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PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS:

AGAINST THE ONTOLOGY O E THE PRESENT


Timothy Bewes
In the 'cinema' ... man has lost his soul; in return, however, he
gains his body.
Georg von Ltikacs, 'Thoughts Toward an Aesthetic of the Ginema'
If we agree - with Fredric Jameson - that historicising works of literature
is always necessary, recent fiction poses a particular challenge to that
approach; not, primarily, because of the difficulty of gaining 'critical
distance' on the contemporaiy period, but more importantly, because the
idea of 'contemporaneity', of 'the present', has recently become implicated
as never before in the way we read literature. The first task in historicising
contemporaiy fiction, I will suggest, should be to 'historicise' the very concept
of contemporaneity. This, paradoxically, means beginning to dissolve the
ideological and historical congelation that is implied in a phrase such as
'the cultural logic of late capitalism'. My argument in this essay will be that
'postmodernity', the most influential recent theorisation of the 'present', has for
the most part constituted an obstacle to this historicisation of contemporaneity;
that it has, moreover, privileged the present as a principle that, in effect, stands
outside its own historicity. Jameson's powerful diagnosis of'a certain spatial
turn' in the postmodern has, under the sign of 'historicisation', functioned
to ciystallise a sense of the contemporaiy as such - something that may be
subjected to scrutiny and analysis.'Jameson's diagnosis, furthermore, is
IP

. 1

II

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Itself premised on an already spatialised concept of time: If experience and


expression still seem largely apt in the cultural sphere of the modern', writes
( ,

f. .

t^

p|.gj.j |yg| u,,


2. ibid., emphasis

Modernity: Essay on
the Ontology of the
i\esent, London,

'after' the postmodern, then, may well have to begin by challenging the
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

culturalu cofijite
Cnpitalism, Dmliani,
NC, Oiike University

Jameson, they are altogether o?</o//>/ac and anachronistic in a postmodern


age, where, if temporality still has its place, it would seem better to speak of the
writing of it than of any lived experience.''^ The synonymy of displacement
and anachronism in this sentence is emblematic of a spatio-temporal logic
at work, in wbich histoiy is conceived as a succession of discrete presents,
separated by 'ruptures', 'crises' and epistemic 'breaks'. Jameson's spatial
'turn', in other words, is here presupposed rather than derived; or, to put it
another way, the argtmient that temporal experience has been replaced by the
spatial is a self-fulfilling one, a tautology.
The claim that postmodernity has ended, and the question of what will
'follow' it, are similarly dependent upon this spatialised understanding of
time and temporality; indeed, Jameson himself has recently begtin to talk
of the postmodern in the past tense.'^ The task of theorising what comes
t^

l. Ki-edricJameson.
Postmodertii.'im, or, The

81

Veiso, 2002.

4. Geoi-g von Liikacs,


'Thoughts Tovvai'd
an Aesthetic of the
Cinema', Janelle
Blankenship (trans).
Polygraph 13(2001):
pl5.

spatialised notion of the postmodern as an 'epoch' that may be succeeded by


anything at all. To this end, I will consider the postmodern 'ontology of the
present' (as I call it) alongside earlier attempts to theorise the contemporaiy
- most notably, Georg Lukacs's The Theory of the Novel, which puts foi-ward
an epochal notion of 'absolute sinfulness' as the defining principle of tbe
novel form - tbe intention being to decant what is essential to and credible
in the postmodern hypothesis from tbe propensity to delimit it historically.
Interestingly, several years before he wrote The Theory ofthe Novel, Ltikacs put
forward a less ontologically gloomy theory of aesthetic form, in a short article
on the aesthetics of cinema, in which cinema is differentiated from theatre
on the basis of its presentation of'movement in itself, an eternal variability,
the never-resting change of things'.'' Cinema, claims Lukacs, introduces an
'entirely different metaphysics' - different not only from theatre, but from the
ontology of interior and exterior, subject and object, implied in literature's
dependence on the word.
In the light of this contiguity of cinema and the novel in Lukacs's early
work, I propose here a reading of two recent fictional works by Paul Auster,
in which the tension between a spatial ontology of temporality and a more
sensuous temporality, liberated from space, is staged as an encounter between
novelistic and cinematic form. Auster, I argue, is as transfixed by the spatiohistorical narrative as Lukacs and Jameson; and yet the captivation by cinema
apparent in his recent work - albeit ultimately disavowed in the texts discussed
here - illustrates the extent to which so-called 'postmodern' fiction is drawn
towards that which would liberate it from that veiy categoiy, conceived of
as a historical, periodising one. If postmodern narrative strategies are to be
'succeeded' by anytbing, it will be by an 'entirely different metaphysics', one
which, however, is imaginatively configured within postmodern theoiy itself,
as well as in Lukacs's theory of the novel, and in the yearning of Paul Auster's
recent fictions for the immediacy of cinema.
THE IDEOLOGY OE GONTEMPORANEITY

5. Chai'les
Jencks, "Phe
Emei"gent Rules',
Postmoderttmn: A
Reader, Thomas
Docherty (ed). New
York, Columbia
University Press,
1993, pp288-9.

The central assertions of postmodern theoiy, in the US at least, have been


formulated on the basis and in the aftermath ofJameson's 'spatial' turn, and
tbey have tended similarly to introduce a set of spatially conceived tropes to
the interpretation of culture. 'Intertextuality', 'irony', 'double-coding' (a term
coined by Gharles Jencks, referring to tbe 'peaceful co-existence' of different
architectural styles in a single work, and to their 'simultaneous validity'),'^
'self-referentiality', 'metafiction', have been imposed upon literaiy texts in
particular, with tbe result that postmodern fiction, and 'postmodernity' in
general, have been understood in terms of banality, depthlessness, cynicism,
alienation, sterility, political defeat, the totality of commodification - in
short, as a set of cultural practices in which inhere the failure of art and the
impossibility of expression. Jameson's claim that postmodern forms represent
'the cultural logic of late capitalism' serves as a principle of herineneutic
82

