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A Lacanian Analysis of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy



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    Fragmented selves: A Lacanian Reading of Auster’s The New York Trilogy Abstract: The concept of fragmented self was first introduced by Freud through his model of three part psyche, namely ego, id and super-ego, and later modified by Jacque Lacan, the famous postmodern psychoanalyst. The split of subject is one of the most appealing concepts in the postmodern literature. By assimilating the structure of unconscious to that of language, Lacan bridges between psychoanalysis and linguistics and hence makes a new interdisciplinary field of study.

    The splitting of self that Freud was considered to be merely psycho-physical is in Lacanian term an alienation that occurs in language. This alienation happens as a consequence of the relation of the subject to the symbolic order. Paul Auster, is a famous American postmodern writer whose The New York Trilogy is the story of fragmentation and unknowable selves, it is also a desperate attempt to yoke these selves into a unity through language.

    The form of the three interwoven stories, City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room which culminates into a trilogy under the name of New York, is a tableau which shows the fear of the loss of identity within a megalopolis. The subjects in the novel are shown in their inessential nature, fluid and without sticking to any specific place, fading into the signifying chain. The identities merge and the borders between self and the other are marred in the unconscious of the characters.

    The aim of the present study is to apply Lacan’s theory of Self and Other and the notion of Identity to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. Key words: Lacan, The New York Trilogy, fragmented selves, identity. An Introduction to Lacan’s Theory Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) was the famous French psychoanalyst who made a great contribution to both psychology and linguistics by proposing that unconscious is structured like language. He followed Freud’s psychoanalysis and related it to Saussure’s structuralism.

    According to him: The analyzable symptom, whether it be normal or pathological, is distinguished not only from the diagnostic index but also from any imaginable form of pure expressivity in that it is supported by a structure which is identical to the structure of language. And by that I do not mean a structure to be situated in some sort of so-called generalized semiology drawn from the limbo of its periphery, but the structure of language as it manifests itself in the languages which I might call positive, those which are actually spoken by the mass of human beings (Lacan 40).

    This assumption led to the idea that no one is complete since each one’s psyche has stored only a part of language which would be meaningful only in relation with the other parts and the whole system in general. According to this, each person is fragmented. Lacan divided the mind into three phases, imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The development of Mind according to Lacan Imaginary order begins from the time of our birth and continues up to six months. The reason for calling this phase, imaginary is that it is filled with images. It is the time of boundlessness.

    The infant who cannot speak does not even need language because its desires are immediately fulfilled since it is the time of union with mother. The baby finds its mother as the continuation of its own body, so there is no differentiation between you and me, the child and the world around it. An imaginary harmony and oneness exists between the child and the world around it. From the age of 6 months to 18 months, the mirror stage happens when the child sees its separation from the world as it looks in the mirror or drops something from its hands or listens to his or her own voice.

    Lacan calls them “object petit a” (Bressler 153). After this short time before entering to the realm of language, the child enters the second order which Lacan calls it symbolic and which is dominated by the rule of the father. Children learn the language and begin to differentiate the speech sounds from the sounds around them. The symbolic order acts on the basis of binary oppositions and differentiation and children learn the meaning of certain words by differentiating them from other words.

    They also differentiate between the male and female and form their identity around the cultural binary oppositions that are reflected in the language. The realm of language is the realm of separation. Now if the child wants something he/ she has to utter a word to satisfy his/her desire. According to Lacan in the system of language because the signs do not reach to an ultimate signifier, men never get to the complete and serene (though unreal) situation of the imaginary order and during his life he is searching for it and tries to fulfill that lack but the lack is never compensated for.

    Father stands for norm and social laws of the symbolic order and these social rules are reflected in the language. The Real order which is the last phase of Lacan’s three part psyche, is full of object petit a, that act as symbols of lack. “We can never know the Real, because it can never be fully represented- it is beyond language” (Bertens 161). Language according to Lacan is the cause of our fragmentation and literature is capable of giving joussance because it takes us back to the imaginary order when there were no binary oppositions and the self was complete in its own reflection.

    The New York Trilogy: A Lacanian Reading Christopher Donovan in his “Postmodern Counter-narratives” contends that “while self-conscious writing, meta-fictional writing is our by-now accustomed method of determining what stories are and how they work, yet Auster claims early in City of Glass, that “the question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something, is not for the story to tell” (Donovan 58). In the spite of the mentioned claim of the author, Auster’s stories are apt to different interpretations.

