Unreadable minds and the captive reader.
I should note at the outset that the inability to read minds can enter realistic fiction as a pathology. In Why We Read Fiction, Zunshine refers to fictional representations of autism or "mindblindness" (Baron-Cohen Mindblindness). Citing the autistic narrator of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Zunshine notes that the narration in consequence "is mostly lacking in attribution of thoughts, feelings, and attitudes," though "we, the readers, supply those missing mental states, thus making sense of the story" (12). Sociopaths belong to another type that suffers (perhaps the wrong word) an emotional deficit, which not only robs them of a full emotional life but also robs them of the capacity to understand that life as it is lived by others. To do so requires an effort of triangulation that operates the way Dr. Van Helsing describes the mindblindness of Dracula, whose powerful "great brain" is yet a "child-brain ... that do only work selfish and therefore small" (Stoker 363). In his recent novel Talk Talk, T. C. Boyle brilliantly renders a sociopath who is similarly hobbled and consequently incapable of understanding the tenacity of the pair of lovers who pursue him} In The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen controversially extended his early work on autism to include a calibrated range of mindblindness down into the "normal" masculine demographic. If he is right about this, both Othello and Lear might qualify for a diagnosis of mindblindness. And certainly much comedy has turned on the blindness of men to What Every Woman Knows (to cite the 1934 film starring Helen Hayes), that is, not only the minds of others but their own minds as well.
But my subject is the mind that defies all efforts to read it. The usual default reading of such a mind is as one or another opaque stereotype, of which the most common is that the character is crazy. It is important to acknowledge here that authors may, and often do, create characters according to stereotypes that are meant to be fully readable as such. Authors also quite commonly create characters who appear to be unreadable, and in consequence are stereotyped by others, yet who acquire readability over the course of the narrative. Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now has "very obviously ... gone insane," according to the film's unnamed general. In context, "insane" is a place-holder for the inexplicable, though here, as often, it works as a performative, that is, as an act of naming with a practical purpose. (2) Putting Kurtz into the category of the insane confers permission to "terminate" him. Captain Willard, recognizing the game in play, replies "Yes, sir. Very much so, sir. Obviously insane" (Milius 13). But from there on, using Willard as its principal focalizer, the film revaluates the term "insane," transferring it to the war effort that the general represents while at the same time conferring on Kurtz a degree of complex readability. A similar revaluation can be seen in Pat Barker's superb novel of World War I Regeneration, in which the opaque place holder for unreadable behavior is "shell shock." A central drama of the novel is the gradual decoding of shell shock by a historically real figure, Dr. William Rivers. Rivers learns to read shell shock as a language of protest that, given the political climate and a soldier's need to "be a man," cannot be given voice. It is a protest, moreover, rooted in a sane assessment of the madness of war. (3)
In what follows, I shall be dealing with characters that disallow the default reading of opaque stereotypes through lack of sufficient narrative action to release them from their unreadability. I shall also be isolating a second and third default response to unreadable minds in fiction that have the potential to displace the immediate experience of unreadability.
1. Reading the Unreadable Mind
My single nineteenth-century example is Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby the Scrivener." It stands out vividly in the rich social tapestry of canonical nineteenth-century fiction that Palmer has described so well. It is hard to think of another like it in Victorian fiction, and indeed all the other characters in "Bartleby" are as readable as those of Melville's contemporary Charles Dickens. Our decent, kindly narrator is a comfortable sort, "one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause" (Melville 92-3). His veteran scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and the office-boy, Ginger Nut, are as vividly Dickensian in their look and manner as their names suggest. Together they make the story buzz with the thick "intermental" life of accessible minds so common to the Dickens world. At the same time, they effectively frame the mystery of Bartleby, a silent, pale, diligent copyist who could as easily play the role of a readable character except that, when requested to do any other task than copying, he politely replies, "I would prefer not to." As such, the tale unfolds like a kind of experiment in which an inaccessible mind is dropped into a conventional nineteenth-century storyworld.
