Vote Mr. Robinson for a Better World is a novel I have not read. Apparently, it includes the protagonist’s wife slowly beginning to think she is a fish, and opens with the mayor of a town being drawn and quartered by cars…or trucks (again, haven’t read, not sure on specifics). This is a nice post-modern, mythological, Thomas Bernhard-esque introduction – or “hook,” as they call it. “They” being high school English teachers, teaching you how to write a five-paragraph essay.
The novel was published in the early 1990s, a period of high post-modernism worldwide, as evidenced by the Cultural Fever in China, bands such as R.E.M. receiving eight-figure contracts, and David Foster Wallace’s emergence as a significant writer. Here I use the word “significant” in its original structuralist context. You didn’t have to read Infinite Jest, just knowing about it is enough to signify you are probably familiar with the entire world of thought that the book (which you probably have not read entirely) represents. Art serves as cultural milestones, beacons to the initiated. Like the symbolic status given to sonnets by romantics in the Elizabethan-Victorian eras; or the way James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland served during the period of early 20th-century modernism as quotable fodder for young tweed-wearing intellectuals trying to get laid.
Both writers, Joyce and Eliot (and bon vivant compatriot F. Scott Fitzgerald) not-so-coincidentally reaped large swathes of their writing from female family members, while simultaneously repressing their kin’s instinctive creative identities. The often discussed relationship Eliot’s writing has to his first wife Vivienne mimics how Finnegans Wake was inspired by the schizophrenia of Joyce’s “muse,” his daughter Lucia (meanwhile preventing her from pursuing ballet). Additionally, I believe it was Anthony Burgess who pointed out Nora Barnacle’s personal letters as the most likely source of inspiration behind Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Joyce’s constant mining of autobiographical material for artistic reworking makes it no surprise that he was a master collagist. Notable in the torrent of newspaper headlines flooding the Aeolus chapter of his day book Ulysses, representing newspaper’s pervasive encroachment on daily life during the early 20th century (major cities had upwards of a dozen morning papers and several others published in the evening). The unsurpassed re-appropriator of historical literary artifacts: Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725) and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) acted as the historical backbone and arch-predecessor to his night book Finnegans Wake.
“Mr. Fitzgerald, I believe that is how he spells his name, seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
Wrote Zelda Fitzgerald in her review of Tender Is The Night after her husband had gone to excruciating lengths to secure the publishing rights over her diaries. Zelda and Lucia both shared a ballet teacher, Madame Lubov Yegorova, before their husband or father’s overbearing egotism snuffed out their creative flames. Manipulating history, “the nightmare” Joyce was trying to awake, securing their legacies as the only famous Fitzgerald or Joyce (or Eliot) while fabricating their own cultural mythos.
“Perhaps writers, and maybe artists in general to a lesser extent, are so crucial to world history because they are able to turn themselves into myths. Allowing Others to project significance upon the writer, opening other worlds of thought within themselves. Meanwhile, writers may not be cognizant of their potential fate, so once they are turned into a myth, intentionally or not, they are unable to live up to the projections of the Others. Which in some cases may pressure the artist to seek out coping mechanisms, drugs, alcohol, etc. which may even lead to the artist’s death. Kafka’s Starving Artist is an obvious example that jumps to mind, but I think the better example may be Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener where the Others around Bartleby continuously project their wants upon him until he dies.”
—Segment of an e-mail sent to E. San Juan Jr. (2017)”
“For Rupert – with no promises” a short story by Gordon Lish, and the first story published anonymously in Esquire magazine, left readers thinking it was a new piece by the reclusive author, and other notorious misogynistic repressor of female artistic impulses, J.D. Salinger. When in fact, Lish had assumed the voice of Salinger, and produced a unique work of fiction through what he assumed would be Salinger’s perspective. Much in the same way the character Craig Schwartz (played by John Cusack) assumes the identity of actor John Malkovich (played by John Malkovich) in the post-modern film from 1999, Being John Malkovich, by crawling through a tunnel he finds behind the filing cabinet in his cubicle.
The young Ernest Hemingway noted how policemen and doctors wear impenetrable masks of cynical stoicism in order to get through the day, untouched by grueling tasks faced in the line of duty or while making hospital rounds. This is the Marxian notion of character masks, as are the faces of John Malkovich on sticks held up by members of the crowd on the poster for Being John Malkovich. While in traditional theater, the audience is never unsure of the division between actor and the role they play — once the curtain drops they go back to their daily lives — with character masks in late capitalist, post-modern society, the character is so well developed that who they interact with are most likely unaware it’s even a character, if it even is a character at all. This is the reason Andre (played by Andre Gregory) in My Dinner With Andre (1981) gives his friend Wally as to why he and another playwright “dropped out” of the theater scene. People in their daily lives are so good at acting as themselves, for instance, the character Andre’s improvisations in the Polish forests or the person Andre Gregory playing a version of himself in the film, that acting as fictitious characters in the theater seems somehow “obscene”.
This is why people like Charlie Kaufman, and Andy Kaufman, who made a parody film of My Dinner With Andre co-starring 6-time world heavyweight wrestling champion Freddie Blassie, blurred the lines of identity and character within their artistic creations. People feel the effect of a capitalist, nationalist world of competing imperialist powers being dragged kicking and screaming into a more socialist/communist global community. We find ourselves in a time of transition where non-dualist philosophical ideas regarding structures and beliefs which were previously thought of as singular, such as identity or the Earth/environment itself, are called into question through the chasm opened by the split between the past and the future that we find ourselves thrown into today.
In Being John Malkovich, when Craig is in his office, he is Craig Schwartz, the thinnest of veiled representations of the film’s writer Charlie Kaufman. Once he crawls through the small tunnel he finds, he is John Malkovich. But who is he during those claustrophobic scenes within the tunnel? Crawling on all fours…it is impossible to know. Yes, we see him as Craig Schwartz, but it is safer to say he is No One, ΟΥΤΙΣ, in these moments. As he crouches on one end of the tunnel, he is somebody, if he comes out on the other end of the tunnel, he is somebody else. Every time we blink we are going through a tunnel. Every moment we are given the opportunity to become somebody else. Yet, like Theseus’ Ship, we stay who we are.
This Matryoshka doll effect of human identity mimics Roland Barthes notion of mythmaking, where a sign becomes a new signifier upon which new significance is given. It is as if the unconscious energy of the human geist recognized the shift in how myths were being re-molded to suit political purposes, and people began to rapidly re-integrate the methods being used upon themselves within their own identities as a way of coping with the shift in culture-at-large. Society recognized if ideas can be manipulated to exert control over motivations and situations, then one’s individual identity is subject to change, as well. This idea itself is not new, in fact it is quite ancient, dating at least to Homer and The Old Man of the Sea, Proteus, or the shapeshifting trickster gods of Native American and African mythologies, but what is new is how humans in recognizing this fact finally admitted to themselves that the true self is not some singular, existentially nauseating subterranean state of being that lay hidden, only to be unconcealed to the worthy few, but that the nature of identity exists somewhere in-between all the identities one portrays. And not just simply an average amalgamation of all those passing, fleeting identities, either, but that the transitory mercurial quality of identity itself is the true nature of being.
The story that gives its name to the collection of 104 one-page short stories by Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator, is about a performance artist who is able to mimic any voice asked of him by the audience, however, when asked to imitate his own voice replies that “He cannot do that”. This is a demonstration of the idea that there is no such thing as a true self. The voice imitator is merely a protean being capable of becoming anyone he wants. However, if the voice imitator cannot use his own voice, then this raises a question about his final reply: Whose voice did he use?