    His obsession with the loss of identity is so apparent in all the three stories of the Trilogy that Harold Bloom, the famous American literary critic, considers him to be “a lifelong disciple of Franz Kafka” (Bloom 1). Like Kafka he seems to be worried about the loss of identity in the postmodern society. This apprehension is reflected in his Trilogy which begins with its first story City of Glass. The story opens with a mistaken call and the reader gets familiar with Daniel Quinn, who is a detective novelist.

    By accepting to take the case of Paul Auster, the detective whom the caller is looking for, Quinn, enters the game. After a while he loses his identity that is, it gets divided into three characters, Quinn, the living detective who tries to make sense of the story, William Wilson, a character in one of Poe’s stories, under whose name he is writing detective stories and finally Max Work who is the hero of his novels. The very choice of William Wilson as a pseudo- name is revealing of the similarities between the plots of the two stories.

    William Wilson a character in one of Poe’s stories with the same name has lost his identity and thinks that he has a double, in his case it is a metamorphosed form of twinge of conscience which at the end of the story that leads him to his self-destruction. In his search for Stillman, in the last scene of the City of Glass, Quinn runs out of money, but he continues his detection and waits for him. He decreases his food, the vigilance of his senses and it seems his very life, to a plant life. The processes that Quinn undergoes correspond with the three part orders of Lacan’s theory of mind.

    When he runs out of money and lives in the dark between the bin and the wall, where he is completely still and only half conscious. He is completely separated from the outside world; the only way he relates to the world is through the images that he is able to watch on the sky. It is a return to the imaginary order. Before setting foot to the world of symbolism and beginning to speak, when he is too disappointed to continue and he fears his death if he wants to continue, in the way back, he sees his image in the mirror, corresponding to the mirror stage in Lacan’s theory. There was a mirror on the facade and for the first time since he had begun his vigil, Quinn saw himself” (Auster 117). After this stage, he enters the symbolic order by speaking through phone. According to Dor and Feher, with Lacan’s establishing the metaphor of the language structured by the rule of the father, the division of the subject is inevitable. “With the acquisition of language, the speaking being [le parl etre] is constituted as a divided subject, and a part of his being is alienated in the unconscious that is a product of this very division (115).

    As mentioned above one of the basic assumptions in Lacan’s theory is that language forms our conscious mind and hence makes a division between our conscious and unconscious minds and thus makes our identities. In contrast to existentialist philosophers who believed on a unity through a person’s mind, Lacan rejects the idea, saying: “one such philosophy, based on the assumption that thought or unconsciousness forms a coherent unity, is existentialism, which erringly grants the ego” the illusion of autonomy” (qtd in Habib 590). Language is in the first place the cause of our fragmentation.

    On hearing Quinn’s voice, Pere Stillman says: it was “machine-like, fitful, alternating between slow and rapid gestures, rigid and yet expressive, as if the operation were out of control, not quite corresponding to the will that lay behind it” (Auster 15). It seems that a break happened in Quinn’s language fluency. His mind could not cope with the system of language. In a Lacanian reading “there is a direct connection between the repressive character of language and culture and the coming into being of the unconscious” (Bretens 162).

    The undesirable takes refuge in the unconscious and in Quinn’s case has damaged the part that was related to language, so he cannot speak well and hence his speech does not make sense. “No questions, please,” the young man said at last. “Yes. No. Thank you. ” He paused for a moment. “I am Peter Stillman. I say this of my own free will. Yes. That is not my real name. No. Of course, my mind is not all it should be. But nothing can be done about that. No. About that. No, no.

    Not anymore (Auster 16). The repetition, the fragmented and unfinished sentences, the lack of control on what he says, all these are signs of a fragmented self which is unable to relate to the whole system with others and the outside symptom of his problem is reflected in his use of language. Paul Auster, the writer of The City of Glass, who is also a character within the story, tries to assemble the various pieces of Quinn and Stillman’s story and make an acceptable, whole story.