Predictably, the default reading of the unreadable that I mentioned above is ready to hand in this story. As Ginger Nut puts it: "I think, sir, he's a little luny" (103). The narrator himself is driven to think that "the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder" (111-12). But, strangely, it doesn't work for him, and he must repeatedly return to the stubborn fact that "Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable." This was, he writes, "an irreparable loss to literature" (92)--a comment that is as understandable, given our evolved narrative expectations, as it is ironic, given the tale's achieved canonicity. The crisis that Bartleby brings on in the heart and mind of his employer is caused by the way he undermines what Ernst Mayr has called the human tendency to engage in "typological" thinking--our assumption of an inner classifiable essence that generates what we see on the outside (165-6), to wit, the thinking of the jail's grubman who assumes Bartleby was "a gentleman-forger" because "they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers" (130). (4) It is a tendency that Dickens relied on extensively and provides much of the great pleasure of his work. And perhaps Melville was provocatively mimicking Dickens in this regard when he gave his character the leitmotif"I prefer not to." In so doing he throws into sharp relief the Dickensian essentializing device of the repeatable character tag. In David Copperfield, for example, "Barkis is Willin'" expresses a character's predictability of behavior and at the same time his essential depth of motivation--in this case the devotion to Clara Peggotty that rules Barkis's heart. Bartleby's tag also conveys predictable behavior but without any depth at all, either of feeling or motive. All we can imagine is that "some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did" (103).
Identifying the type, as Mayr argues, is a powerful cognitive imperative, and accordingly Bartleby's employer begins to infer essence from the evidence of Bartleby's isolation and poverty: "what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!" (109). Seeking a prototype, he pronounces him "a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage." Likening Bartleby to the plebian-born populist, Marius Caius, sworn foe of Roman aristocracy and unjust privilege, the narrator seeks to achieve species kinship, establishing "the bond of a common humanity.... For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam" (110). Actually, for a prototype, he might have chosen the "incurably forlorn" scrivener, Nemo, of Dickens's recently published Bleak House. A pale copyist, Nemo is so devoid of the signs of life that when he is found dead he is, like Bartleby, first thought to be alive. Our narrator, however, is too honest a man to succeed in identifying Bartleby even as this least of types. Yet he remains a captive would-be reader, which in itself seems as enigmatic as Bartleby. He marvels at that "wondrous ascendancy which the inscrutable scrivener had over me, and from which ascendancy, for all my chafing, I could not completely escape" (118). So powerful is it that when he thinks he is leaving Bartleby for good, "strange to say--I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of" (124).
Andrew Delbanco reads this as Melville's bearing witness "to a good man trying to become a better man in the face of another's suffering" (Delbanco 221). Delbanco's interpretive move, and there have been many like it, is an example of a second default response to the unrcadable mind: that is, to see it as a function in the characterization of another. The unreadable is read primarily as a catalyst in a drama of non-reading, with the focus on the captive reader as she/he copes with the unreadable. In this instance, Bartleby's employer is the captive reader, and the unreadable Bartleby the catalyst who brings out the lawyer's character. All of which is quite just. And we can choose to leave it at that. But should we not give up on him as a character, Bartleby's unreadability remains a problem for us, the captive readers of the text. Without narratable cause, "I would prefer not to" is a motif of such transcendent bizzarerie that it seems to come from outer space. Its combination of quaint diction, subjunctive formality, affectless politeness, together with the granitic resolve of its speaker's attendant behavior, takes Bartleby one step too far from any kind of plausible integration of character--an implausibility that only grows with its insistent repetition. To adapt Andy Clark's coinage, the phenomenon of Bartleby is "representation-hungry," (5) in the sense that there remains an inexplicable distance between Bartleby's behavior and the presumption from all appearances that Bartleby is human.
Yet, as the story is fiction and not nonfiction, there remains a third common default response. This requires shifting the mode of reading from determining who Bartleby is or how he functions to determining what he stands for. The unreadable character is read neither as a character nor a function, but as an idea. It is a shift that allows meaning to rush in, which is what has happened almost invariably in the critical response to Bartleby. The narrator himself cues the symbolic mode at the beginning of the narrative when he says that "[w]hat my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report, which will appear in the sequel" (92). The "sequel" is a paragraph devoted to a mere "rumor," that "Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington." "Dead letters!" our narrator exclaims, prompting, "does it not sound like dead men?" And after a brief excursus on the metaphorical potential of Bartleby's rumored employment, he concludes: "On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" (131). The hint is more than enough to initiate a symbolic reading. In 1949, Richard Chase developed what has become a popular reading of Bartleby as the uncompromising writer at a time when Melville, now struggling to write novels of greater weight after a brief period of popular success, was beginning to go into eclipse. Bartleby thus chooses death rather than compromise with the agents of a society that has degraded his profession. Others have hung their readings on Bartleby's plebian status. For Laurie Robertson Lorant, "Bartleby is the ghost of social conscience haunting the precincts of the ruling class" (Lorant 333). For a third, Bartleby can be read as a protest against the absurdity of life itself--that, finally, we are all writers of dead letters. An existential Christ, his death is a final act of defiance against the whole metaphysical set-up of life on earth. "Ah, Bartleby! Ah humanity!"