NEW FORMATIONS

delimitation, to be ranged alongside other such ontologising moments as


Charles Newman's statement that contemporary American literature presents
'the flattest possible characters in the flattest possible landscape rendered in
the flattest possible diction'; David Hai-vey's use of terms such as 'plunder',
'amnesia' and 'spectacle' to describe the relation of postmodern aesthetics to
histoiy; even Ihab Hassan's earlier, more nuanced diagnosis of postmodernism
as a literature of'exhaustion' and 'silence'." These statements, at least in their 6. Cliai'les Newman,
'Wlial's Left Oiil of
crudest form, represent variations on the claim that the contemporaiy period
Lileiatui'e', Neui York
is one in which events are no longer possible; that history has - in a sense not Times, 12/07/1987,
nearly so removed from Francis Fukuyama's 'controversial' thesis as these late edilioii, sec. 7,
p i ; David 1-laiTey,
thinkers imagine - ended.
The Coudition of
A more recent version of this historiography of critical decline is found in
the work of Walter Benn Michaels, who, in The Shape of the Signifier, identifies
a broad shift, across a range of recent works of fiction, literai-y theory and
political philosophy, from talking about class and ideology to talking about
'culture' and 'identity'. The characters in novels such as Bret Easton Ellis's
Glamoravia and Don DeLillo's Mao II - and by extension their authors - says
Michaels, are not animated by 'deep disagreements at tbe level of ideas'; in
fact they don't have any ideas.' The interest these texts have in terrorists,
for example, is not ideological, but 'ontological' - their concern is not with
'doing the right thing' but with 'the question of whether we are living our
lives to the fullest' (SS pi 76). For Michaels, indeed, politics itself has become
'ontologised'. This shift has been paralleled by a new commitment to the
'materiality' of the sign in literaiy studies, which Michaels presents as a
movement away from interpretation and authorial intention, and towards
a conception of plural meanings, yoked to the plurality of subject positions
encountering the text; this reorientation amounts in effect to the abolition of
meaning and its replacement by a concept of experience. His thesis, developed
largely in reaction to the set of 'postmodernist' critical practices described
above (although in fact sharing their basic assumptions), is that tbe 'material
turn' and tbe rejection of intentionality form an alliance that is essentially
contradictoiy; for to emphasise 'experience' is, for Michaels, ultimately to
negate the 'materiality' of the text for the primacy of the subject.
Micbaels here opposes the particularity of individual 'needs and desires'
- a phrase he lifts from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire - to the
supposed universality and transcendentality of'beliefs'. The most provocative
formulation of bis argument is the following, characteristically invasive
challenge to his reader: 'If you think that difTerences in belief cannot be
described as dilTerences in identity, you must also think that texts mean what
their authors intend' {SS pplO-11). Yet, like his understanding of experience
and materiality, the distinction between beliefs and desires is an ontological
one in Micbaels {SS p 178) - wbich is to say that it is ahistorical, rooted in the
present as a unitaiy categoiy, fenced in on either side by the past and the
future, and in the separation of subject (experience) and object (materiality).
Beliefs, he writes, 'always involve "transcendental claims'" {SS pi79). In
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

83

Postmoiteniily: A)i
Enquiry into Ihe
Origins of Cultural
Clmnge, Oxford.
Basil Blackwell,
1989, p.^4; Ihab
I-Iassaii, The
t)ismemheniieiit of
Orpheus: ToTuard n
l-\>slniodeni Literature
(Second lidilion),
Madison, Wisconsin,
University of
Wisconsin Pi"ess,
1982, p2fi8.

7. Vfellei- Benn
Michaels, 77S/inyM
of the Siguifter:
1967 to the Knd of
History (henceforth
SS), Princeton and
Oxford, Princeton
Utiiversity Press,
2004, p i 7 3 .

8. Georg LiikAcs, The


Theory ofthe Novel: A
Historico-Philosophical
Essay on the forms of
Great Epic Literature

(henceforth TofN),
Anna Bostock
(trans), Cambridge,
MA, MIT Press,
1971, plO3.

9. Jean-Francois
Lyotard, 'Answering
the Question: What
Is Postniodernism?',
R^gis Dm'and
(trans), Ttie
Postmodern
Condition: A Report
on Knowledge,

Manchester,
Manchester
University Press,
1984, p81.

fact the opposite is true: beliefs are material entities; they do not involve
transcendental claims until they are themselves on the verge of obsolescence
- until, as Georg Lukacs says, the world is 'released from its paradoxical
anchorage in a beyond that is truly present'.^ When they are constitutive of a
society, beliefs are materially present to consciousness. Thus, even the so-called
'decline' of belief or ideology, their 'replacement' by 'culture' or 'identity'
- what Michaels calls elsewhere the transformation from the pohtical to the
biopolitical(SS pi74) - this too, insofar as it exists at all in the generalised,
historical sense that Michaels thinks it does, is a set of beliefs as materially,
sensuously present to consciousness as the 'religious' faith tbat animated
societies in earlier periods.
'In ideological struggles', writes Michaels (indicating the cold war
period), 'victory is imagined as tbe triumph of one political and economic
system over another; no new bodies are required. In ontological struggles,
victory is the defeat of one body by another; in the ontological struggle
not against some other body but against what is (hence against even one's
own body), victory will be 'change', the destruction of what is and its
replacement by sometbing "new"' (SS pi73). Yet Michaels's perception of
this 'ontologisation' of ideology - the most 'ingenious' version of which,
according to Michaels, is the recent transformation of poverty from a
class into a 'way of being' in Hardt and Negri's Empire {SS pl81) - is only
possible on the basis of Michaels's own ontologisation of the present. In
his analysis a categorical - that is to say, epochal - difference separates, say,
the (contemporary) concept of religion 'as a kind of identity' from tbat of
religious belief'as belief (SS pl70). Materiality, ideology and belief, however,
are impoverished terms in Michaels's analysis, delimited conceptually and
historically from consciousness, desire, and identity.
In contrast to all these thinkers, and following the work of Jean-Francois
Lyotard, I will approach the postmodern not as signalling the end of the
possibility of the event, but as the occasion of the event. This perspective
requires a suspension of the spatialised relation to time as broken up into
unitary epochs and transitions; an interruption of tbe idea ofthe postmodern
as a generic or typological category that is applicable to particular texts and
authors; a rejection of the diagnostic and interpretive critical model for a
kind of reading that is bound tightly to its own historical moment; and a
resumption of attention to the ways in which the work is engaged with the
question of its possibility.
According to Lyotard, the defining quality of the postmodern work is
that it is undertaken in tbe absence of rules, and 'in order to formulate the
rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text bave the
characters of an event ...'. Lyotard is concerned less witb anatomising the
features of a particular artistic form or period than with the idea ofthe work
as forged on the divide between possibility and actuality - or, as he formulates
it in 'Answering the Question', between the faculty of conceiving and tbe
faculty of presenting- the radical disjunction of which, for Lyotard, defines
84

