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Arctic revelations: Vollmann's 'Rifles' and the frozen landscape of the self.

Towards the beginning of The Rifles, the third volume of his visionary Seven Dreams series, William T. Vollmann - or perhaps more accurately, the textual "Vollmann" (aka John, John Franklin, Captain Subzero, William the Blind, "he," "you," and "me") - makes a curious discovery in the refractive surface of the Inujuak seashore. Embedded in the natural iconography of the dazzling fissures and iceforms is the coded message that Vollmann/Subzero shares a haunting affinity with Sir John Frankkn, the doomed nineteenth-century Arctic explorer at the center of The Rifles. Gazing at the words formed in the gelid landscape, Vollmann tells us that

These characters which he now saw were much more definite than the faces one half sees in clouds. He believed in them. In the sand, in the ice-shadow, he wrote out the transliterations with his fingers.

ja n va ra ng ka li n

Yawn Varankalean.

Yon Vranklin.

John Franklin.

The ice-orthography was not perfect of course. The combination, clumsy and redundant, could better have been but corruptions were expected - so Franklin was his twin.

For readers of Vollmann's previous dream novels - the Ice-Shirt and Fathers and Crows - the moment displays the author's amazing combination of erudition, mysticism, exoticism, and realism. Beyond this, however, Vollmann's mystical conflation suggests the degree to which The Rifles represents an intriguing development in his Seven Dreams project.

In The Ice-Shirt, which Vollmann describes as a "symbolic history" of the violent intersection between tenth-century Norse Greenlanders and North American Indians, Vollmann's intervention in the narrative remains primarily academic. Similarly, in Fathers and Crows, the fabulously lyrical account of the religious wars between the colonial French Jesuits and the Iroquois, his metacommentary amounts to a kind of erudite mediation between levels of myth and history. But in The Rifles, as suggested by the mercurial inscription in the ice, Vollmann's own complicity in the events of the text prove central.

As his recondite appendices reveal, Vollmann's "real-life" involvement in the events depicted in the nightmarish and hallucinogenic narrative are indeed "real." While pursuing his Sixth Dream, Vollmann did traverse Canada and Greenland to spend time amid the gelid environs of Resolute Bay. Vollmann did survive twelve nights in a barren North Pole ice station, where he nearly froze to death amid the arctic desolation. Vollmann did develop numerous touching interpersonal relationships with various Inuits, whose "lived experience" and own stories are central to a tale of exploration and exploitation and find resonance in Sir John Franklin's 1845 attempt to forge a northwest passage.

While critical attention to biography is frequently extraneous, in this instance it illuminates what I feel to be a central thematic focus of The Rifles: Vollmann's problematic and unending encounter with himself in the Seven Dreams series. Vollmann's psychic merger with the tragic figure of Sir John Franklin - who unwittingly harms the indigenous Inuits in the process of (self-)discovery - reflects the way in which the text performatively functions as a multivalent inquiry into the processes of self-discovery and self-construction that are based on encountering the "other." Moreover, Vollmann's own emergence into the narrative and his deliberate blurring of traditionally fixed categories - fiction/biography, history/memory, reality/reconstruction - illustrate his insistence on moving his textual journey beyond the conventional paradigms of subjectivity. The Rifles thus emerges as an interrogation of the other that looks beyond the psychic realm of the symbolic, beyond the imaginary, and beyond the mirror.(2)

Beyond Mere Surfaces

We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification in the full sense that analysis gives the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image.... The sufferings of neurosis and psychosis are for us a schooling in the passions of the soul ... when we calculate the tilt of its threat to entire communities.

Jacques Lacan's outline of a psychological and linguistic framework based upon the infant's perception of the other reflects some light on Vollmann's field of inquiry. For Vollmann understands - as Lacan maintained - that the vulnerable and limited self necessarily views the exterior and thus differentiated other as a constantly reconstructed representation of a lost and ever elusive ideal. This reflection functions as a subordinate projection of the self; this mirror constitutes the construction of the self. This paradigm finds ample illustration in the literature of discovery. The stranger in the New World defines the aliens he/she encounters as good or evil self-reflexive images. The other becomes a site wherein the textual exploration of the perimeters of the self can take place. The iconography of the Lacanian Imaginary articulates a psychic pattern of the subject that has vast resonances with the projects of both geographic discovery and the issue of identity, projects that are perhaps closely related, necessitating the same journey. In the underground dialectic of the Imaginary, the subject projects onto the other both an idealized and a dark self, two fantasies constructed in the subject's relentless pursuit of a self.

It is this dark and fragmented self - split between colonizer/lover, narrator/subject, historian/artifact, past/present, and savior/destroyer - that is the protagonist of Vollmann's texts. His topic is history; his subject is himself.