These are all readings with rich potential. I have introduced them, however, to help make my point: that in this tale, a shift into the symbolic mode of reading is a necessity if its eponymous central figure is to be read at all. Taken as a character and not as a symbol, Bartleby is unreadable. And in my view it is Bartleby's unreadability that gives the story its narrative tension. It is as an unreadable being that he challenges the narrator, right up to his death. This is the drama that holds us captive and that Melville does not relieve with the enlightenment of closure. He would prefer not to, and it is this preference that makes the story work as well as it does. If in retrospect the narrator grasps at a rumor that might restore readability to the unreadable Bartleby, the very act of grasping at meaning suggests another: that the unreadable is, by and large, unendurable, and that, one way or another, readers will find some strategy to make it go away.
Briefly summarizing the theoretical yield so far, I've proposed three default responses to unreadable minds: the opaque type, the catalyst, and the symbol. They are all modes of reading, but only the first purports to be a reading of the unreadable character as a character. Of the three, it is the only illegitimate one insofar as it forecloses a full response to the narrative. The other two are of course legitimate responses with a pedigree of tenable readings. The one risk is that they may so absorb attention that they also displace the feeling of unreadability (again, insofar as that feeling is vital to the narrative experience), a displacement that may in fact be part of their appeal. In my second text, the central focus is the captive reader, but for the text to work it is vital that the reader share his perplexity.
2. Reading the Captive Reader
The unreadable mind in Kathryn Harrison's The Seal Wife is that of an unnamed Aleut woman who never speaks and about whom little is known except that she is uncommonly attractive, smokes a pipe, skins small animals, sews with skill, and tolerates only the missionary position in intercourse. We observe her unreadability through the eyes of the novel's protagonist, Bigelow, a gifted engineer and meteorologist who has been sent to Anchorage at the turn of the last century. His job is sending daily observations by teletype to the Weather Bureau, and in his spare time he builds giant kites to test his theories about the upper atmosphere. But at the center of the novel is his obsession with this unreadable woman.
She looks at him, neither through nor away but directly at his face in the way that she has: not surprised, not inquisitive. Not excited, not agitated. Not apprehensive. Not interested, and not uninterested, either. Not angry, not curious. Not judging. Not dismayed. Not resigned. Not amused. Not delighted, or even slightly pleased. Not displeased.
There are a hundred, no, a thousand ways that other people have looked at Bigelow over the years, and none of them describe the woman's gaze. He knows all the things that it is not. What it is, is harder to say. She has this trick of just looking.
As in the case of Bartleby, the Aleut woman is a case of unreadability by narrative impoverishment. She is a hole in the narrative, a placeholder for a non-existent story. At one point, Bigelow goes to her house and finds it empty. "He tries to imagine what might have summoned her from her home. Illness? A death in her family, or a birth?" (82). Later in the novel, with the same lack of warning, she is back in her house. "All these heavy things, stove and bed and table and chairs--how has she done it? Who has helped her to transport them?" (181). He never learns. We never learn. It is of course possible for a reader to "read her off" as an opaque racial type (as in: She's an Eskimo, what more can you say?). But it is as, specifically, an unreadable mind that she works as a catalyst in a drama of nonreading.
He doesn't want for her to have escaped behind the lids of her eyes--it seems as if he can see her there, in the dark, folded in a place too small to admit another occupant. He's getting what he hoped, he tells himself, but it isn't at all what be expected, and a desolation seizes him. He's not joined to her. he can't reach her. (29)
The novel contains a narrative inset that works as a kind of experimental "control," setting off the unique appeal of the Aleut woman's unreadability. It involves Bigelow's emerging fascination for another beautiful mute, Miriam, during the interval when the Aleut woman is gone. But Miriam turns out to be a sham mystery, part of a racket, seducing men who are caught by her father in flagrante and then subject to extortion. With them, the opaque types work--"criminal, scoundrel, extorter" (196)--and they are duly run out of town, and out of the novel. For Bigelow, there can be no readable substitutes. It is precisely by not giving him the assurance that his mind-reading muscles (Zunshine 124-5) are working, that the Aleut woman maintains her grip on Bigelow. As in "Bartleby," the catalytic role played by the unreadable mind casts a shadow of unreadability over the catalyzed would-be reader. If the allure of the mysterious beauty is a familiar literary topos, even a cliche (which it is), in this narrative rendering Harrison has found a vehicle for restoring the mystery's original power. As long as the Aleut woman's unreadability remains intact, the ancillary mystery of desire persists as well. And though it is Eros that brings Bigelow to her, and though "he tells himselt" that "he's getting what he hoped .... it isn't at all what he expected." It's reading her that he wants, and it is not being able to read that keeps him wanting.