NEW FORMATIONS

the modern. Read alongside Jameson, Harvey, Michaels, et al, the most
striking characteristic of Lyotard's formulation, and of the essay as a wbole,
is the absence of any constative statements that relate to the 'present'. For
Lyotard, there is no 'state of the world' as such: the present is not an operative
categoiy in bis work, and The Postmodern Condition is not a theorisation of the
contemporaiy Indeed, the 'slackening' (reldchement) that Lyotard observes to
be part of the 'color of the times''" is not a quality of the postmodern, but what
detracts from it - a reified and periodising thinking that diagnoses a present
constituted by crisis, impossibility, and a general sense of the unprecedented.
Tbe implication of Lyotard's phrase 'the loiles oiwhat will have been done', and
of his conception of the postmodern work as an 'event' irreducible to any
moment in time - irreducible, that is to say, to any single historicisation - is
that tbe 'present' does not have any substantial actuality except in retrospect;
except, that is to say, in imagination.
In this essay, then, the work of Paul Auster, whom Peter Biooker has
described as 'pure postmodernist'," will be read not as a more or less
adequate treatment of'postmodern' themes and techniques; nor as evidence
of a decline, in works of literature, from realist representation into selfconscious awareness of its impossibility; nor, pace Walter Benn Michaels, as
a lapse from a world organised ideologically to one organised ontologically;
but rather, in terms of its positive, material qualities: as a body of work tbat,
precisely in its most cerebral and reflective aspects, is far more than a sombre
meditation upon a world from which it is constitutively removed. Auster's
work is engaged, rather, witb its own possibility. His fictional works appear
to stage tbe impossibility of tbe novel, and tbe failure of the literary as sucb
- and yet, I shall argue, it is the idee fixe of postmodernity tbat has taught us
to limit bis texts in tbis way. Auster materialises a struggle witb possibility
itself: the struggle to produce, in a situation in wbich tbe rules of production
are not given. Tbe 'materiality' of his work, tben, has nothing to do with what
Michaels dismissively refers to as 'the space between the words and letters, the
quality of tbe paper, and so forth' {SS p5), and eveiytbing to do with tbe event
of tbe work's production and reception: the sensuous dynamic of possibility,
impossibility and actuality that is inseparable from tbe consciousness of tbe
work as sucb. Furtbermore, this dynamic is manifest, sensuously present in
Auster's work, as a tiutb worthy of'belief' in all its immediacy.

10. Ibid.,

11. Itier Bi-ooker.


Nfny York Fictiotis:
Modernity,
I'bstmodenii'im, The
New Modem, London
and New York,
Longni.in, 1996.
pl48.

LUKACS, THEORIST OF THE POSTMODERN


For Lyotard, the question 'and what now?' is not one that succeeds the
postmodern, but is precisely tbe question of it: 'Tbis is tbe miseiy [of] the
painter [faced] witb a plastic surface, of the musician with the acoustic
surface, tbe miseiy tbe thinker faces witb a desert of tbougbt, and so on'."'
Tbe postmodern is for Lyotard a precondition of the modern, not a symptom
of its exhaustion. Tbe postmodern, he says, [is what] takes place not only in
violation of aesthetic criteria, but in the absence of them: it is 'that which.
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

85

12. Jcan-Fran(;<>is
Lyotaixl, 'The
Sublime and the
Avanl-Garde'.
The Continental
Aesthetics Header,
Clive Cn/eanx (ed).
London and New
York. Rontledge.
2000, p'154.

13. Lyotard,
iiswenng, op. ci.,

in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation i t s e l f . "


j ^ ^ situation is one of a complete disjunction between what we are able to
'conceive' and our means of'presentation':
We have tbe Idea of tbe world (the totality of what is), but we do not bave
the capacity to show an example of it. We have the idea of the simple (that
wbich cannot be broken down, decomposed), but we cannot illustrate it
with a sensible object which would be a 'case' of it. We can conceive tbe
infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object
destined to 'make visible' this absolute greatness or power appears to us

14. Ibid., p78.

painfully inadequate.'''
What Lyotard describes as the situation of the postmodern artist and writer
is remarkably similar to the 'historico-pbilosophical reality' of the novel, as
described by Lukacs in The Theory of the Novel. For Lukacs, the novel appears
at a point when form and content - Lyotard's faculties of presenting and
conceiving - are split apart, a condition he characterises with the phrase 'the
epoch of absolute sinfulness' {TofN pl52). T b e novel, he says, 'is the epic of
an age in whicb tbe extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in
which the immanence of meaning in life bas become a problem, yet which still
thinks in terms of totality' (TofN p56). The Theory of the Novel, written in the
years prior to the outbreak of tbe First World War, has tbe reputation of a text
overwhelmed by the sense of contemporaneity. However, this is largely due
to Lukacs's own afterword on tbe book, written much later, in 1962, in wbich
he condemned the book - and the phrase 'absolute sinfulness' in particular
- for wbat he called its 'ethically-tinged pessimism vis-a-vis tbe present' {TofN
p i 8 ) . T b e afterword was published as a preface to the 1968 German edition,
and to tbe subsequent Englisb translation in 1971, and it is the only place in
the book wbere tbere is any bistorical specificity at all.
T b e book was written, says Lukacs in 1962, in a m o o d of ' p e r m a n e n t
despair over the state of the world' {TofN p i 2 ) . T b e First World War bad
just broken out - the first war involving every major world power - and was
accompanied by a sudden escalation in popular nationalist sentiment which
cast the European left into a state of crisis. Intellectuals, says Lukacs, were
caught between h o r r o r at the war itself and h o r r o r at tbe only available
solution to the war: Western intervention. This is tbe situation which
- d i s t a n c i n g himself from tbe pbrase - he called in 1915 'absolute sinfulness':
'absolute', since there is no acceptable solution that might be articulated
in positive terms; 'sinfulness', because all talk of innocence, or bonesty,
or redemption, is rendered objectively futile and deluded. T b e world bad
proven to be so completely and utterly false, according to Lukacs, tbat any
available solution was discredited simply by tbe fact tbat it was speakable
witbin it. Insofar as a solution might exist, it may only be articulated by
what is not said, or rather, in the incommensurability between wbat needs
to be said and what it is possible to say.
86

NEW FORMATIONS

In the main text, by contrast, there are almost no historical references at


all, and certainly no referential specificity to the phrase 'the epoch of ahsoltite
sinfulness'. What the later Lukacs casts as the real historical impasse behind
his own early work is presented in the work itself as an aporia at the heart
ofthe novel form as such. In the novel, he says in The Theory ofthe Novel,
aesthetics is permanently separated from ethics - which is not to say that
ethics is absent from the novel, but that the novel's ethical substance is tied
inseparably to content. Ethical communication is limited to the pontification
of its characters, or the commentaiy of its narrators. The novel gives form
to the ethical dimension, but only by separating itself from what Lukacs calls
'the immanent meaning ofthe objective world' {TofN p84). Form and content,
then, become severed from each other in the novel: it is this condition of
separation, rather than any particular moral deficit, or sudden historical
break, that in 1915 Lukacs signifies with the term 'absolute sintlilness'.
'Absolute sinfulness' {vollendeten Silndhaftigkeit) is a quotation from Fichte,
from a series of lectures entitled Die Gmndzuge Des Gegenwdrtigen Zeitalters,
delivered in Berlin over a hundred years belore Lukacs was writing, in 180405, and translated into English with the title 'The Characteristics of the
Present Age'.'"' From the perspective of his own 1962 preface, then, Lukacs,
in 1915, is wrenching out ofcontext a phrase originally used to designate the
post-Enlightenment period, and reapplying it to 'his own' traumatic present.
What the later Lukacs is criticising in his younger self, in other words, is a
tendency to ontologise and transcendentalise the present - as in the assertion
underpinning the work, that 'there is no longer any spontaneous totality
of being' {TofN ppl7-18). Yet Lukjics's retrospective self-critique arguably
participates in that 'ontologisation' even as it deplores it. His altei^word inserts
the text into a traumatic 'present' caught between nostalgia and utopianism,
and offloads a 'naivety' and an 'abstractionism' upon it that, he says, 'we
have every right to smile at' {TofN p20). However, it is far from clear that the
paralysing historical sense that the older Lukacs attributes to the younger is
essential to the overall schema put fonvard in The Theory ofthe Novel, or even
that it is substantially present in the thesis at all,
I will attempt a mediation of the temporal framework of The Theory
ofthe Novel, in order to reorient the text away from its spatio-temporal
nostalgia for premodern literary forms - remnants of a time when (in
the famous opening paragraphs of Lukacs's work) 'everything .,, is new
and yet familiar'; when 'each action of the soul becomes meaningful
and rounded in [the] duality [of world and self]: complete in meaning
- in sense - and complete For the senses ,,,' {TofN p29). The 'nostalgic'
element in Lukacs's text, I shall argue, is a purely speculative category
organising the 'historico-philosophical' dimension of his argument. By
suspending its periodising aspects, it may yet be harnessed in the service
of a potential unity of material and spiritual, residing not in any lost past
or dreamed-of future, but precisely in the realm ofpossibility - that is to say,
in the postmodern novel.
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FtcriONS