Later on, I began to realize that it's pretty hard to know yourself, and harder still to know the other.

Like the subject of the Lacanian paradigm, Vollmann in The Rifles - indeed, in his entire Dreams series - is avowedly obsessed with that idea of the other. But, unlike the Lacanian child, Vollmann is self-conscious, knowing that we are all trapped by ourselves, unable to escape the refractory lenses of ego. In The Rifles he probes the other, knowing it to be mere projection - an imaginary icon whose features appear uncannily tangible but is frozen forever beneath its ice sheath. He has lost belief in the idealized, in the conception of completion, and sees all as a reflection of his own limitation. Thus, it is not that his narrative is informed with autobiography or that he desires self-knowledge in the most banal of ways. Rather, Vollmann acknowledges that the very categories in which selfhood is generally invested are shallow and that the mirror can only reveal our own hideous deformities. For Vollmann has realized that there is no such thing as history, self, or other; but in the face of this knowledge he persists in his doomed errand to know the other and himself. The Rifles, like the other Dreams novels, reflects Vollmann's remarkably honest confrontation with the problematics of self construction.

Cold Hearts/Cold Feet

Is there aputik in Heaven? he asked her. - No. - What's there.... Will I see you there? - Will you be an angel there? - Everyone! - Even me, Reepah? Because you're good but I'm bad. - Everyone I said!

For the textual Vollmann/sir John/captain Subzero, the other is embodied in his tragic lover Reepah, who dies in "the present" of the narrative (indeed, such distinctions between past and present dissolve for Vollmann) by suicide. As the different levels of the narrative develop, it becomes painfully clear that her inexorable doom is the result of two realities that are as interwoven as the strands of a double helix. First, she is a persecuted Native American struggling to live under the tyranny of the EuroAmerican "civilizing" process, which Vollmann metaphorically relates to the introduction of the repeating rifle to Inuit culture; second, she is tripped within Vollmann's narrative. In each case the result is tragically, inequitably the same - Reepah's eventual destruction. Moreover, the fact that Vollmann/ Subzero loves her ultimately does little to alter her fate.

The problematic relationship between Vollmann (principally referred to as Subzero or John in these sections) and Reepah that forms the parallel discourse to Franklin's narrative of discovery becomes apparent almost immediately in The Rifles. When he returns to the icy Inukat presumably to research further The Rifles, which ultimately will require him to endure twelve horrific nights in an abandoned meteoric station amid the ice wastes of the Northern Cross so as to better empathize/merge with Sir John Franklin, Vollmann anxiously questions the painful rekindling of his relationship to Reepah. As Vollmann asks, "How can it ever work? It was courageous as he could be to see her at all, to kiss her. What if he stayed with her? Would he start to hate himself?"

Continuing to question his relationship with Reepah, who clearly develops as both an Inuit other and intimate, Vollmann decides he can't "be near her as she slept, so he lay in the heat trying to plan out what he should do. Just for today I will respect my own and others' boundaries." But in his journey to know her - as well as the Inuit's past and present - Vollmann's overwhelming desire to be with Reepah necessarily leads him to violate her boundaries. As Vollmann explains, "All this time he'd [Vollmann/Subzero] been looking for a place where something began and ended, and he wasn't any closer to it than he'd ever been; he was far from everything." For Vollmann, this anxiety soon gives way to a desire to merge with Reepah on a multiplicity of levels, and the passage becomes a kind of emblem of her ultimate erasure. In this context, Vollmann's consumptive passion selfconsciously references a subjectivity centered in the Lacanian landscape of desire, in which others are necessarily narcissistic projections of the self. As Vollmann writes, "he needed more than anything in the world to dissolve into her.... [A]lthough he had not yet penetrated,her because that would be the literal incarnation of himself within her, a change of being; he would become her then, alien, lovely and loved." Thus, although a profession of "love," Vollmann's linguistic fantasy of merger inexorably marks the self-serving component of the Western self-making process, and his acute awareness that his fascination and attraction to the exotic Reepah represents a perverse involution of history. This realization forms the painful subtext of The Rifles. Like Sir John Franklin, whose icebound prison leads to unspeakable pain - metaphorically (dis)embodied in the image of cannibalism - vollmann's experiences lead him to torturous questions concerning the all-consuming nature of his own narrative project.

Polar Transformations

I am become Death, destroyer of worlds ...