In the case of Melville's captive reader, I suggested that shifting to a symbolic reading--what I've been calling the third default response to an unreadable mind--could be seen as an effort to seek relief from the unreadable, one that the lawyer would share with a long line of interpreters. This is something Bigelow does not allow himself, though for his reader there are several hints for a reading of Bigelow and the Aleut woman as figures in an allegory of desire. The novel's title probably comes from a North American aboriginal myth in which a seal captures a man to live with her under the sea. When he escapes and tries to return to his village, he finds that he has been so transformed by his captivity that he chooses to return to the sea for good (White). And Bigelow would seem the epitome of an ancient idea of male desire, at his station high above the town, fashioning bigger and better kites which he sends thousands of feet up into the heavens to read the secrets of the weather. At one point, Harrison allows her protagonist, drunk and in the arms of yet another woman, to dream the lineaments of this emergent binary theory of desire: "[H]e's falling through a woman's vastness: storms and oceans, a desert, a mountain, a field in bloom, the wind moving in loops and arcs and great gusting sighs.... a beauty that cares nothing for the attentions of men, who crawl like ants on her face, at her feet" (90). (6)
In my reading, however, what allows this binary to work comfortably in concert with the novel's action is that it does not displace the mystery at the novel's core. It provides a soft frame for Harrison's constant focus on the absolute of unreadability and its role in bringing out the mystery of its captive would-be reader.
In the dream, he dismembers her. It's easy enough; he's learned from watching her skin and cut up game. And there is no blood. Instead, a stream of writing spills from her veins, letters and runes, like Weather Bureau teletype, a cipher he is to translate into meaning. Except he can't fathom the writing inside the woman. He's killed her for nothing. (70)
This unreadability is what must be felt, along with its power to captivate. This complex experience is the target of Harrison's considerable creative energy. To allow too great an encroachment of the symbolic mode of response, then, is to risk disengaging from what the novel does so well.
My third example demonstrates, by contrast, how the symbolic can be, not a displacement, but a key element of the reader's experience of an unreadable mind.
3. The Unreadable Symbol and the Art of the Short Story
One of Alice Munro's signature gifts as a writer of short stories is the efficiency with which she builds to a moment of insight that allows us at one and the same time to see a character anew and to see that there is more we can't see. Perhaps her most stunning achievement in this regard is "Fits," a story in which unreadability and its power to captivate are thematized throughout. In it, an entire community is held captive by the unreadable minds of the Weebles, a retired couple, recently arrived, who are found one morning dead of a murder-suicide. Their corpses mark the end of some terrible story, forever untold. By extension, their house itself becomes a magnet drawing the townsfolk, their "cars nosing along the street, turning at the end, nosing their way back again..., making some new kind of monster that came poking around in a brutally curious way" (Munro 449). Inevitably, formulaic stories start packing the void left by their deaths.
They had owed money on their income taxes. Being an accountant, he thought he knew how to fix things, but he had been found out. He would be exposed, perhaps charged, shamed publically, left poor. Even if it was only cheating the government, it would still be a disgrace when that kind of thing came out.... It was not money at all. They were ill. One of them or both of them. Cancer. Crippling arthritis. Alzheimer's disease. Recurrent mental problems. It was health, not money. It was suffering and helplessness they feared, not poverty. (442)
The Weebles' next-door neighbor, Robert Kuiper, trying to explain to his stepsons what happened, falls back on a version of the insanity default: "it's like an earthquake or a volcano. It's that kind of happening. It's a kind of fit. People can take a fit like the earth takes a fit. But it only happens once in a long while. It's a freak occurrence" (448). But Robert still yearns for some way of narrativizing the Weebles that works better than this or any of the other stories his neighbors have been fashioning. "If he could have believed one of them, hung on to it, it would have been as if something had taken its claws out of his chest and permitted him to breathe" (442). Robert is a special instance in this storyworld because he is held captive not only by the unreadability of the Weebles, but also by that of his wife, Peg, who first discovered the Weebles. The problem with Peg is that she fails to register an appropriate response to the dead couple. She does not scream, she does not run to tell others, she does not phone her husband. She simply goes to the sheriff and reports what she found. Then she goes to work without bothering to let her coworkers in on this hot item. The unreadability of Peg doubles that of the Weebles, and its captivating power generates a trajectory of its own. With characteristic economy, Munro weaves both of these threads together in a remarkable counterpoint on the obscure origins of human violence and the unpredictability of its eruption.
