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Skepticism at the Margins: Tom Noonan’s The Wife

2013/08/16 2 comments

I read Stanley Cavell’s book on Emersonian perfectionism, Conditions Handsome and Un­handsome, a while ago, but didn’t make much of it. However, one suggestion he made stuck with me: that we should (read Wittgenstein as) allow(ing) skepticism to exist at the mar­gins, that the possibility of skepticism should be left open, should not be fully dispensed with. (Wittgenstein says,) while we need not be skeptics, the possibility of skepticism should never fully leave us. I did not fully grasp the point in relation to Wittgenstein, but the suggestion itself has bounced around my mind since I finished the work.

The reason why I am interested in Cavell’s suggestion now relates to a quote from David Foster Wallace that I bring up fairly frequently. In an interview, David Foster Wallace explained why he did not care for Bret Easton Ellis’ work:

You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

I bring this up often on this blog because I use it to understand particular artworks and to understand art in general. When reading a book or watching a film, I hunt for “those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow”. And, because I think searching for those elements is a task for serious intellectual inquiry, I think this characterizes (at least one aspect of) artistic works as contributions to such inquiry (of course, they have other uses as well).

This has led me into trouble at times, however, for some works of art simply do not seem to offer solutions—or worse, they do offer solutions, and then cut them off, show in painful detail how they fail, how people are trapped, how all-too-tangible forces snuff out anything that dares still to glow. Are these works failures, by David Foster Wallace’s admirable criterion? And if they are, can his criterion survive, given that many such works are otherwise of the highest quality? Here I think Cavell helps: the distinction between such works and the Ellis-type works that Wallace condemns—I have never read Ellis so I am just taking Wallace’s critique for granted here—is that such works constitute the skeptical margin of Wallace’s sort of inquiry, a margin that must be kept alive. Perhaps there are no more possibilities for being alive and human; perhaps there never were. And it is not an abdication of responsibility to countenance that possibility, no more than it’s an abdication of responsibility to be a skeptic about knowledge—though of course one may be either sort of skeptic out of just such laziness.

Thus concludes the purely philosophical portion of this post: now I want to look at this idea in relation to Tom Noonan’s film The Wife. Earlier, I wrote a series of four posts on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, looking precisely at the way that it painted “the times” (all times, really) as dark, yet still explored the ways that one might nonetheless be alive and human in them. It explored the pitfalls of these ways as well, of course—Cassavetes’ picture of Mabel is sympathetic but not romantic.

The darkness of the times, for Cassavetes, comes about through the nature of social interaction (hence the darkness of all times, for human interactions feature in all human times). Interaction oppresses on two levels: first, within an individual, the fear of being judged closes her off to the possibilities for freedom that exist (we see this in Margaret especially); second, in the interactions themselves, we see people act in paternalistic rather than fraternal ways, leading in the end to Mabel being locked up “for her own good”.

Noonan’s film, from 1995, is the skeptical side to Cassavetes’ dark but ultimately hopeful vision. Much like Cassavetes’ films, Noonan’s The Wife works by showing in visceral detail the repressive power of human interactions. Unlike Cassavetes, Noonan suggests there is no escape from it, no possibilities for freedom.

Jack and Rita, two (married) therapists, have retired to their home for a bit of a break from their work. At the start of the film, we only see them, and already we see the perils of social interaction. Jack (played by Noonan himself) is constantly stepping on Rita, ignoring her requests, pushing himself away from her, and all with his horrifying smile, the smile of someone who is always joking around to the point where it can only be malicious. At this point, we can perhaps pass it off as simply a struggling marriage: Jack walks all over Rita, and Rita is weak enough to let him.

Soon enough, one of their patients, Cosmo, arrives, having been dragged there against his will by his wife, Arlie. Cosmo is uptight beyond measure, and he is here especially wound up because he is in a place where he does not want to be. His wife, by contrast, is freewheeling, entirely loose. She is basically Cosmo’s opposite.

As Rita prepares dinner, Arlie explores the house, and Cosmo darts around like a scared rabbit, Noonan (as director, not as Jack) pairs up the characters, running through the permutations of possible pairs. Some are obviously strained (Jack-Rita, Rita-Arlie), whereas others sometimes seem open. But these latter, at the precise moment they begin to open up, are interrupted by the introduction of a third person (usually Jack) who cuts off what openness there was. At this point, the pairings change, and the process begins again. Here we begin to hope: if only two people could get time alone together, for the tension comes from there being too many people—if two people got substantial time alone it would all work out.

