative within Balso Snell wherein we move in a different way between the sign and the substance it might contain: his story of Saint Puce, the flea. Here, another kind of humour, also associated with the interior space of the aesthetic, appears.
Saint Puce is a flea born under the armpit of Christ in Bethlehem and who lives on his master until the Crucifixion. Given his position of particular privilege, Puce exists in a state of permanent religious ecstasy, 'partaking, oh how fully! of his Godhead', because enjoying in a more than usually literal way the post-Eucharist prayer Anima Christi: 'Corpus Christi, salva me, | Sanguis Christi, inebria me, I Aqua lateris Christi, lava me' (p. 11). (53) During his mortal sojourn on Christ, Puce's biographer, Maloney the Areopagite, informs us, Puce voyages around the Saviour, later writing his 'great work', A Geography of Our Lord, in which he recounts these journeys (p. 12). The Jesus figure is rendered alarmingly corporeal throughout-Puce dwells in 'that hairsilk pocketbook, the armpit of our Lord', roams 'the forest of God's chest', crosses 'the hill of His abdomen', and sounds 'that fathomless well, the Navel of our Lord' (p. 12).
The humorous frisson of the story clearly lies partly in its iconoclastic aspect, deriving perhaps from a Swiftian play of scale that, again, summons the notion f the grotesque, in particular the latter's 'drawing down' of elevated subjects to the domain of the quotidian, existential, or physical. (54) By representing the intimate body of Christ so emphatically, the lofty becomes the contingent in a sceptical, ironic gesture. Yet the historicity and humanity of the divine--which, for Hegel, suggests reconciliation between finite consciousness and the infinite beyond of God-remains radically estranged. From the point of view of Saint Puce, to which we are restricted, God's humanness as such cannot be grasped as a whole body but remains monumental, topographic, and sublime--a kind of Romantic landscape to be understood only fragmentarily. Even in its most absolute presence, God as specific figure, or gestalt, is withheld. The host body is Puce's church, 'whose walls were the flesh of Christ [...] and on whose altars burned golden candles made of the sacred earwax' (p. 12). An actual body is also the sign of one, apprehended metonymically.
Hence, although the switching of perspectives involved in the narrative follows those described elsewhere above, Puce's story is not just a routine diminution of religious thought as false consciousness. The mode of the religious seems employed here, in contradistinction to Hegel's attempt to realize it as church, rather as a form of thought that goes beyond the bounds of the existent--a model too for the aesthetic. Just as it was important to recognize the extent to which stoical thought was dependent upon actuality, so it matters also that thought be able to free itself from these fetters, as it does in religion. So, in his story, West uses the humour of otherness to explore now not the conditions of subjective reification but what might lie outside it. The Eucharist and, comically, Puce's Geography are reversible signs, points of speculative transmission. As Timothy Bewes suggests,
The truth of the Holy Communion is the preserved contradiction between the spiritual and the material world, not--as in the Protestant tradition--its translation or resolution in the form of 'symbolism'. The Eucharist ascribes an otherness precisely to the world as it is. (55)
Retaining and balancing as a contradiction the corporeal presence of both the finite self and the beyond, at such moments West's aesthetic self-attack subsides. Rather than reduce the other to the finite and abject in an act of abstract self-aggrandizement, there is a moment of pause in which the slender possibility of the development of spirit might be observed; we witness a moment when the dialectic of unhappiness, to recall Walter Benjamin, stands still. It is a different kind of punctuation of events, perhaps, from the caesurae that separate 'spirit' from a knowledge of itself and generate the infinite misery of a consciousness that cannot escape the antinomial structure of the existent.
And this preservation of contradiction leads us back to a point made at the beginning of this article. For a writer like Clark, we might recall, what makes a modernist aesthetic modern is its consolidation within itself of those declasse interests that turn against 'redundant' extant class categories. His fear is thus that modernism actually functions to break the ground for the next phase of capitalism. (56) Driven by what Clark calls modernism's 'centrifugal' force, the flaneurial opening of liminal city space, for example, allows the latter's commodification, tropes like 'primitivism' naturalize certain social antagonisms, while the dismantling of the humanist subject in poetry and painting clears the way for further reification. (57) It is precisely such a nastiness of the avant-garde that West seeks to redress: the inner antagonism he stages within the subject forms a last redoubt against further fragmentation. Resisting healing, his work sets out to hold open the fissure in consciousness that bourgeois society would like to close for good.
UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX
(1) Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka (1914-1923), ed. by Max Brod, trans. by Martin reenberg, 2 vols (New York: Schocken, 1948-49), 11 (1949), 210.
(2) W. H. Auden, 'West's Disease', Griffin, 6 (May 1957), 4-11. This review is reprinted in The Dyer's Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 241-43 (P 241).