Normally "reserved," or "self-contained" (in Robert's words), Peg has stepped over a line. For her friends and workmates, not telling what she found is a betrayal of trust. Worse, it's abnormal. "What was it they were really looking for?" the narrator asks. "Perhaps they wanted from Peg .just some kind of acknowledgment, some word or look that would send them away, saying, 'Peg Kuiper is absolutely shattered.' 'I saw Peg Kuiper. She didn't say much but you could tell she was absolutely shattered'" (443). What they are looking for is a "natural" narrative with its appropriate sequence of cause and effect:
Discovering bodies [right arrow] Absolutely shattered
Karen Adams, Peg's co-worker, inserts herself in just such a normalizing narrative when she recounts finally getting Peg to say what happened: "I started to shake. I shook all over and I couldn't stop myself" (439).
But Robert is married to Peg so the whole problem of her non-response is, quite literally, closer to home. The Weebles, too, were married--married long enough to retire together. The one evening they had dropped over for a drink, they seemed normal enough. Peg and Robert, themselves, have been married for five years, and it has been pretty smooth sailing. So for Robert, the unreadability of the Weebles and the unreadability of Peg are bound together, since to read her is to read her reading the Weebles. This is what makes it hard for him to breathe. He senses there's something under her smooth surface, something caged that might or might not spring; he just doesn't know what it is.
Robert was watching her, from time to time. He would have said he was watching to see if she was in any kind of trouble, if she seemed numb, or strange, or showed a quiver, if she dropped things or made the pots clatter. But in fact he was watching her just because there was no sign of such difficulty and because he knew there wouldn't be. (446)
What sends her and the whole story into a much graver key is a "discrepancy" in her narrative when she finally tells Robert how she discovered the Weebles. She says what she saw first was Mr. Weeble's leg "stretched out into the hall" from the bedroom door (447). But that isn't what she saw, and Robert knows it. He has already heard the constable's account of the scene, and it has given new meaning to the "long crusty smear" of dried blood on the coat Peg wore that morning. For her readers, Munro saves the constable's account until the end of her story, where its detonation can have the greatest recursive effect.
At noon, when the constable in the diner was giving his account, he had described how the force of the shot threw Walter Weeble backward. "It blasted him partways out of the room. His head was laying out in the hall. What was left of it was laying out in the hall." Not a leg. Not the indicative leg. whole and decent in its trousers, the shod toot. That was not what anybody turning at the top of the stairs would see and would have to step over, step through, in order to go into the bedroom and look at the rest of what was there. (453)
Clare Hanson has argued that one consequence of the shortness of short stories is that we are willing to "accept a degree of mystery, elision, uncertainty [that] we would not in the novel" (25). In a forthcoming essay, Renate Brosch, with the cognitivist work of Zunshine and Palmer in her sights, argues that because of the "reduction of textuality" in the short story, "the psychological make-up of characters becomes a mystery, and reading minds becomes a guessing game for which we collect clues scattered through the text." As such, "the reading experience" of the short story "highlights the deep desire for, and the failed attempt at, achieving intersubjectivity." Brosch couples this contention with another: that Wolfgang Iser's view of the centrality of the "image-building process" to narrative experience is accentuated in the experience of the short story. Where the novel, with its greater length, sequentiality, and detail, can build up an autonomous world in which the reader feels at home, the short story has a "poetic" density, so that a single image can dominate our understanding, tying together themes and incidents.
The interrelation of the resistance to mind-reading and the expanded role of the image in the short story bears directly On the third default response to the unreadable mind, the move into a symbolic reading. I have argued that often this is a way of neutralizing the effect of what cannot be dealt with at the level of character. To be "mindblind" can be terrifying (Mindblindness 5), and though we are not exactly terrified when we encounter a fictional character that we don't understand, there is comfort in dealing with this condition in the abstract. Munro, however, invites us to move into the symbolic mode, but only while staying within, not apart from, the mind that is reading symbolically. I want to show how this works through two contrasting symbolic events that come in quick succession on the last page of "Fits."
Going out at the end of this disorienting day for a walk on the hard crust of a snow-covered field and enjoying its glittering surface and smooth contours, Robert begins to make out "a new kind of glitter under the trees. A congestion of shapes, with black holes in them, and unattached arms or petals reaching up." As he closes in, they continue to resist his understanding: "They did not look like anything, except perhaps a bit like armed giants half collapsed, frozen in combat, or like the crazy towers of a crazy small-scale city." It is only when he gets very close that he sees that they are "just old cars. Old cars and trucks and even a school-bus that had been pushed in under the trees," some "tipped over one another at odd angles" (453). The symbolic stature of this experience in Robert's mind follows directly from what we've been reading about the cold, serene, surface of his unreadable wife and the possibility that what lies underneath it is a frightening chaos of emotion and potential violence. But getting close enough, he can read what he sees correctly: "what amazed and bewildered him so was nothing but old wrecks." Relieved, he thinks of telling Peg about it: "They needed some new thing to talk about." But this is only a dream of relief. Robert has performed a symbolic operation as a diversion, a false lead away from Peg's problematic mind and the image that he knows is in that mind. The moral of the "old wrecks" is a moral the story can't have: that the mystery of Peg's inner world can be cleared up, that what is so frightening is really mundane. In a powerful montage, Munro chooses at this point to disclose what Peg actually saw through the constable's account, ending her tale and throwing an ironic shadow over the image Robert has just seen.