Noonan’s next step is to separate the men and the women: Rita and Arlie remain inside, cooking, while Jack and Cosmo go for a walk. Rita and Arlie remain tense around each other: Rita treats Arlie like someone who is violating her home, and Arlie for her part, acts this out. They attempt to make conversation, but fail. With Jack and Cosmo, however, there is more hope. Cosmo seems on the verge of a breakthrough (so he and Jack say), and Jack takes him to a quiet place where, Jack says, he (Jack) can find his authenticity. Since this is what Cosmo wants (or has been bamboozled into wanting), it seems that finally something good will happen. They go back to the house with this hope, and in the house it is torn down (and it is revealed to us that it never had any substance, that Jack is a fraud and a tyrant, etc.). But before this, there is the hope: if only Cosmo can survive this trip to the house, he will achieve some redemption. Cosmo expresses his feeling of what oppresses him: his opportunities are always cut off, and now he wants, for once, an opportunity that is not cut off. After Cosmo says this, we see what has been going on in the previous scenes as the constant cutting off of opportunities, and we see Cosmo’s prospects: if only, in the house, this opportunity is not cut off…

In the house, the four sit down to dinner (but only after some machinations by Jack that reveal more of the darkness he embodies). Natural alliances start to form: Rita and Cosmo band together (as victims), while Arlie and Jack cooperate as oppressors. Whenever Cosmo or Rita try to talk, they are cut off. Rita tries to make space for Cosmo to talk (within the weak pairing, she serves as the protector), but is too weak to succeed. Arlie, too, sometimes gets cut off, but Jack always steps in to protect her, to let her speak (in the strong pairing, Jack is thus the protector). The result is an increasingly horrible and awkward dinner, with Jack and Arlie ganging up on Cosmo against the increasingly feeble protests of Rita. But it raises yet another glimmer of light: if only Cosmo and Rita can have time alone—let Jack and Arlie go away, and then finally there can be an opportunity that is not cut off.

So Noonan explores this possibility. After bringing the tensions to a head, with Arlie saying terrible things to Cosmo, Arlie storms out of the house and Jack goes to look for her, leaving Rita and Cosmo alone in the house. Cosmo starts to open up, though Rita seems distant (we find out later that she has been taking Quaaludes). Finally, he achieves his breakthrough, “expressing what he feels” (what he tried and failed to do during the dinner, again and again). At this point, in perhaps the most shattering moment of the film, Rita walks out of the room. Cosmo, so happy to finally be talking, doesn’t notice and simply goes on talking to the air. At this moment, Cosmo is reduced to his lowest point, and the film’s skepticism becomes complete. For every possibility within social interactions has been tried and has failed—Rita’s walking out of the room constitutes the final failure of social interaction—and all that is left is isolation, embodied by Cosmo’s self-expression to nobody. As awful, as painful to watch, as the preceding scenes were, nothing is worse than this, than watching Cosmo finally spin freely, but in a way that makes no contact with the rest of the world, that generates no friction: Cosmo, spinning frictionlessly in a void.

There is more to the film, but this is a good place to stop: it shows the deeply skeptical position of the film with respect to the question: is it possible to be alive and human? (It is possible to read the end of the film as offering a glimmer of hope, but I think what has come before makes this highly implausible.) The two fundamental possibilities, isolation and socialization, are both insufficient as contexts for being alive and human. In isolation, one’s opportunities are not cut off, but only because they generate no friction, contact nothing, affect nothing. Within social interactions, by contrast, the friction generated cuts off all opportunities without fail.

Is Noonan right? Is there really no possibility for human freedom? I want to say no. I want to say that Cassavetes shows how he is wrong, shows that the possibility remains, even if only dimly. But Noonan can always respond: yes, but my film captures the reality of things; Cassavetes’ film is only a fiction. And that is just the point: skepticism always has a rejoinder, always finds its place, even if only at the margins.

Wittgenstein and Beckett on names

2013/05/07 3 comments

I have recently been reading Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels trilogy (Grove Press edition). I wrote about Molloy here, and Malone Dies here and here, and I am now making my way through The Unnamable. I have not finished the novel, but I want here to explore an interesting aspect of the work, and the way that it forces its readers to think about it.

As I read, I take notes, both noting down important stylistic (and other) features and, every ten to fifteen pages, analyzing somewhat what I have read. This helps me to remember important details and make connections between earlier and later parts of the work. I advance hypotheses about the parts I have not read, some of which are confirmed, some refuted. In doing so, I naturally talk about the characters, describing who they are and how they change. My notes for Molloy and Malone Dies are full of, “Molloy is…” or “Malone did…”

I want to illustrate how this breaks down in talking about The Unnamable, in order to reveal the way Beckett forces us to read the work. The work begins with three questions: “Where now? Who now? When now?”, which are asked in a mood that is “unquestioning” (285). The first answer given is to the second question: “I, say I”, and the mood now is “unbelieving” (285). If you cannot guess them already from this, the answers to the other two questions are not difficult to find in the text. On page 295: “But I am here. […] I have never been elsewhere…” Location: here. The answer to the third question is given both with the greatest and least directness. It is given with the greatest directness because it is contained in the very question itself, when now?, but, perhaps because of this, it is also given with the least directness, and must be inferred from passages such as this (296-297):

For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time. […] And yet I do not despair, this time, while saying who I am, where I am, of not losing me, of not going from here, of ending me.