87

1.5, See Joiiann


Coltlieb I'lclite, "Hie
Cliaracteristics of the
Present. Age', IVoni
The Popular Works
ofjohann Gottlieb

Fichte. William
Smith (trans, '1th
lulitioii), London:
Ttiibnei-, 1889,1)17:
'The Present Age
,,, stajids iti that
Kpoch ,,, which
1 chanicteiised
as the lipoch of
Liberation - directly
fn^m the external
riding Attthoi ity,
- indirectly IVom
the power of Reasoti
as Institict, and
generally IVom
iieasott in any
fortn; the Age of
absoktte indilTerence
towards all trtith,
atid ol etitire
atid um'estrained
licentionsness: - the
State of completed
Sitifttlness,' Kot'
Fichte, significantly,
this is tiot an
etidpoint, bnt
merely the tliitxl of
five stages on the
foad from instinct
to reason; and he
goes on to qualify
the 'ontological'
itnplications of the
diagnosis: 'I do not
here include all
men now living in
our time, but only
those who at'e trnly
products of the Age,
and in whom it most
completely reveals
itself (pi8),

ABSOLUTE SINFULNESS IN PAUL AUSTER

16. Paul Auster, Mr


Vertigo {henceforth
MrV), New York,
Viking Penguin,
1994, p3.

17. Paul Auster,


The Book of Illusions
(henceforth Bofl),
New York, Heniy
Holt, 2002, pi84.

To read Paul Auster as a 'postmodern' writer in Lyotard's sense, then, is to read


him as an author condemned to the historical and metaphysical condition
that, for Lukacs, defines the novel as such. The image of a world of'absolute
sinfulness' recurs throughout his writing - the moment when night hegins
'to fall on the world forever', as Mr Vertigo (1994) has it;"" when immanence,
the epic unity of sensoiy and intellectual experience, gives way to the world
of the novel; when his writer-protagonists become reconciled or resigned to
the novel form - and the calamity is frequently dated to the year 1927, the
strange consistency serving, it seems, to undermine any suggestion ofa real,
epistemic (temporal-spatial) rupture. Auster's protagonists are always blocked
or aspiring authors, and the novel form is almost always an absent presence
- an entity present only as an absence -within the text. Mr. Vertigo, for example,
opens in 1927, the year in which the protagonist, a levitating performance
artist, witnesses the horrific murder of two of his friends by the Ku Klux Klan,
the shame of which signals the end of his performances, and precipitates the
events that will culminate in the writing of the book we are reading.
The Book of Illusions (2002) is, among other things, the story ofa silent
movie actor, Hector Mann, who disappears in 1929 soon after disposing of the
body of his pregnant lover, who has been killed by his fiancee. As a fugitive.
Hector initially makes a living as a sex performer, a development that marks
the moment when 'his world [splits] in two', after which point 'his mind and
body were no longer talking to each other'." This contrasts with his silent
film work, which the narrator of the book, a recently-bereaved and blocked
writer named David Zimmer, describes as 'at once engaged in the world and
observing it from a great distance' {Bofl p35).
David is undertaking a translation of Chateaubriand's Memoires d'outretombe during the period narrated by the book, and - it turns out - is himself
writing a memoir that will only become available after his death: this, of
course, is the book we are reading. The narrative concerns David's encounter
with Hector Mann, and with the films he has continued to make in secret
on a ranch in New Mexico - films that turn out to be much more like novels
than films, since they rely heavily on voice-over narration, and are caught
up, for Hector, in an ethical economy of personal expiation and atonement.
For Hector, however, absolution will never be possible {Bofl p278); cinema,
far from lifting him out of 'absolute sinfulness', is rather the context in
which that novelistic condition is experienced. Auster's conception of the
transition from silent to sound cinema - a shift that is usually dated to 1927
with the release of The Jazz Singer - thus repeats Lukacs's conception of the
transition from the world of the epic to that of the novel. Silent cinema, says
David Zimmer, is 'a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be
practiced again. And yet... none ofit could possibly grow old. It was thought
translated into action, human will expressing itself through the human body,
and therefore it was for all time' {Bofl pi5). Nevertheless, to create works
88

N E W FORMATIONS

without any thought of a living audience is presented in the book as a way


of paying due penance - for Chateaubriand, who imagines his narrative
posthumously 'accompanied by those voices which have something sacred
about them because they come from the sepulchre' (Bo/7 p67); for Hector,
who makes films only on the condition that they will be destroyed after his
death (Bo/7 pp207-8); and for David himself, for whose narrative about Hector
Mann and his films there is so little sui'viving evidence, and which concludes
in thoughts of such corrupting 'power and ugliness', that he too resolves not
to publish it until after his own death (Bq/7 pp316, 318),
Oracle Night (2003) is narrated by Sidney Orr, another blocked writer.
On purchasing a blue notebook at a stationeiy store, Sidney is finally able to
begin a new work of fiction, a story about a disenchanted publisher named
Nick Bowen, who one day receives the manuscript of an unpublished novel
entitled 'Oracle Night', written - in 1927 - by a woman long dead, by the
name of Sylvia Maxwell, The manuscript - a novel within a novel (within
a novel) - impresses Nick by its demands for 'total surrender in order to
be read, an unremitting attentiveness of both body and mind'."* Its central
character is a First World War veteran named Lemuel Flagg who suffers
seizures during which be is able to see the future, the terrible knowledge
of which causes him to commit suicide. Another surrogate author-figure
in Sidney's novel is a former taxi-driver named Ed Victory, whom Nick
encounters when, inspired by a parable related in Dashiell Hammett's
The Maltese Falcon, he abandons his life in New York and, on a whim, flies
to Kansas, Ed was a member of the allied liberating forces in Europe at
the end of the Second World War, and he characterises his experience on
entering Dachau in April 1945 to Nick Bowen as follows: 'That was the
end of mankind ,,, God turned his eyes away from us and left the world
forever' {ON p92). After the war, Ed began a project which he calls 'The
Historical Presei"vation Bureau' - a collection of telephone directories from
around the world, kept in an underground lock-up in Kansas City - as a
way of dealing with the enormity of the horror at Dachau, In Oracle Night
too, then, the events take place in a world of'absolute sinfulness', with the
unbearable knowledge of what man is capable of, and an awareness ofthe
impossibility of rendering that horror in literature. Soon after we hear the
fictional Ed's story - a day after Sidney writes the story Sidney himself
comes across a newspaper stoiy about a prostitute giving birth over a toilet,
discarding the baby and then returning to her client, which causes him to
experience the same extreme sensations: 'This is the worst story I have ever
read ... I understood that I was reading a story about the end of mankind,
that that room in the Bronx was the precise spot on earth where human life
had lost its meaning' {ON pi 15), The episode is an objective correlative,
perhaps, of Sidney's own difficulties in finishing his novel; after reading
the Bronx stoiy, he is unable to make any more progress, and the stoiy is
abandoned, with his character Nick trapped in the underground Bureau
in Kansas City, unable to get out.

PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

89

18, ftuil Ausler,


Oracle Night

(heiicefoitli ON),
New York, Heiiiy
Holt, 2003, p66.

ORACLE NIGHT
I have written elsewhere of the 'envy' that Auster's novels entertain for more
sensuous and immediate forms of 'aesthetic' experience: music, painting,
levitation, even (in Timbuktu) canine sense-perception ('Novel as an Ahsence').
In The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night, the most consistent counterpart to
the novel is cinema, although the attitude towards it of both books is deeply
ambivalent. In Oracle Night, for example, Sidney is invited to submit a
treatment for a film adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine - a purely
commercial enterprise, it is made clear. Wells's idea of'time travel', as Sidney
is aware, is predicated on a spatialised conception of time, and as such is
incoherent: for 'once people from the future began to influence events in the
past and people from the past began to influence events in the future, the
nature of time would change. Instead of being a continuous progression of
discrete moments inching forward in one direction only, it would crumble into
a vast, synchronistic blur' {ON pi22). Yet, for the sake of the fifty thousand
dollars on offer, Sidney outlines a scenario in which the inventor of the time
machine, in the year 1895, travels forward in time to 1963, and meets a girl
from the twenty-second century who, thanks to the further technological
development of his invention, has been able to travel back in time. The two
fall in love and decide to stay together, beginning from the year 1963; they
bury their time machines in a meadow, thereby precluding the very technological
development that made their meeting possible. Auster's conceit is a gesture, at least,
towards a non-spatial temporality; however, the proposal is rejected by the
Hollywood production company as 'too cerebral' (07V pi87), a judgment
that is apparently consistent with the novel's final affirmation of literature
over cinema. At the end of the book, Sidney's friend and fellow author John
Trause tells him in a posthumous letter - a voice from the sepulchre - 'I don't
want you to have to waste your time fretting about movies. Stick with books.
That's where your future is...' {ON p229). On reading the note, Sidney hears
John's 'living voice talking from the other side of death, from the other side
of nowhere ... I saw John's ashes streaming out of the urn in the park that
morning ... I had my face in my hands and was sobbing my guts out... Even
as the tears poured out of me I was happy, happier to be alive than I had ever
been before. It was a bappiness beyond consolation, beyond miseiy, beyond
all the ugliness and beauty of the world' {ON p242-3).
Writing is here imagined as attaining everything that Auster longs for:
presence, immediacy, sensation, the simultaneity of past, present and future.
However, behind that aspiration on behalf of writing stands cinema - in
particular, that idea of cinema as 'human will expressing itself through the
human body' put forward in The Book of Illusions: a form constructed from
'a syntax of the eye, a grammar of pure kinesis' {Bofl pi5). Auster's works,
it seems, are defined by a wish that the novel might achieve the 'immediacy'
that other, supposedly more sensuous forms enjoy so effortlessly. Early on
in Oracle Night, the effect of a children's 3-D picture viewer is described as
90

N E W FORMATIONS

follows: 'Eveiyone in them looked alive, brimming with energy, present in


the moment, a part of some eternal now that had gone on perpetuating
itself for close to thirty years' {ON pp37-8). Yet what becomes clear in that
final paragraph of Oracle Night is that Auster does not believe in the case he
is tiying to make. In its ambivalent relation to cinema, Auster's work shows
itself to be driven by the lure of sensuous immediacy, and yet, in that veiy
fixation, finds itselfrearticulating the spatio-temporal nostalgia ofthe novel
form as such - condemning itself to what is, according to Lukacs, the ethical
division between form and content in the novel. After all, Oracle Night is itself
a piece of writing; if the level of immediacy that Auster yearns for in writing
were possible, why argue the case for it?
A more convincing statement of 'belief in Oracle Night is found a few
pages earlier, when Sidney refiects on the recent travails that have beset him
- a catalogue of the events we have been reading about, foremost among
which is the failure of his Nick Bowen novel. Here, arguably, Auster's work
looks directly and less anxiously at the 'historico-philosophical' conditions of
literaiy production emblematised by the novel form, and produces something
closer to a materialisation ofthe consciousness ofthe work, organised around
the struggle with possibility:
I tried to write a stoiy and came to an impasse, I tried to sell an idea for a
film and was rejected ,,, I was a lost man, an ill man, a man struggling to
regain his footing, but underneath all the missteps and follies I committed
that week, 7 knew something I wasn't aware ofknoiuing. At certain moments
during those days, I felt as if my body had become transparent, a porous
membrane through which all the invisible forces ofthe world could pass
- a nexus of airborne electrical charges transmitted by the thoughts and
feelings of others, I suspect that condition was what led to the birth of
Lemuel Flagg, the blind hero of Oracle Night, a man so sensitive to the
vibrations around him that he knew what was going to happen before
the events themselves took place, I didn't know, but eveiy thought that
entered my head was pointing me in that direction. Stillborn babies,
concentration camp atrocities, presidential assassinations, disappearing
spouses, impossible journeys back and forth through time. The future was
already inside me, and I was preparing myself for the disasters that were
about to come, {ON pp222-3, emphasis added)
Knowing things without knoTving that we know them: this is the condition that
Lukdcs characterises as that of the epic, and it denotes a world in which
'being and destiny [that is to say, actuality and possibility], adventure and
accomplishment, life and essence are ,,, identical concepts' {TofN p30). The
greatest historical example, according to Lukacs, is the works of Homer, who
found the answer to the question of how life can become essence 'before the
progress ofthe human mind through histoiy had allowed the question to be
asked', 'The Greek knew only answers but no questions, only solutions (even
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGIUPHIC FICTIONS