Throughout The Rifles, the "present" of Vollmann's narrative constantly becomes conflated with the "past" of Sir William Franklin's and the events surrounding his historic trip. Commissioned by the queen in 1845 to return for a fourth time to the Pole, Franklin soon finds his arctic return problematic and painful, like Subzero's return to Reepah. To underscore the reflexivity of this construction, Vollmann creates a confusion between their personalities. The result of this conflation is to allow on one level Vollmann's and Franklin's stories to become metaphors of each other. But perhaps more significantly, it suggests that the present of the autobiographic sections and the past of the Franklin section both exist only as narrative projections. Indeed, discussing postmodern autobiography, Ihab Hassan remarks there is indeed no "hope of distinguishing between fact and fiction in autobiography. . . . Isn't memory sister to imagination, kin to nostalgia, desire, and deceit? Isn't memory sometimes even an agent to mendacity, meant consciously to mislead or manipulate history?"

At the center of this conflation between past and present in The Rifles, between the explorer Franklin and the writer Vollmann/Subzero, lies a terrible paradox. The narrator wants to describe new worlds, encounter alien vistas, and record the history of another race. He wants to escape the limitations of his own existence and see something else. But as his vision moves outward, his sight is obscured by his own reflection. Hence all "discovery" becomes fixed within the closed sphere of the self. All exploration is self-exploration. Thus, the merger with Franklin's ego provides no relief to Vollmann/Subzero; it merely illuminates his own transgressions and isolation.

Correspondingly, the pain of Franklin's ill-fated journey provides stark commentary on the "present" pain felt by Vollmann in his relationship to Reepah. Vollmann's trip to the North Pole - like the various gruesome events and misadventures in the novel - thus serves to actualize Vollmann's pain through a kind of forced physical transference. Of his stay beneath the sub 30-degree Northern Cross, Vollmann writes: "Isachen was so cold and still that his footsteps echoed all the way to the horizon. . . . [H]e tried and found that the little toe of his left foot had entirely lost sensation. . . . Every night now he wondered if he would live until morning.... He composed an epitaph. ... His fingers were dead. He kissed them through the ice-filled mitts. His fingers, hands, zippers were all each other's friends." The consumed appendages and anesthetized feet clearly become emblematic. Vollmann embraces pain and horror in an effort to break out of his self-contained isolation. But the numbness of his toes metaphporically signals his difficulty with emotion. In an effort to force feeling, the narrator(s) kisses his moribund hands. He takes a masochistic pleasure because pain fills a double function of both punishing-the self and heightening consciousness. Necessarily, the lover becomes the beloved.

But even these horrific passages - franklin's and Vollmann's - fail to provide absolution, or an escape from "symbolic history." Vollmann's injuries end with his being frozen; he cannot feel himself and yet, ironically, this results in a heightened, more hurtful self-awareness. It is his fate to be locked within himself, staring outward upon the reflective ice. He is beneath the Northern Cross but there is no benediction and no new terrain.

Beneath the Cross/Me Myself and I

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me.... We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

How could you have done such a thing?

As Vollmann's text progresses, the structural conflation that has shaped the novel becomes complete. The dialectic of the self and the other, of Franklin and Subzero, is extended to the language of the text. "I," "he", "we," and "you" become nearly interchangeable pronouns, just as the past, present, and future have become indistinguishable from one another. The author, the narrator, the subject, and object of the work all merge with the reader, completing the chain of complicity. As Vollmann gazes into the Lacanian mirror, he sees not only the other whom he can recognize as his double, but he also looks beyond the mirror onto a postmodern wasteland where there is no escaping the self. With the collapse of categories there is only the extended vocabulary of consciousness. And Vollmann acknowledges that his psychic predicament is universal. There is no outside of the text; there is no outside of the self. His sin is ours.

As Vollmann describes the historic crew of the Erebus, he places Subzero on the ship. But he does not limit himself to defining his own complicity; he situates the reader within the narrative as well: "there were Franklin, Subzero, you, yours truly, me, myself and I ... well, well, let's be tactful since we [author's italics] had H.M.S. Terror now." The reader - like Vollmann/Subzero-is simultaneously both the self and the other. The subject of the text moves finally from the history of the Inuit to the history of Franklin's expedition, from Reepah's history to Subzero's, from Vollmann's consciousness to that of the reader. And so if distant explorers, white politicians, and ultimately Vollmann are guilty of demolishing the Inuit - and their accompanying subjectivity - so are we.

The next stop was the last stop. Pond Inlet. You both got off. . . . She glanced at you as if she did not recognize you.... Each time, her will to not recognize you became greater ... she gazed up very quickly at you with black, black eyes.... You of course were wearing your personal uniform, bedizened with the merit badges of mosquitoes, guns, islands, seals and whores.... How could you have done or been such a thing? Well that was how you were.

Despite Vollmann/Subzero's efforts to escape the limitations of self, we are all implicated.