    But in the end, he loses them and later finds them hiding in a corner of his mind. Quinn-Auster, does not like to reveal his name and hence his character. He utters his Quinn name to Mr. Stillman, who believes that “the world is in fragments… Not only have we lost our sense of purpose, we have lost the language whereby we can speak of it” (Auster 75). By playing on Quinn’s name, Stillman tries to make sense of it. He finds his responsibility to do so because he thinks that it is his “job to put it back together again” (Auster 75).

    In the novel, characters as diverse as Paul Auster, the character of the writer in The City of Glass and Fanshawe the lost writer in The Locked Room, are searching for their Selves by distancing themselves from their lives and watching it from the point of view of the others, which in the case of Fanshawe it is his double who calls him his childhood friend. The Locked Room is the story of a critic, who has a best friend called Fanshawe, he was precocious child, as he describes him “He formed himself very quickly, was already a sharply defined presence by the time we started school.

    Fanshawe was visible, whereas the rest of us were creatures without shape” (Auster 206). Later on they separate from each other and each follows his life until one day, the critic who does not have any name, receives a phone call from Fanshawe’s wife, Sophie. She says that Fanshawe has left her and asked him to look at his writings and publish them if he finds them worth publishing. The critic marries Fanshawe’s wife and publishes his writings and writes a very approving criticism on the works. They soon find ublic approval and general acclaim but some other critics say that the writings were the critics from the very beginning and it had only been a public show to make a mystery out of the story writer to make sell more. As Lacan states “our identity is constituted in interaction with what is outside of us and reflects us, it is relational- a notion that introduces the idea of difference into the process of identity construction” (Bertens 161). It is through setting exact borders, through differentiating between self and other, that Fanshaws’s double can prove himself.

    He should write Fanshaws’s biography. So the critic finds it necessary to find his friend Fanshawe, in spite of all the warnings that he receives from his friend. He hires a detective; Quinn in the first story to search for him but Fanshawe artistically escapes him so he decides to set off and search for him in person. He travels to different spots in the world where he can find the people who were Fanshawe’s friends. He sets off to his journey under the pretext of writing Fanshawe’s biography. The doubles in The Locked Room are like two magnets that attract or repulse each other, depending on their position (Keane 51). The two men in the novel are different from one another at the beginning but later on as the novel progresses they get closer and closer to one another. As he gets nearer to Fanshawe he feels more near to himself. In the end he finds a door between himself and Fanshawe. The mouth of the person inside was lined up directly with my ear. Only the door was between us, and we were so close that I felt as if the words were being poured into my head.

    It was like listening to a man’s heart beating in his chest, like searching a body for a pulse (Auster 298). He cannot pass to the other side of the door. It is both a way to enter the realm of his friend and also a barrier to separate him from Fanshawe. When he finally receives the red notebook which is the story of Fanshawe’s life, he is unable to make sense of it. All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. I can think of no other way to express it.

    Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph made the next paragraph impossible. It is odd, then, that the feeling that survives from this notebook is one of great lucidity (Auster 307). There is the point where he is lost. If Fanshawe is the creative side of the critic, once he finds his double he is unable to relate to him, since their only medium is language and it leads to nowhere except for a feeling. The signifiers simply contradict one another and the paragraphs do not make a whole, and it is the exact reflection of the critic after his encounter with his double Fanshawe.

    Ghosts, begins with Blue who is about to be a detective and receives his first case to watch over someone called Black. Throughout the novel he seeks to establish an identity for himself as a successful substitute for his previous master, Brown. But the detection leads to another internal detection to find himSelf. By keeping Black under surveillance from the window of his room, he observes that Black is constantly writing. He takes a notebook to do the same. His identity is getting merged with Black. At times Blue feels that White has hired him in order to control and watch him and stop him from any action.

    Hence he feels trapped, “He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others” (Auster 166). In the story Blue abandons all his relations with the outside world and limits himself to read the story of Black in whose identity he seems to be drowned and finally ends by being metamorphosed. Stephen Fredman, in his essay “How to Get Out of the Room That Is the Book? Paul Auster and the Consequences of Confinement reasons out that the room that Blue is confined in is in fact the room of book, he is detecting a fictional character of Black and since he is so immersed in the world of the story he is trapped by the author and the characters. In this way the very readers are put in the place of detective Blue and should search to make sense of the sometimes abnormal behavior of the characters such as Black and White (Bloom 7-12). The sense of loss is not limited to Blue. It seems that the characters in Ghosts are trapped in a situation that have no will of their own.