91

if enigmatic ones) but no riddles, only forms but no chaos' {TofN p31).
The obvious thing to say about the long passage from Auster is that by
writing it he confirms its untruth. To know that one knows something that one
is not aware of knowing - to long to know without being aware of knowing defeats the aspiration towards immanence, lifting the entire structure into the
ethical domain ofthe 'should be' - 'in whose desperate intensity the essence
seeks refuge', says Lukacs, 'because it has become an outlaw on earth' {TofN
p48). And yet - as Lukacs says ofthe nostalgic relation to the world ofthe epic
- 'what [we] seek to escape from when [we] turn to the Greeks constitutes [our]
own depth and greatness' {TofN pZl). Reading Auster with Lukacs enables us
to affirm even that which prohibits its affirmation, and to deny even that which
forces us to make the denial: the permanent estrangement ofthe world and
the 'essence'. The final catastrophe of Nick Bowen, trapped irrevocably in
an underground lock-up, with his creator unable to devise a credible means
of escape - this complete failure of form is, perhaps, the moment of Auster's
greatest success; or rather, the means by which the duality of aesthetic success
and failure is displaced by a commitment, in principle, to the reconciliation
of form and content, sensation and intellection, mind and body. With Nick's
indefinite incarceration underground, the trajectory on which he has been
embarked since the beginning - the abandonment of a life of convention
and predictability in New York in order to learn to 'accept what's happening,
accept it and actively embrace it' {ON p95) - is brought to a logical extreme.
The trajectory is that of Auster himself: away from the ethos ofthe novel and
towards what Lukacs calls 'the immanent meaning of the objective world'.
Impasse is transformed from a (spatio-temporal) historical condition into a
condition of possibility itself,
LUKACS'S AESTHETICS OF CINEMA
For Lukacs, the novel by definition stands outside its own ethical
pronouncements; in the novel we know things, and we know that we know
them. Knowledge and experience are commensurable, but only at the cost of
the sensuous intimacy of that knowledge. In the world ofthe novel, belief has
become (to use Walter Benn Michaels's word) 'transcendental'. Its 'normative
mentality' is 'irony' because the novel is ethically reflective; ethics can only take
the form of an 'ought', a 'should be' which is always 'profoundly inartistic'
{TofN p85). Such ethical pontification, organised around the interioiity ofthe
individual, and the expression of his or her 'transcendental homelessness',
is harnessed to the word, and is differentiated from 'art', which, whether
literary or visual, has a sensuous actuality. Thus Dostoevsky - whose works
depict the world in an immediate form 'remote from any struggle against
what actually exists' - did not, according to Lukacs, write novels - unlike,
say, Tolstoy, whose 'polemical' and 'nostalgic' works exemplify the formal
incommensurability, the 'irony', that Lukacs finds in the novel {ToJN pi52).
In his 1962 preface, Lukacs states that it wasn't until 1917 that he found
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N E W FORMATIONS

an answer to the 'problems' that had seemed to him, when he was writing
The Theory of the Novel, 'insoluble' (To/N pi 2); he is referring, of course, to
his 'conversion' to Bolshevism, Yet, even to look for a solution, to conceive of
the situation of the novel in terms of 'problems' requiring a 'solution', is an
approach that emerges out ofa 'novelistic' ethic, and - it hardly needs saying
- a spatialised temporality, 'An epic hero constructed out of what "should be'",
writes LukScs in 1915, 'will always be but a shadow of the living epic man of
historical reality, his shadow but never his original image, and his given world of
experience and adventure can only be a watered down copy of reality, never its
core and essence' (TofN p48). It is difficult, reading this sentence, not to think
of cinema as its contraposition, particularly in its theorisation by Andre Bazin,
who, in 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image', writes: 'The photographic
image is the object itself, the oh^ecx.freedfrom the conditions of time and space that

govern it.' Bazin continues: 'No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no
matter how lacking in documentai-y value the image may be, it shares, by virtue
of the veiy process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the
reproduction; it w the model'."*
Lukics himself remained faithful to the historical-revolutionary solution
he discovered in 1917 for the rest of his life. However, several years before
he wrote The Theory of the Novel, he entertained a quite different, 'aesthetic'
solution, one that predates the dawning 'historical' consciousness apparent in
that work, and that, furthermore, implies a conception of cinematic time that
is quite at odds with the 'spatio-temporal' ethos of the novel. In a little known
essay entitled 'Thoughts Toward an Aesthetic of the Cinema', published in
1913, Lukacs outlines a precocious philosophy of cinematic form as a vehicle
of the kind of unbroken, sensuous intimacy between soul and world that, in
The Theory of the Novel, he would later ascribe to the epic.^" In this earlier
essay, he begins by comparing cinema to theatre in terms of the veiy different
inflections which each gives to the notion of presence, and the present. He
writes that 'the lack of [a] "present" is the primaiy characteristic of the cinema',
as opposed to the theatre, in which the stage is an 'absolute present'.^' This
lack ofa present 'is no defect of the "cinema"', writes Lukacs. 'This is its limit,
its principium stilisationis\ And he goes on to outline something like an idea
of the immanence of cinema:
Not only in their technique, but also in their effect, cinematic images,
equal in their essence to nature, are no less organic and alive than [,.,]
images of the stage. Only they maintain a life ofa completely different
kind. In a word, they become fantastic. This fantastical element is not
a contrast to living life, however, it is only a new aspect of the same:
a life without the present, a life without fate, without reasons, without
motives, a life without measure or order, without essence or value, a
life without soul, of pure surface, a life with which the innermost of
our soul does not want to coincide; nor can it. Even when the soul still
- and often - longs for this life, this longing is for a foreign abyss, for
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

93

19, Andr^ Bazin,


"riie Ontology of
the Photographic
Image', Wliat
K Cinema?. vol,

i. Hugh Gray
(trans), Berkeley,
CA, University of
Calilornia I'less,
1967, pl4.

20, For more details


on the cireujiistances
of the essay's
publication, see
Janelle Blankenship,
'Futurist Fantasies:
Liik^cs's Karly Essay
"Thonghts 'Iowaixl
an Aesthelic of the
Cinema"', hAygraph
13 (2001): pp21-36.
21. Uik.'ics,
'Thoughts', op. cit.,
ppl3-14.

something far off and internally distant. The world of the 'cinema' is
thus a world without background or perspective, without any difference
in weight or quaiity, as oniy the present gives things fate and weight,
iight and lightness,^^

22. Ibid., pl4.

For Luiiacs, here, cinema has none of the deathiy 'irony' of tiie novei; the
ethical quality of cinema is precisely the absence of ethics as such; or rather,
the inseparability ofthe ethicai from the real, the inseparabiiity of possibility
from actuality, (The same idea is expressed in Jean Luc Godard's famous line
about the cinema, an intertitie in his fiim Le Vent d'est: 'Ce n'est pas une image
juste, c'est juste une image,') 'Everything is possible', says Lukacs further:
this is the worldview ofthe 'cinema', and because it technically expressed
absolute reality [,,,] in every individual moment, the validity of possibility
is cancelled out as a category opposed to reality. T h e two categories become

23. Ibid., p 15
{emphasis added).

24, Andre Barin,


'The Ontology of
the Photographic
Image', What
Is Cinevui ? Vol.

