Deleuze’s American Dream
Most of my more philosophical posts have been aimed at defending my approach to art and interpretation. Yesterday, however, I read Gilles Deleuze’s essays on Whitman and Melville (in Essays Critical and Clinical), and I want to engage in a bit of pure exegesis here in order to get a better grip on them. In these two essays, Deleuze refers to the “American Dream”, which he elucidates in his own terminology, but which he finds to be shared between the two authors. His analysis of Melville especially reveals how literary acts can effect this dream, helping to draw the reader toward it. My aim is to trace out the shape of Deleuze’s version of the American Dream. I don’t want to evaluate it for faithfulness to Whitman or Melville (though I do think much of his Melville exegesis is excellent). Nor do I wish to touch on the connection Deleuze draws between this and his views on psychoanalysis (a connection made in the very title of the essay collection). I am simply not competent to evaluate that. I am interested, instead, in the picture of human flourishing that emerges, what Deleuze calls the “American Dream”. (I will also draw implicitly on the essays Literature and Life and To Have Done With Judgment, both in the same collection, but I will not emphasize them or focus on them specifically.)
The two essays, Whitman and Bartleby; or, the Formula (henceforth Bartleby), arrive at the same vision by different routes. In the former, Deleuze sets out a metaphysics of relations, exploring the ways relations between objects may be built up and destroyed. In the latter, Deleuze again develops a metaphysics, this time of lawless primary nature and lawful secondary nature. Here, unlike in the Whitman essay, Deleuze analyzes in depth how Melville’s characters and language relate to these two natures, so I will mostly focus on Bartleby. I will begin, however, with Whitman, which introduces some core ideas that will recur later.
Deleuze makes a useful contrast between two images, which provides a good entry point into the metaphysics of Whitman. Deleuze juxtaposes the image of an endless wall of stones heaped upon one another to the image of a wall of stones cemented together. In the latter case, there is a clear totality, and fixed relations: the stones do not move in relation to one another. In the former, however, relations are not fixed. The balance is precarious, and may be upset, but when, say, a portion of the wall falls down, it may be put back up, stone upon stone. The new arrangement will not be identical to the old, of course, and this is just the point. We can imagine a ceaseless cycle of stones falling and being replaced: ever shifting relations. There is no stable, constant wall, no overarching totality. The wall is in a constant state of becoming. The totality of the wall is located in the external relations of a given moment, which are always shifting.
These stones are meant to represent what Deleuze elsewhere in the essay calls “fragments”—he frequently refers to American literature as a fragmentary literature. Fragments have existence in themselves, but they also have relations to other fragments, relations which are, as above, constantly shifting. Deleuze labels two processes that effect this shifting. On the one side is Nature/History, and on the other side is War. (I will use capital letters to indicate Deleuze’s terms of art, since they are not meant to be identified with the physical realities that provide the metaphors.) Nature (for simplicity I’ll ignore any differences between Nature and History) builds up relations between fragments, while War tears them down.
The view of human flourishing that Deleuze develops is one where people ally themselves with Nature, which he finds in Whitman to be a Society of Comrades, where the dominant relationship is Camaraderie. Here he deploys another image: that of wounded soldiers in the hospital. The soldiers in the hospital are isolated from one another, are fragments stripped of their relations by War. The individual who is allied with Nature, then, must go to each soldier individually and establish a relation of Camaraderie with him. A slow, diligent process of building back up relations that War has stripped away. Here, then, in brief, we have the notion of human flourishing that Deleuze wants to develop. But what is War that it would strip away such relations? And what is Camaraderie that it can build them back up? For answers, we need to turn to the essay on Melville.
Bartleby begins as an analysis of the famous formula of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, before becoming Deleuze’s analysis of all of Melville, and then Deleuze’s analysis of all of life. In that short story, Bartleby, when asked to do various tasks, inevitably replies, “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze begins his analysis by looking in depth at the language of this formula.