    Their strings are in the hands of an unknown other who decides about them. Yet they have become aware of this situation. They know they have no authority and strength to get out, but at the same time they are also aware of the existence of this omnipotent system in whose hands is their lives. Blue can be a common man, a simple New York citizen. He is an unknown one and has no identity and hence no name. He is simply called Blue and is in search of another unknown citizen, Black, but loses his own identity in the process of the detection.

    Black is reading Walden, Thoreau’s book on Solitude. Blue starts to imitate Black and read the same book. The immediate effect is that he too is drawn into solitude. No action. No plot, no story. It seems that he is “only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others” (Auster 167). The story deals with the depths of people’s solitude. The characters are both lonely and alone. Instead of speaking with each other, they look at one another and make stories in their minds.

    They prefer to live with their guesses about each other rather than speaking to one another. Blue spends nearly a year, spying over his neighbor. They observe each other instead of conversing to one another. “For the first time in his experience of writing reports, he (Blue) discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say” (Auster 145). According to Lacan it is the fate of all speeches. They are doomed to circle round the system of language. It is the way of the world we are born into and there is no escape from it.

    Our world, which is our psyche, is formed like language and we all inhabit in that world of words (Habib 652). According to Bertens, “For Lacan, we need the response and recognition of others and of the other to arrive at what we experience as our identity. Our subjectivity is constructed in interaction with “others” (Bertens 161). The Other in the story remains to be unknown and at the same time very near, almost the Self but this self-recognition ends in self-annihilation as well. In the last page he finds that he is trapped. He doesn’t know where he belongs.

    Is he a character in Black’s book, a writer of Black’s book or even a character whose story is written by White? The night that he searches the Black’s rooms while the other is out, he finds his own reports on Black’s desk. “To enter Black, then, was the equivalent of entering himself, and once inside himself, he can no longer conceive of being anywhere else. But this is precisely where Black is, even though Blue does not know it” (Auster 186). In the end, Blue kills Black and like the other two novels, the author-character becomes the murderer of his other self or dimension.

    Conclusion: The New York Trilogy is one of the best novels which Lacan’s theory of self and other is applicable in it. The stories are the depiction of lost identities which are then sometimes mixed with others. The characters are either observers or are observed. There is a tracing for some kind of loss or lack. According to Lacan, when we enter the symbolic order and step in to the realm of the father, the imaginary unity which we were born into, ends and only later through literature we approach it again. In the novel the characters reenter their imaginary order.

    They lose their identity and they are unable to relate themselves to the society. They turn to isolated solitude and prefer to observe one another rather than relate to each other through language. Since they do not have stable identities, they constantly merge into a newly come other who sometimes turns to be their double as it was the case of Fanshawe and the critic in The Locked Room or Blue and Black in the Ghosts. They try to find their lives by putting a mirror in front of another person’s lives and see their image reflected in the crooked glass of the other’s lives.

    This malady has an external symptom and that is people are incapable of having any control over their speeches. Such speeches are traceable in the machine like and contradictory sentences of Quinn in The City of Glass. Most of the characters in the novel find that their lives are controlled by unknown hands and they have no mastery over them. They are simply drawn to certain reactions in the crowded bustling city of New York which everyone is busy thinking about him or herself. WORKS CITED Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. , 2006.

    Bertens, Hans. Literary Theories: The Basics. New York: Rutledge, 2001. Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Paul Auster. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. Bressler, Charles. E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 4th ed. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007. Donovan, Christopher. “Postmodern Counter-narratives”. Literary Criticism and. Cultural Theory. Cain, William. E. General Editor. New York & London:. Routledge, 2005. Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism from Plato to the Present. USA. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005. Keane, Kevin. Doubles in The Locked Room by Paul Auster: Identity in Flux”. Journal. of Language and Culture British and American Language and Culture Vol. 4. Department of Language and Culture School of Humanities and Social Sciences Osaka Prefecture University, 2009. Lacan, Jacques. Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory. Ed by Zizek, Slavoj. Volume I: Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge. 2003. Dor, Joel. Feher Gurewich. Judith. Introduction to the Reading of Lacan: The Unconscious Structured like a Language. London and New York: Other Press, 1998.

    A Lacanian Analysis of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. (2016, Dec 10). Retrieved from

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