1, Hugh Gray
(trans), Berkeley,
CA, University
of California
Press, 1967,
pp9-16; Leclisse,

Michelangelo
Antonioni (dir),
Italy, 1962; Gilles
Deleuze, Cinema 1:
The Movement-Image,

Hugh Tomlinson
and Barbara
Habbeijam (trans),
London, Athlone,
1986.

equal. They assume one identity, 'Everything is true and real, is equally
' true and equally real,' This is the teaching ofthe shot sequencing ofthe
'cinema'.^'
Writing, then, over thirty years before Andre Bazin wrote 'The Ontoiogy of
the Photographic Image' (1945), fifty years before Michelangelo Antonioni
made Leclisse (1962), and seventy years before Gilles Deleuze published The
Movement-Image (1983),^'' Lukacs puts forward a theoiy of the cinema as
having a sensuous, immediate relation to temporality itself. The cinema, for
Lukacs in 1913, is eveiything that the novel is not. In fact, cinema is closer
to how Lukacs came to see the epic: as having none ofthe formal, historical
and ethical melancholy associated, for Lukacs, with the novel.
Yet the significance of Lukacs's essay on cinema is less to tbe cinema as
such, perhaps, than to the mentality of the novel. After all, the essay itself
is a distinctly ethical - that is to say, novelistic - reflection; according to its
own prescriptions, the cinema could not help but regard its earnest avowals
ironically, Lukacs's essay should be read, then, as an index ofthe mentality
that \s preoccupied with tbe novel - the anxiety that forms and isfonned by the
novel, the mentality of the writer and theorist of fiction, Lukacs's essay is
especially relevant in the contemporaiy context, where the cinema so often
appears as a solution to the dilemmas and problematics of fiction itself: besides
the recent works by Paul Auster I have been discussing, we might think of
texts such as Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, E,L, Doctorow's City of God,
Dennis Cooper's Period, or W,G, Sebald's Austerlitz, each of which betrays
an attraction to cinema as the model for a fictional practice that works to
introduce something like Lukacs's imagined 'renewed epic' - a form 'bound
to the historical moment' in such a way that the world 'is drawn ,,, simply as
a seen reality' {TofN pi52), The term 'seen' {geschaute) is here a distraction
from the real significance of this passage. Cinema is important for these
writers not strictly as a visual medium, but as a sensuous one, in wbicb space
94

NEW FORMATIONS

and, particularly, time, are viaterially present. In cinema, time, for Lukacs as
for Deleuze and Bazin, is experienced outside the linear, spatialised and
imperialist conception of it - the conception reproduced in all periodising
accounts ofthe postmodern.
Certainly, Auster's The Book of Illusions, at least at the beginning, looks
longingly towards cinema as a symbol of eveiything that writing is unable
to achieve. Cinema, in other words, is inserted into The Book of Illusions as
a potential solutio7i to the ethical-aesthetic incommensurability that defines
the novel as such. However, this conception of cinematic possibility is so
'novelistic', so deeply implicated in an economy - botb ethical and temporal
- of expiation and redemption, that it is unable to release Auster's work from
the structural 'irony' to which Lukacs condemns the novel as such; in fact,
cinema in Auster functions to bind his work even more firmly to the novel.
Nevertheless, the encounter staged between cinema and the novel in Lukacs's
early writings, as well as in Auster's most recent fiction, enables us to read
even that failure 'cinematically', following a logic ofthe postmodern 'event',
in Lyotard's sense, in which the question of success or failure is displaced by
that of possibility itself,
THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS
As has already been noted, author-figures proliferate in Auster's works, and
in The Book of Illusions as much as any. Besides David Zimmer and Hector
Mann, whose project of cinematic atonement begins in 1939 ('just after the
Germans invaded Poland') (Bo/7 p212), another author-surrogate appears as
the central character of one of Hector's films. The Inner Life of Martin Frost,
made in 1946,
The Inner Life of Martin Frost is the only film that David has time to watch
after being summoned to the ranch - before Hector dies and the films are
destroyed - and the only one, therefore, that he describes in detail. T h e film
was shot at the ranch, and as David begins to watch, he finds it impossible
to separate the 'fictional' images from the 'reality' of their familiar setting,
'I was supposed to read them as shadows, but my mind was slow to make the
adjustment. Again and again, I saw them as they were, not as they were meant
to be' {BofI p243). Martin Frost, the protagonist ofthe film, is a novelist, who
arrives to stay at 'Hector and Erieda's ranch' while they are on vacation; thus,
the idea, which Bazin and Lukacs share, of cinema's disintegration of the
distinction between original and reproduction, possibility and actuality, art
and life - that is to say, cinema's challenge to ontology itself- is played with
explicitly in Hector's film, and yet, perhaps, only played with, Eor Deleuze,
the same quality is what enables cinema to materialise time in a 'ciystalline'
form, meaning that the 'indivisible unity of an actual image and "its" virtual
image' - the virtuality of the actual - becomes manifest as such,'*'' In such
moments, time is 'liberated' from movement - from narrative - and becomes
perceivable in itself: 'a little time in the pure state',^''
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

95

j"^^^ op cit p78


26. ibid., pi69.

27. Ibid., p264; see


Immanuel Kant,
Critique of Pure
Reason, F. Max

MuUer (trans, 2nd


revised edn). New
York, Macmillan,
1915, p34.
28. Auster's
pseudonymous
detective novel,
entided Squeeze
Play, is included as
an appendix in his
otherwise nonfiction collection
Hand to Mouth: A
Chronicle of Early
Failure. New York,
Henry Holt, 1997.

29. Deleuze, nnehnage. op. cit., p69.

Almost immediately on arriving, despite his intention to 'do nothing, to live


the life of a stone' {BofI p245), Martin Frost hegins work on a new story, inspired
hy the desert landscape around him. On awakening, his first morning, he finds
the mysterious Claire, a beautifial philosophy student, asleep in his bed; after the
initial shock they quickly fall in love. Passages from Claire's reading of Berkeley
and Kant, on sense perception and the impossibility of objective knowledge, are
worked into the narrative in Claire's delivery (for example, from Kant: 'if we
drop our subject or the subjective form of our senses, all qualities, all relations
of objects in space and time, nay space and time themselves, would vanish').^'
The scenario is not dissimilar to a subplot of a film Auster himself scripted,
entitled Smoke (1995), in which a writer named Paul Benjamin (a name Auster
once took as a nom deplume to publish a detective novel)^* accepts an apparently
homeless boy as a guest in his Brooklyn apartment after the boy saves his life.
Both films - the real and the fictional - include relatively conventional uses
of montage, in which cinematographic shots of the writer banging away on a
typewriter (Martin Frost and Paul Benjamin respectively) are juxtaposed with
actions which may or may not be anything more than a scenario being played
out in the writer's head and on his page.
As in Smoke, the uncertainty is quickly settled by the Martin Frost narrative,
although in the opposite direction to Smoke, where the resolution is on the side
of the 'actual'. By confirming the mise-en-scene of The Inner Life of Martin Frost
as 'the inside of a man's head' {BofI p243), Auster dissolves the indiscernibility
of actual and virtual in cinema into a merely subjective ambiguity. In such a
case, writes Deleuze, 'the confusion of the real and the imaginary is a simple
error of fact, and does not affect their discernibility: the confusion is produced
solely "in someone's head'".^'' It is just this kind of'psychological' resolution that
Lukacs regards as typically novelistic: 'The autonomous life of interiority' he
writes, 'is possible and necessary only when the distinctions between men have
made an unbridgeable chasm; when the gods are silent and neither sacrifices
nor the ecstatic gift of tongues can solve their riddle ...' {TofN p66).
These conceptual relations of the novel are staged by Auster, of course,
rather than simply reproduced - and the staging is most overt with the
conclusion of The Inner Life of Martin Frost. By the time Martin finishes
writing his story, Claire is dead, having succumbed to a fever that has been
worsening correlatively with the progress Martin has been making on his work.
Furthermore, Martin discovers that he is able to revive her, as if miraculously,
by burning the pages of his story. This circumstance alludes to Hector's plan
to destroy his own films after his death, and is referred explicitly both to a
passage in Luis Bunuel's autobiography My Last Sigh, where Bufiuel considers
burning the negative of his film Un Chien andalou on the place du Tertre in
Montmartre {BofI p284), and to Chateaubriand's ideal of withholding his
Memoires from publication (Hector owns copies of both works) (Bo/7 p237-8).
It also recalls a story recounted in Smoke by Paul Benjamin, of Mikhail Bakhtin
using up his manuscript on the Bildungsroman for cigarette papers during
the siege of Leningrad. This historical episode is explained by the Bakhtin
96