When confronted with a request (“will you do this”) or even an order (“do this”), Bartleby says he would prefer not to. Deleuze notes that this doesn’t amount either to a clear negation (“I don’t want to”) or a clear affirmation (“Instead of X, as you suggest/request, I prefer Y”). Bartleby’s task in the office is, at first, copying, which he does quite efficiently. When asked to do something else, he of course would prefer not to. What Deleuze notes (this is ingenious) is that, because of this, Bartleby cannot go on copying as he had before. For to go on copying would be to express a positive preference, to prefer copying to this other task, and that is just what the formula is meant to exclude.
In order to understand the effects this works on Bartleby, I need to introduce some more of Deleuze’s metaphysical machinery. (He presents it as Melville’s metaphysical machinery.) Deleuze finds in Melville a distinction between Primary Nature, which is “original”, “oceanic”, and “lawless”, and which carries out its irrational aims through innately depraved beings. It is supersensible nature. Opposed to this is ordinary, sensible, Secondary Nature, which is governed by laws, regularities, reason. This sets up a fourfold distinction of types of people. (Deleuze only lists three types, but there is an implicit fourth type.)
First, and second, we have Monomaniacs and Hypochondriacs. Monomaniacs are characters like Ahab of Moby-Dick, driven by an insane bloodlust. (Claggart, from Billy Budd, Sailor, is another Monomaniac.) What defines Monomaniacs is that their bloodlust, their great will to nothingness, forces them to make a “monstrous choice”. Whaling culture prohibits whalers from choosing among whales: they must go after simply those whales they come across. Ahab’s relentless search for Moby-Dick, then, is in defiance of this culture, of this “law”. This defiance of the law makes Ahab a creature of primary nature—more on this shortly. Opposed to the Monomaniacs are the Hypochondriacs, of which Bartleby and Billy Budd are prime examples. Hypochondriacs have not a will to nothingness but a nothingness in their will: they get their satisfaction in suspension of judgment, of choosing, of preferring. Where Monomaniacs are thundering, Hypochondriacs are petrified. Where Monomaniacs are beyond all punishment, Hypochondriacs are beyond all responsibility. Hypochondriacs are thus, in the opposite way, equally “against” the law. Bartleby, for his job, must choose, must have a preference. And yet: “I’d prefer not to.” His abdication of preference is just as opposed to the lawfulness of secondary nature as Ahab’s terrible preference.
Third, we have Prophets—and, implicitly, fourth, we have everyone else. Prophets are creatures of secondary nature, endowed with special sensitivity that lets them “see” the other two types. Ishmael of Moby-Dick is a prophet; so is Captain Vere of Billy Budd. The Prophets are significantly impotent: they are unable to ward off the demons, the Monomaniacs, which are too quick and too strong for the law. Likewise, they are unable to save the innocent Hypochondriacs, which are immolated in the name of the law: Captain Vere has Billy Budd executed for killing Claggart, and Bartleby ends up thrown in a prison, preferring not to to the end. What do they do, then? In the wake of what they’ve seen, they try to put back together the law that has been so violently disrupted. As for everyone else, they are creatures of secondary nature not endowed with special sensitivity—in Moby-Dick, at least, they all die, with only Ishmael left standing.
One last distinction: Originals vs. Particulars. The Hypochondriacs and Monomaniacs are creatures of primary nature, which work in secondary nature and influence its course—it is Prophets who recognize this influence, who see its source. Originals exceed any applicable form; they are solitary and unfathomable. They are neither general types, Aristotelian categories under which particulars may be subsumed, nor themselves particulars, influencing other particulars in accordance with general laws. They are, I suppose, singularities.
Now we can see how Bartleby’s formula works. Deleuze lays out a tripartite scheme. First, a formless trait of expression opposes particular images and expressed form. Bartleby, the scrivener is a particular, but the application of his formula gradually divests him of any particular characteristics. Because his preferring not to is neither negation nor affirmation, his preferring not to adopt some new particular characteristic means he can no longer keep his old characteristics without expressing a positive preference. In short, it makes his particular characteristics impossible to keep. This is the first stage, in which a particular loses his particularity (without thereby becoming a general type).