Here again, readers are, of course, free to shift to the third mode of response. It is a shift that accords with Iser's admonitory words: "we are now prepared for a change of levels, in which the scene ceases to be just an element of the plot and becomes instead the vehicle for a much broader theme" (Iser 144). So, Mr. Weeble's exploded head, can be read as a frightening evocation of the violence that can lie dormant in intimate relationships, that can rise up suddenly and blow them apart. There is support for this. The narrator relates an incident from Robert's past when he and his last lover before Peg were having an argument on some trivial matter: "All of a sudden, the argument split open ... and they found themselves saying the cruelest things to each other that they could imagine" (450). More vivid still are the fights that Peg and her former husband had, recalled by her son Clayton who has suggested that maybe the Weebles had a fight:
"When you and Dad used to have those fights? ... Remember, after we first moved to town? When he would be home? ... When you used to have those fights, you know what I used to think? I used to think one of you was going to come and kill me with a knife."
"That's not true," said Peg.
"It is true. I did." (448)
This moment with Clayton is the one time in the story when Peg's eerie self-containment gives way: "She who always seemed pale and silky and assenting, but hard to follow as a watermark on paper, looked dried out, chalky, her outlines fixed in steady, helpless, unapologetic pain" (449).
But do we know enough now to know why Peg would not only maintain her reserve, having seen what was left of Mr. Weeble's head, but also tell a lie to her husband about what she saw? Add to this the fact that there was no need to go any further once she had seen seen Mr. Weeble. And yet she felt a need (what need?) to go into the room, dragging her coat through his blood, in order to take in the whole grisly scene. In short, more is less. We know too much about what Peg does to allow us to know just who she is. What is her secret? Did she kill her husband? Probably not, but why did he drive off to Alaska and never come back? Did their fights involve physical violence? Did they fight with knives, as Clayton's fear might imply? Or does the sight of the Weebles simply match a propensity in herself? Did her husband, then, leave for Alaska in fear of her? Or, conversely, does she see what she fears might have happened to her? Is this why she has to go into the room--to see what happened to Mrs. Weeble? Or was it emotional, not physical, damage that she suffered beyond repair?
We never learn. But I am arguing that the story is designed, nonetheless, to compel us to see and feel through the mind of Robert, her captive reader. It ends with two powerful images that, in their symbolic import, can lure us out of the immediacy of Robert's nightmare, if we let them. But Robert can only succeed as such a reader with the first image. It is the second image that insures his captivity in a state of knowing enough to know that he doesn't know enough.
4. Toward an Ethics of the Unreadable Mind
Andrew Delbanco described the narrator of "Bartleby" as "a good man trying to become a better man in the face of another's suffering." There is something very nineteenth-century in this twentieth-century critic's assessment, with its stress on empathy, and the conscious effort to be "a better man," and the catalytic agency of suffering. It does not catch, in fact it displaces, our narrator' s puzzlement about his captivity and the role that Bartleby's unreadability, not suffering, plays in this captivity. Melville seems instead to have leapt ahead by a century, anticipating two key ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, of which the first is the recognition that the other is "absolutely other." Adriaan Peperzak's wording of this idea eerily chimes with the experience of Bartleby as "the irreducible Other ... a stranger who cannot be reduced to a role or function within my world; ... someone who comes from afar and who does not belong to it" (137). At the same time, the tenacity of the narrator's attention to Bartleby would seem to bear out the other side of the Levinasian ethical equation: that "[T]he I is bound up with the non-I as if the entire fate of the Other was in its hands" (Levinas 18). This is not a matter of my "trying to be a better man" but of my being somehow "obliged without this obligation having begun in me, as though an order slipped into my consciousness like a thief" (119). It is like being held "hostage even before I may know it" (Peperzak 26).