NEW FORMATIONS

scholar Michael Holquist as an index ofthe insignificance to Bakhtin of his


own thoughts 'once they had already been thought through''" - that is to say,
of Bakhtin's uninterestedness in exploiting his thoughts, once they had sei-ved
their purpose. In all of these cases - Martin, Hector, Bunuel, Chateaubriand,
Bakhtin - the valency ofthe posthumous gesture consists in an indifference
to posterity, and a commitment to the event, life - the intimacy between art
and life - rather than to the documentation of the event, or art as such.
In cinema, however, the destruction of the work is unnecessary for the
affirmation of life, for the simple reason that - as Lukacs in 1913 was aware
- cinema is not predicated on the notion of presence, of ontology, at all:
'The essence of the "cinema" is movement in itself, an eternal variability,
the never-resting change of things'.'^' The reality of cinema, writes Bazin
in a similar vein, is that of 'the world of which we are a part, the sensoiy
continuum of which the film takes a spatial as well as temporal mold'.'^ The
state of'indifference' that Auster's characters are in pursuit of (ON p60 and
BofJ p245) is achieved by cinema as such; there is no need for heroic, egoistic
gestures. 'The world was full of holes,' observes David early on in The Book of
Illusions (after he has narrowly escaped shooting himself with a loaded gun),
'tiny apertures of meaninglessness, microscopic rifts that the mind could
walk through, and once you were on the other side of one of those holes, you
were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything
that belonged to you' (Bofl pi 09). Yet this is a lesson of cinema (or indeed,
the epic) - not of the novel, where, for Lukacs at least, immanence is always
attenuated by the principle of individuality. 'An empty immanence', he writes,
'which is anchored only in the writer's experience and not, at the same time,
in his return to the home of all things, is merely the immanence of a surface
that covers up the cracks but is incapable of retaining this immanence and
must become a surface riddled with holes' {TofN p92).
In Oracle Night, Sidney reflects on the preparation of his Hollywood film
script: 'I didn't want there to be any holes in the story' (ON pi36). But for
Deleuze, the power of cinema is precisely that of'a "dissociative force" which
would introduce a "figure of nothingness", a "hole in appearances'".'''^ Lukacs's
use of the same image to denote the contrary - the betrayal of immanence
- exposes and corrects the 'novelistic' ethos at work in his own passage, as
quoted above. Immanence, after all, can be neither 'betrayed' nor 'attenuated'.
As Lukacs says a paragraph later, the 'intuitive double vision' of the novel
makes it 'the representative art-form of our age', the structural qualities
of which 'constitutively coincide with the world as it is today' (TofN p93).
Immanence is not a lost innocence, but awaits us as a category of possibility to
be wrought out ofthe simultaneity of past, present and future.
END AND CONTINUITY
Paul Auster, the most 'postmodern' of contemporary authors, is revealed
by Lukacs's The Theory ofthe Novel to be also the most 'novelistic' of writers.
PAUL AUSTER'S CINEMATOGRAPHIC FICTIONS

97

30. Michael
Holquist,
'Introcluclioii', M.
M. Bakluiii, The
Dialogic
Itnagination:
Four Es.say.'i, C a i y l

Emei'son and
Michael Holqiiisl
(trans), Austin,
University of Texas
Press, 1981, pxxv.

31. Uik,1cs,

"riioughts', op. cit.,


pl5.
32. Anclr(5 Bazin,
'Death Every
Afternoon', Lilenny
Debate: Texk and
Contexts, Denis
Hollier and JefTrey
Mehlman (eds).
New York, The New
Press, 1999, pi44.

33. Deleuze, TimeImage, op. cit., pi67.

The preoccupations that drive his fiction are those ofthe novel as such; and
yet those preoccupations are themselves formed, in part, by the appearance
of cinema - as suggested by the fact that Lukacs's essay on the aesthetics of
cinema precedes his great work on the novel by two or three years. Even
when dealing directly with cinema, as in The Book of Illusions, Auster does so
as a novelist, looking to cinema with envy, as to a promise of redemption that
will achieve the immanence of the epic - the category of possibility that his
metaphysically, historically and ethically-traumatised writer-protagonists have
been consumed by ever since City of Glass. Read in the light of Lukacs's early
writing, Auster's fiction seems determined upon playing out the demise of
fiction itself; yet this determination has its contrary structurally embedded
within it.
The conjunction of two apparently incompatible diagnoses, Lyotard's
mode of the postmodern as futur-anterior and Lukacs's concept of 'absolute
sinfulness', requires us to dispense with the historical thesis of The Theory of
the Novel - the link between 'absolute sinfulness' and a particular historicophilosophical moment - as well as the spatio-historical thesis ofthe postmodern
that we fmd in, for example, Jameson, Harvey and Michaels: not only the idea
of its contemporaneity, but also the idea of its recent obsolescence. Both theses
reiterate an ontology of the present, emerging from an intense awareness
of the present as such. As long as the novel situates itself in a derivative or
imitative relation to cinema, looking enviously to cinema as a solution to its
own formal disunity, it seems destined to repeat the traumatic and impossible
ethical relation to the present that is consistently staged in Paul Auster's
work. If there is a 'lesson' in cinema for fiction, it is, in Deleuze's words, 'to
34. Deleuze, Timefree [itself] from the model of truth which penetrates it'.''' Only when the
Image, op. cit., pi50.
literary text construes such a 'cinematic' or 'epic' relation to time in the body
ofthe writing itself- as it does, I would argue, in writers such as W.C. Sebald
and Dennis Cooper - only then will it overcome that ontological relation to
the present that Lukacs calls 'absolute sinfulness'.

98

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