(3) Nathanael West, The Complete Works of Nathanael West, 2nd edn (London: Picador, 1983), p. 27. All further citations from West are from this volume and will be given in the text.
(4) These writers are also cited by West as critics of Western decline, or the 'surfeit of shoddy', in West's A Cool Million, p. 112.
(5) Kingsley Widmer, Nathanael West (Boston: Twayne, 1982), p. 19; James F. Light, 'Varieties of Satire in the Art of Nathanael West', Studies in American Humor, 2 (1975), 45-59 (p. 46)
(6) Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 49.
(7) Sigmund Freud, 'Humour', in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. by James Strachey and Anna Freud, trans. by James Strachey, 24 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1958-61), xxi (1927-31): The Future of an Illusion, Civilisation and its Discontents, and Other Works (1961), pp. 160-65 (p. 162). Elsewhere I have argued that the pleasure of Freud's egoistic humour is really generated from an ascension to sociality. See my 'The Persistence of Irony: Interfering with Surrealist Black Humour', Textual Practice, 20 (2006), 25-47.
(8) Nathanael West, 'Some Notes on Miss L.', Contempo, 3 (May 1933), reproduced in Alistair Wisker, The Writing of Nathanael West (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 157-58 (p. 157)
(9) Sianne Ngai, 'Stuplimity: Shock and Boredom in Twentieth-Century Aesthetics', Postmodern Culture, 10 (January 2000), para. 7 of 36.
(10) See James F. Light, Nathanael West: An Interpretive Study (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1961), p. 59; Deborah Wyrick, 'Dadaist Collage Structure and Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell', in Nathanael West: Modern Critical Views, ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), pp. 157-64 (p. 164); Jonathan Veitch, American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) p. 27.
(11) See T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris. The Art of Manet and his Followers (New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 258.
(12) In a slightly different idiom, Gerald Locklin makes a similar point. Reading Balso Snell as 'a microcosm of humanity', he suggests that 'Balso's unconscious [which provides the textual dream] is both personal and collective'. See Locklin, 'Journey into the Microcosm', in Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the Cheated. A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by David Madden (Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1973), pp. 23-56 (p. 24).
(13) See Robert W. Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)
(14) The Chicago World's Fair of 1933, for example, both provides a backdrop for West's A Cool Million (1934) and offers an archetype for the rather more shoddy travelling show the 'Chamber of American Horrors | Animate and Inanimate | Hideosities' (p. 117) that appears in the text.
(15) Peter Drucker, The End of Economic Man: A Study of the New Totalitarianism (London: Heinemann, 1939), cited in Rita Barnard, The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance: Kenneth Fearing, Nathanael West, and Mass Culture in the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 202.
(16) See Peter Wollen, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 42-43.
(17) Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. by E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1993), p. 130.
(18) William Solomon, Literature, Amusement and Technology in the Great Depression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 173.
(19) Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. by Ben Fowkes, 3 vols (London: Penguin, 1976-81), 1 (1976), 163-64.
(20) Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: Macmillan, 1907), p. 64.
(21) Nathanael West, 'Some Notes on Violence', Contact, 1 (October 1932), reproduced in Wisker, pp. 155-56 (p. 155).
(22) Jay Martin describes the quasi-vanity status of Balso Snell's publishing in his Nathanael West: The Art of his Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970), pp. 124-25; leading on from this, Tom Cerasulo argues that, in fact, the novel expresses both a need and reluctance on West's part actually to become a 'commercial' writer. See Cerasulo, 'The Dream Life of Balso Snell and the Vocation of Nathanael West', Arizona Quarterly, 62 (Summer 2006), 59-74.
(23) Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1968), p. 120.
(24) As a prologue to his discussion of Balso Snell, Jonathan Veitch refers to West's unpublished short story 'The Fake', in which a character confirms his (bogus) credentials as an artist through the avant-gardist strategy of a publicity stunt, designed to outrage and entertain the audience. The notion of the artist as huckster/shaman/performer in fact fits snugly into capitalist modes of interaction, as Veitch notes. Such art could also be read as another kind of unhappy consciousness, according to the logic of the current article: an art knowingly complicit with the conditions it deplores. See Veitch, pp. 23-26.
(25) For Goldman, Lem's prostheses in A Cool Million, for example, are 'a metaphor for mass experience', for, that is, the increasing heterogeneity and commodification of the body, while Miss Lonelyhearts sets out especially the female body as a contested ideological site. See Goldman, 'Miss Lonelyhearts and the Party Dress: Cross-Dressing and Collage in the Satires of Nathanael West', Glasgow Review (Autumn 1993), 40-54.