This central binary made the human face a major theme in Levinas, beckoning the captive reader even as it screens the unreadable that lies on the other side: "A face confounds the intentionality that aims at it.... The epiphany of the absolutely other is a face, in which the other (autrui) calls on me" (Levinas 34). Faces figure in much the same way in these texts. Our narrator searches and searches Bartleby's face, bound by an absence he cannot read:
I looked at him steadfastly. His face Was leanly composed: his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience, or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I would have violently dismissed him from the premises. (101)
Similarly Bigelow searches the inexpressive face of the Aleut woman and Robert searches the serenely contained face of his wife, both held hostage, not by what they can't read, but by not being able to read what they can't read.
One other closely relevant theme in Levinas has to do with what I have been calling the default ways that readers have in reading, that is, naturalizing or displacing, the unreadability of the unreadable mind. For Levinas, the deep motive behind these moves is the fear of losing the integrity of the self under the spell of the other. The coping mechanism is to absorb the other by incorporating it into the terms of the self's own understanding, "to annex otherness to itself by knowledge, possession, mastery" (Smith 37). Readers make basically the same moves when they naturalize the unreadable characters of fiction. The urgency of this need and the pain of its frustration is vividly expressed in Bigelow's dream when he cuts open the Aleut woman, and "a stream of writing spills from her veins, letters and runes.... a cipher he is to translate into meaning. Except he can't fathom the writing inside the woman."
Harrison's complex metaphor is much the same as the one J. M. Coetzee used in Waiting for the Barbarians when he made the magistrate an amateur archeologist, struggling to read barbarian runes even as he struggles to read the captive woman who holds him captive by her unreadability. In this novel, as in Harrison's, sexual penetration leads nowhere. Bigelow tells himself that by having sex with the Aleut woman, "[h]e's getting what he hoped ... but it isn't at all what he expected, and a desolation seizes him." The same desolation afflicts the magistrate. As many have noted, the physical contact that the magistrate "enjoys" with the barbarian woman, and that is described at length, is an index not of contact but of the absence of contact. In this light, the most intimate forms of physical contact--sex (sex as taking, using) and torture--are aligned as two desperate expressions of the same desire.
[T]o desire her has meant to enfold her and enter her, to pierce her surface and stir the quiet of her interior into an ecstatic storm; then to retreat, to subside, to wait for desire to reconstitute itself. But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! (Waiting 43)
Coetzee preserves the secret body of this other from both the magistrate and from us right up to their last moment together: "When I tighten my grip on her hand there is no answer. I see only too clearly what I see: a stocky girl with a broad mouth and hair cut in a fringe across her forehead staring over my shoulder into the sky; a stranger; a visitor from strange parts now on her way home after a less than happy visit. 'Goodbye,' I say. 'Goodbye,' she says. There is no more life in her voice than in mine" (73).
In drawing on the way Levinas words his first two principles, I by no means wish to implicate his metaphysics or much else of the layered complexity of his thought. The match between Levinas and my text examples quickly breaks down, beginning with the fact that most of the characters in these texts are eminently readable. Coetzee, of all the writers I have dealt with here, has sought to develop an ethics in connection with human unreadability, yet the unreadable characters in his novels are socially marginalized and often solitary others. They seem (as they are often taken to be) part of a more narrowly focused commentary on the colonial mindset. The barbarian woman is coded as both racially and ethnically distinct; Michael K in Life and Times of Michael K would have been recognized by South African readers as "colored"; Vercueil in Age of iron is homeless; Friday in Foe is a black man from a distant island, mute, and exotically unreadable: "In the grip of dancing he is not himself. He is beyond human reach. I call his name and am ignored, I put out a hand and am brushed aside. All the while he dances he makes a humming noise in his throat, deeper than his usual voice; sometimes he seems to be singing" (Foe 92).
Moreover, they coexist with other characters whom we read with ease. When the magistrate and his vicious antagonist, Colonel Joll, have their final encounter after the defeat of Joll's forces, the scene begins with a tableau, the two of them separated by the window of Joll's carriage.
His face is naked, washed clean, perhaps by the blue moonlight, perhaps by physical exhaustion. I stare at his pale high temples. Memories of his mother's soft breast, of the tug in his hand of the first kite he flew, as well as of those intimate cruelties for which I abhor him, shelter in that beehive. (146)
There is a complexity emerging here that suggests a multitude of possible Jolls in that "beehive." But look what happens once the magistrate literally grabs Colonel Joll by the arm and forces him to talk:
"Let me go!" he sobs. He is no stronger than a child.
"In a minute. How could it be that the barbarians did this to you?"
"We froze in the mountains! We starved in the desert! Why did no one tell us it would be like that?" (147)
The tableau gives way to the busy, discursive intermental interchange of narrative action, and at the same time Colonel Joll shrinks back into a type, the would-be bully crying with self-pity. In the context of a searching critique of empire, this works powerfully. But at the same time it reinforces the impression that in the storyworld of this novel the exclusivity of Otherness is reserved for its unreadable barbarians.