This picture of recurrence reveals each time being experienced as the first time, and “I” am “here” always at “this time.” So the answer to “when now?” is: now. And this is right there in the question, when now. Taken together, then, the answer to the questions is: I here now.

I will return to the questions of where and when shortly, but for the moment I want to focus on the question, who now?, and its answer, I, say I. This forces us into an interesting predicament. For the natural inclination is to talk about the work having a first-person narrator, to talk about the ‘I’ that speaks in the novel. For instance, here are some example sentences from my notes:

The ‘I’ is here forever, though its eternity may be dated.

The ‘I’ and its place came into existence together.

The situation: ‘I’ is given a task at birth…

Now, however, we must pause and reflect briefly on the title of the work. Beckett gave it the title, The Unnamable, and this is clearly meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’. But now there is a problem: in saying that the title is meant to refer to the narrator, the ‘I’, I have named it.

To make this point clearer, consider a famous passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (§410):

“I” doesn’t name a person, nor “here” a place, and “this” is not a name. But they are connected with names. Names are explained by means of them. It is also true that it is characteristic of physics not to use these words.

This remark is placed directly after a series of remarks about identity. Wittgenstein notes that “there is a great variety of criteria for the ‘identity’ of a person” (§404). When we call a person by name, we use these criteria: Oh, that’s Friedrich, I recognize him by his walrus mustache! Wittgenstein directs our attention to this feature of our language use, and then urges us to contrast it with how we use the word ‘I’. Which criterion, of the “great variety” of criteria for personal identity, “leads me to say that I am in pain?” Wittgenstein answers his own question: “None” (§404).

The function of the word ‘I’ in the English language (‘Ich’ in Wittgenstein’s native German) is not that of a name. And this is precisely why the narrator of The Unnamable, in answering the question “who now?”, can only respond, “I, say I.” To do anything else would be to give himself a name, and thus to lose sight of his unnamability. (In saying ‘himself’ and ‘his’, I have given the narrator a gender that “he” does not possess.)

This applies equally to the answers given to the other two questions. Here is not a place and now not a time. In this respect, the novel could have been called The Unplaceable (unplaceable in space and in time). To pinpoint a specific person, a specific place, a specific time, we would have to apply certain criteria, and in doing so we would switch to naming, placing. This is exactly what we do when we speak of “the narrator of The Unnamable” or “the ‘I’ at the center of The Unnamable”—we give a name. When I wrote, “‘I’ is given a task…”, I turned ‘I’ into a name.

To read and think about the novel in this way is to it a great violence, because it is to deny what is at the very heart of the book, as indicated by the title: the unnamability of the ‘I’. As much as one might explicitly explore and “respect” that theme, in writing and thinking about it in that way, such respect is undermined and the theme denied. (That the act of denying the theme arises unintentionally as a function of the words used to explore it, thus eliminating the gap between word and deed, Beckett would no doubt appreciate, for the thickness, tangibility, and activity of words, their indistinguishability from real events, is a theme running throughout the trilogy.)

It can seem inescapable to do this violence to the text in thinking and writing about it. But there is one way to avoid it, and I think it was Beckett’s purpose precisely to force this upon his readers. I, the reader, must not hold “the narrator” apart from myself (as I inherently do in even speaking of “the narrator”). Rather, I, here, now, must narrate the novel. I must speak. Instead of writing, “’I’ is given a task…”, I must write, “I am given a task at birth, a punishment for something (original sin), which I have forgotten (was I ever told?) and must remember (knowledge as recollection).”

This is the only way to do justice to the text. Beckett forces the reader to take the novel as her own speech. Now there is another predicament. For in illustrating this point about Beckett’s novel, I have been forced to speak in just the language that I have argued does violence to his text. I tried to avoid it, but in the end I know of no other way to make it clear—had I really written this post in the style I think the novel needs to be written about, my point would have been lost to the foreignness of the style. But that means that this post, which is an attempt to help people treat the text fairly, is itself unfair to the text. Luckily, I can turn again to Wittgenstein for a resolution—this time to the early Wittgenstein. Much like Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I have spoken about what cannot be spoken about, but only in order to help people see that it cannot be spoken about. This post, then, contains not a thesis but a ladder, and once the ladder has been climbed it must be kicked away.