Sunday, 20 October 2013

Imaginary Beings: Sartre and Schulz

In Sartre's War Dairies he reflects on the chief protagonists of his fictions Nausea and Age of Reason:

Why is it that Antoine and Roquentin and Mathieu, who are me, are indeed so gloomy? – whereas, Heavens!, life for me isn’t all that bad? I think it’s because they are homunculi. In reality, they are me, stripped of the living principle. The essential difference between Antoine Roquentin andme is that, for my part, I write the story of Antoine Roquentin [..]
I stripped my characters of my obsessive passion for writing, my pride, my faith in my destiny. My metaphysical optimism – and thereby provoked in them a gloomy pullulation. They are myself beheaded. And since one cannot touch a synthetic whole without causing it to die, those heroes are unviable. I hope they aren't entirely so as imaginary, fictional creatures; but they can exist only in the artificial milieu I've created around them to sustain them. Apart from the sadness of disintegration which I just mentioned, they have another still deeper kind: the sadness filled with bitterness and reproach of Homunculus in his jar. They know themselves to be unviable, sustained by artificial feeling – and insofar as the reader constitutes them with his time, he feels pervaded by the metaphysical sadness of prehistoric animals doomed to imminent extinction  by the inadequacy of their constitutions.
In one sense Sartre is talking about his fictions - Stendhal, he says, creates 'viable' characters. But in another sense, Sartre perhaps implies something about all fictional entities: they are deficient, lacking, 'isolated from the world', condemned endlessly to repeat the same fate, dependent on the 'generosity' of the actor or reader to breath into them a simulacrum of life. They are replicants. Of course, it is a background property of all fictional entities - objects or people - that they are incomplete, partially constitued. We can not ask of them the same rigrorous questions that real things can answer (how tall is Hamlet etc). They are coextensive with their description. But in Sartre, it is as if these background properties have corrupted or seeped into the very soul of his creatures. Or as if the beings of those worlds are dimly aware of their inviolable solitariness, their irreparable lost contact with the real world.

Something similar happens in Bruno Schulz. The partial and 'deficient' nature of fictional worlds becomes quite palpable, and surrounds everything with a kind of nimbus of melancholia:
We are not concerned with long-winded creations, with long term beings. Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. [..] Our creations will be temporary to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother with the other unnecessary leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed. [..]
This is the Father's aesthetic manifesto. He speaks of creating a universe where beings would exist, would be conjured into life, only for the sake of a single gesture, act or pronouncement. But perhaps Schulz here places in the mouth of this mad aphasiac father his own aesthetic manifesto: the creation of uncanny puppets, monsters, dwarfs and cripples – one legged, bodiless, coming towards us out of the fog of the Possible before recoiling into silence.

But this is fiction as such. We read a description of a woman in a cafe, porceline skin, a black immaculate bob. Drawing in a sketch book. But the narration moves on elsewhere. She exists only as a brief profile without any other substance, subordinate to a scene into which she disappears as a gentle tributary element.

Modernism is constantly drawing attention to the fictionality of its stories. This can be clever, playful, cerebral, or political (Brecht). But there is also a tendency whereby the partiality of fictional beings is synonymous with a kind of pityful sadness. But there is a further move, whereby it is precisely on account of this, this incompleteness, this deficiency, that we identify with them, that they are the most fitting emblem of our own prediciment. [I hope to write about this a little more, with reference to Beckett].

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