Significantly, The Rifles closes with a "Morality Play in One Act," in which various displaced Inuits testify to the destructive effects of the current Canadian Inuit relocation programs. Taken from documented testimony, the "voices" in the play suggest Vollmann's sincere desire to allow the Inuits to speak for themselves. Revealed in the testimony is the painful reality of Canadian and U.S. oppression. As Samwillie Elijasialuk testifies,

I was one of the ones sent to Grise Fiord. When we landed there we were put to work unloading drums and coal for the police. We were told that we would not be paid for this work....

There are many things that have caused me hurt. I now have no shame about telling how police used to say, "You can trade only after I use your woman." They used to do this and I still hurt about it. There are so many wrongs.

But while Vollmann's dialogical attempt to represent "true" Inuit voices proves compelling, Vollmann recognizes the impossibility that their voices can remain isolate from his own discursive structure, from his own point of view. The Rifles thus ends not with the Inuit voices, b6t with Vollmann's own: "fate is different before the barrel and behind the hammer, the hammer that falls so heavily upon the firing pin. . . . But I say to you who are strangers . . . - I say to you others: As you crouch there with stock against your shoulder, pray for the caribou. Pray that your shot is not true."

Vollmann's Rifles thus becomes finally a critique of Western epistemology, its incessant preoccupation with the self, and the violence that results. Lacan, Freud, Christianity, self-help, or history - Vollmann suggests that all of it simply accentuates the "I" until it becomes all-encompassing. Psychoanalysis might argue that self-consciousness can be liberating, but Vollmann demonstrates that self-consciousness-seeing the other and the mirror for what they are - simply intensifies the experience of selfhood. Our way of seeing, of perceiving, has become lethal. We kill both the subject - in this case the Inuit - and ourselves. Guilt, rather than constituting an act of confession, becomes one more mode of masochistic wallowing in a self-created despair. There is no way out.

Desolation Station

Well, said Subzero, life is a terminal disease.

If modernism was marked by its insistent "discovery" of the unconscious and consciousness itself, then postmodernism must be similarly defined by a kind of metaconsciousness and a sense that there is no differentiation between consciousness and the world. Indeed if, as Lacan has stated in his ubiquitous commentary, "language is structured like the unconscious," and if the world itself is mere text, then all forays into the world are in the end mere expeditions into ourselves. Vollmann's brilliance lies in his ability to articulate this condition - tortuously, terribly, and truly. We are all (at/with) Subzero. And our very interpretations of this state simply exacerbate it.

The destruction of the Inuit is our own, both our own fault and our own death. The mirror cracks as we look into it and read our own demise. Perhaps a way of reading Vollmann is to see The Ice-Shirt, as Vollmann has maintained in an interview, as "the beginning of American history." Fathers and Crows continues this sage of exploitation and erasure through its exploration of the effects of Catholicism on the Inuit population. Emblematic of this process is the icon of the cross, which merges guilt, forgiveness, death, and erasure. Certainly we are implicated, but from a distance. But in The Rifles, it is our own history that is explored, with the Inuit functioning as a means to grapple with these hard issues. It is here that we learn that history is not remote but ever present, and that it is at once both a mythology and one of the brutal facts of our own existence.

Frederic Jameson writes in "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" that,

If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life. . . . In our present context, this experience suggests ... a space of praxis; thereby isolated, that present ungulfs the subject with indescribable vividness.(4)

These words find resonance in Vollmann's novels. They are indeed the articulation of what Jameson describes. But unlike Jameson, Vollmann finds little possibility of joy. For so great is his heightened contemporary consciousness that he sees his culture reflected in the face of the other and knows that it is doomed.


(1) The Rifles will be published by Viking Press in February 1994; all quotations are from Vollmann's unedited manuscript and may differ from the eventual published edition. (2) Indeed, while various critics have suggested that Vollmann appropriates the voice of the "other" in his Seven Dreams novels, this interpretation strikes me as a reductive simplification, even a misreading (if one can still use that term). Rather than constituting an act of appropriation, Vollmann's attempt at representation of the other effectively demonstrates the inescapability of the "self." Indeed, throughout the dream narratives, Vollmann strains desperately to hear another voice, but finds he must always struggle against the echoes of his own hyper-extenuated consciousness. The Rifles thus is a performative textual process through which both the author and the reader must acknowledge that all discussions of discovery, self, and even fiction are always acts of colonization and appropriation. Thus, the novel offers a deconstruction of Vollmann's (and our own) position within our culture. Within Western thought, Vollmann argues, there is no static landscape on which one can inscribe the other. The Rifles is an exploration of this predicament, a metacommentary, and gloss - a way of reading - the entire Dreams series. (3) Ihab Hassan, Selves at Risk (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 30. (4) New Left Review 146 (July-August 1984): 53-94.
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Author:Smith, Carlton
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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