What happens next involves Deleuze’s concept of a Zone of Proximity. Particulars often engage in mimesis, in the attempt to imitate or conform to some privileged image. This involves a subject trying to shape itself in particular ways. But the subject, the particular, has been effaced, and so mimesis is impossible. Instead, Bartleby enters into a Zone of Proximity to the Hypochondriac BARTLEBY (all caps simply to make the difference obvious). What this means is that Bartleby is no longer distinguishable from BARTLEBY, where BARTLEBY is an Original, a creature of Primary Nature. Here the connection between Primary and Secondary Nature is established. Importantly, BARTLEBY is not some preexistent reality that Bartleby becomes indistinguishable from. Rather, Bartleby, by applying his formula, creates and then becomes BARTLEBY. The lawless irrationality of Primary Nature comes to disrupt the lawfulness and reason of Secondary Nature. We witness, for instance, his boss behaving more and more as if he is mad, as his attempts to force Bartleby to behave reasonably fail. Bartleby becomes a locus around which the “everyone else” of Secondary Nature finds life disrupted. (In Moby-Dick, recall, everyone around Ahab—except Ishmael—dies.)
This brings us to the third and final stage in the process. We have, with the intrusion of Primary Nature into Secondary Nature, a disruption of law, which Deleuze conceives as a paternal function: you shall do/believe/be this (for your own good!). There are two responses to this intrusion. One is the response of the Prophets: attempting to patch over the disruption, to clean up in the wake of the intrusion, to rebuild and reinstate the law. But the other is to replace the paternal function of law with a function of universal fraternity—this is the equivalent of the Society of Comrades, of brothers, that emerged in the analysis of Whitman. (Here, in the contrast between the paternal function of law/Secondary Nature and the fraternal function of Primary Nature, is a place where fruitful connections can be drawn to the more straightforwardly clinical work of e.g. Anti-Oedipus. Again, I am not competent to comment in depth on this; I simply note that it exists.)
Now we’re in a position to answer the two questions I raised at the end of considering Whitman: what is War, that it strips away relations? what is Camaraderie, that it builds them back up?
War is, roughly, the judgment of law, of Secondary Nature. This is discussed at length in To Have Done With Judgment, but it involves any fixed criteria of evaluation, which is repressive to what is new. This is why it matters that BARTLEBY (and other Originals) is not preexistent: the non-preexistence of Originals means that we simply do not have criteria developed to assess them, and so they defy and disrupt established criteria, which come out as repressive. War is also found in, of all places, charity and philanthropy, and these cases are quite instructive. Charity and philanthropy involve helping another by placing oneself in a higher position, by acting as a benevolent figure who decides what is good for another and does it. War, in these guises, functions to strip away relations by saying what something or someone must be, what relations it may and must have, and by condemning those relations it has built up for itself.
Camaraderie involves, on the other hand, meeting others as siblings, as equals: no charity, no attempt to “save souls”. (The Christian evangelist who believes he knows what your soul needs for its salvation is engaged in War, for Deleuze.) One last new concept: what defines Camaraderie is not belief in another, better world, in some saving doctrine, but Confidence in one’s fellows. Deleuze analyzes Bartleby’s application of his formula, after he ceased working altogether, as a request for Confidence. His boss, with increasing frustration and madness, however, offers him only charity: well here are other jobs you might be suited for, etc. The result is that Bartleby is left, at the end, in a prison. (No metaphor: a literal prison.) The Hypochondriac again sacrificed to the law.
Against this sacrifice lies the American Dream, the tripartite sequence: (1) A formless trait of expression divests the particular of its particularity, ends the mimetic subject. à (2) The particular, thus unburdened, enters a Zone of Proximity to an Original, a creature of Primary Nature, and opposes the law. à (3) This disruption of the law is the disruption of paternalism and War more generally, and makes possible the establishment of a Society of Comrades.
I will let Deleuze have the last word, with a beautiful passage in which he describes the sort of social relationship he champions:
Yet, what remains of souls once they are no longer attached to particularities, what keeps them from melting into a whole? What remains is precisely their ‘originality’, that is, a sound that each one produces, like a ritornello at the limit of language, but that it produces only when it takes to the open road (or to the open sea) with its body, when it leads its life without seeking salvation, when it embarks upon its incarnate voyage, without any particular aim, and then encounters other voyagers, whom it recognizes by their sound.