To repeat, the experience of unreadable fictional minds, meant as such, is very hard to maintain. Jesse Bering writes that people "cannot turn off their mind-reading skills even if they want to. All human actions are forevermore perceived to be the products of unobservable mental states, and every behavior, therefore, is subject to intense sociocognitive scrutiny" (Bering 12). This intense scrutiny can, moreover, be extended to any bizarre event, which can be read as a signifier, sent perhaps from the mind of God. Correlatively, in fiction we often find signifiers of this sort and often attribute them to the mind of the author. This is the symbolic default whereby the unreadable becomes readable at another level. In fact, in Life and Times of Michael K, it is hard not to read Michael K symbolically, with his seeds in his pocket. He does it himself: "It excited him, he found, to say, recklessly, the truth, the truth about me. 'I am a gardener'" (181). Similarly, Coetzee invites us to see Vercueil as the Angel of Death, wrapping Mrs. Curren in his cold embrace at the end of Age of iron. Failing these, there is still the term "other," which can work as a symbolizing label, conveying its own minimal degree of readable displacement.
The ethical move that I am promoting in this final section is to read the barbarian woman, the Aleut woman, Peg, and Bartleby in a full acceptance of their insistent unreadability. I am arguing that there is value in not allowing default responses to override the immediate experience of an unreadable fictional mind. This does not preclude the symbolic, but requires that it not displace the experience of unreadability. It does, however, preclude empathy, even as it accepts the reader's captivity, for empathy necessarily involves the presumption of a readable mind. As such, it dilutes the humility and respect before the human unknowable that I believe to some extent governs each of these texts. I have tried in this essay to sketch an analytics of unreadable minds, currently a hole in an otherwise immensely profitable cognitive inquiry into what goes on in storyworlds.
I have also suggested one way to approach unreadability in an ethical reading. There is much else to be done, beginning with the historical issue of why unreadable characters only began proliferating in twentieth-century literature.
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Chase, Richard. Herman Melville: a Critical Study. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
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Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Scrivener." Selected Tales and Poems. Ed. Richard Chase. New York: Rinehart, 1957, 92-131.
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--. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.
My thanks to Project Narrative at Ohio State University for a workshop on cognitive narratology where these ideas began to germinate, and to Alan Palmer for being such a worthy foil in that workshop.
(1) A key 1991 study by Williamson, et al, found that diagnosed sociopaths, unlike normal people, reveal no heightened affective response to emotion-laden words. "Love" and "happy" produce the same neutral response as "chair" and "fifteen." In an important follow-up, Intrator, et al, using single-photon emission-computed tomography, discovered heightened blood-flow in the temporal lobes of sociopathic subjects when asked to solve problems involving emotion-laden words. In other words, they had to work harder than others, given the difficulty they had understanding the emotional element.
(2) Such a performative move is often a way of rejecting any effort of interpretation, as in the familiar student's reading: "He's like so totally weird!"
(3) One important caution is that an accurate reading of a character is by no means a complete understanding. It is an understanding that honors the information we are given. The issue of what lies in the gaps of narrative is a vexed one. Lubomir Dolezel has argued that, unlike the gaps in historical narrative, gaps in fiction contain only what is in some way cued (169-84). That said, characters in realistic fiction can generally be assumed, without specifying details, to have depths we cannot see. This is in accord with what Marie-Laure Ryan called the "principle of minimal departure," that is, the assumption that the world of any fictional narrative matches our "own experiential reality" unless there is information included in the narrative itself that tells us otherwise (48-60).
(4) Scott Atran, Susan A. Gelman, and others have developed the case that thinking in such essentialist terms is a trans-cultural feature of the human response to humans. In Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible, Lisa Zunshine extends this work into the sphere of fictional representations.
(5) The term was originally developed by Clark and Josefa Toribio to refer to the problem of representation in "(1) cases that involve reasoning about absent, nonexistent, or counterfactual states of affairs and/or (2) cases that involve selective sensitivity to states of affairs whose physical manifestations are complex and unruly" (Clark, 167).
(6) It is also possible to read the Aleut woman as the expression of the actual author's needs or desires. In this reading, for example, the Aleut woman conveys Harrison's experience of her own unattainable mother (detailed in The Kiss and The Mother Knot). Such a biographical interpretive move is like the symbolic, in that it presumes to read an extradiegetic mind to decode an unreadable character.
H. Porter Abbott
University of California, Santa Barbara
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|Author:||Abbott, H. Porter|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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