(26) G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. by J. B. Baillie (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955), pp. 244-45. All further citations are from this volume and will be given in the main text as M.
(27) Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit', trans. by Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 181.
(28) See J. M. Bernstein, The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukacs, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1984), and T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999)
(29) Richard Norman, Hegel's Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction (Sussex: Harvester, 1976), p. 56.
(30) Keith Ansell-Pearson, 'The Narration of an Unhappy Consciousness: Lukacs, Marxism, the Novel, and Beyond', Radical Philosophy, 43 (Summer 1986), 22-28 (p. 24).
(31) Mike Gold, 'Gertrude Stein: Literary Idiot', in Change the World!, ed. by Robert Forsythe (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937), pp. 22-26 (p. 23).
(32) Ibid., pp. 24-26.
(33) Cited in Martin, Nathanael West, p. 257.
(34) Nathanael West, 'Through the Hole in the Mundane Millstone', reproduced in Wisker, pp. 153-54 (p. 153)
(35) Self-cultivation, the hallmark of the Decadent, will lead to a self-doubling considered later here in terms of humour. On this tendency in Baudelaire, see Paul de Man, 'The Rhetoric of Temporality', in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 1983), pp. 187-228 (p. 220), and Candace Lang, Irony/Humour: Critical Paradigms (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 10-11.
(36) Norman Podhoretz, 'Nathaniel West: A Particular Kind of Joking', in Nathanael West: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Jay Martin (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 144-55 (p. 151).
(37) See e.g. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 489, or Dieter Meindl, American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1994) p. 182.
(38) Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, trans. by Ulrich Weisstein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 101-02.
(39) Jonathan Raban, 'A Surfeit of Commodities: The Novels of Nathanael West', in American Fiction 1914 to 1945 , ed. by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), pp. 375-88 (p. 376).
(40) V. N. Volosinov, Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, trans. by I. R. Titunik (London: Academic Press, 1976), p. 79.
(41) Ibid., p. 113.
(42) Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, trans. by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995) p. 154.
(43) Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 27-59.
(44) Both Susan Edmunds and Jane Goldman (noted above) suggest that West presents gender as a social construct. Edmunds, in an interesting discussion that seems the obverse of my own, argues that Faye Greener, West's final heroine, is more than Leslie Fiedler's wet dream; she signifies rather an aggressively performed, and thus specifically modern, femininity. See Goldman, 'Miss Lonelyhearts and the Party Dress', and Edmunds, 'Modern Taste and the Body Beautiful in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust', Modern Fiction Studies, 44 (1998), 306-30.
(45) See Veitch, p. 36. For a Rabelaisian side to this, see also David Madden, 'A Confluence of Voices: The Dream Life of Balso Snell', in Nathanael West: The Cheaters and the Cheated (see Locklin, above), pp. 17-22 (p. 18).
(46) In his Aesthetics, for example, where, for the ironist--an analogue for the sceptic--'everything appears [...] as null and vain, except its own subjectivity which therefore becomes hollow and empty and itself mere vanity' (G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. by T. M. Knox, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), I, p. 66).
(47) West appears to align himself thus, suggesting in the blurb for Balso Snell cited above that 'With the French [...] West can well be compared. In his use of the violently disassociated, the dehumanized marvellous, the deliberately criminal and imbecilic, he is much like Guillaume Apollinaire, Jarry, Ribemont Dessaignes, Raymond Roussel, and certain of the Surrealistes' (West, 'Through the Hole in the Mundane Millstone', in Wisker, p. 153).
(48) See e.g. Jay Martin, 'Nathaniel West's Burlesque Comedy', in Critical Essays on Nathanael West, ed. by Ben Siegel (New York: Hall, 1994), pp. 161-68; Light, Nathanael West; Victor Comerchero, Nathanael West: The Ironic Prophet (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1964).
(49) Miriam Hansen, cited by Solomon, p. 147.
(50) Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 331
(51) For philosopher Jean Wahl, whose 1929 Le Malheur de la conscience dans la philosophie de Hegel inaugurated much new discussion of this part of Hegel's work, the unhappy consciousness suggests an existential division of the human subject inamenable to any kind of reconciliation. This view was later even more forcefully expressed by Benjamin Fondane in La Conscience malheureuse (1936) and was influential upon French deconstruction. See Bruce Baugh, French Hegel: From Surrealism to Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 2003).
(52) Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 46.
(53) 'Body of Christ, save me, | Blood of Christ, intoxicate me, | Water from the side of Christ, wash me.'
(54) See Meindl, pp. 20-34.
(55) Timothy Bewes, Reification; or, The Anxiety of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 2002), p. 236.
(56) An argument also advanced by Paul Mann in The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
(57) Clark, Farewell to an Idea, p. 407.
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2007|
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