Hysteria and Democracy: Exfoliating Difference in Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy
Hysteria and Democracy: Exfoliating Difference in Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy
Citing the narrator’s radical ambivalence about time, history, and the flesh, Maureen Curtin argues that American Genius, A Comedy represents the hysteria of the contemporary “post-political” moment.
Reviewers of Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy share a tendency to list, by which I mean something like those catalogues of highlights and lowlights which mark the incipience of a new calendar year - except that the reviewers’ lists lack even that much rationale. Indeed, with the exception of an obvious homology between skin and textiles, the “lists” make the objects of the narrator’s obsessiveness appear altogether disparate. Reviewers may be pardoned for leaving us with this impression, inasmuch as the narrator, Helen, acknowledges being a “recorder and collector, a listmaker” (52) herself, while also indulging a tendency to digress, with significantly attenuating effects on a narrative which lacks propulsion and, instead, creates the odd sense that we are always beginning again. Thus continuously detoured, we find ourselves mired in rumination rather than driven by narrative; time is at once ample, boundless, and peculiarly claustrophobic. That the narrator should be of two minds about time, meanwhile, is a function of a radical shift in her intellectual interests, from an academic study of history to a fascination with design - the former concerned with conflict and transformation and the latter with the suspension, indeed preemption, of both. I propose that the narrator’s change of allegiance marks her investment in a “post-political” program which privileges the synchronic, attends to structures, and yields to automatism, on the one hand, and simultaneously abjures dialectics, the teleological, and the subject, on the other.In “Generations of a City: Memory, Prophecy, Responsibilities,” Derrida elaborates on the post-political in terms of the continuous restructuring or rebuilding of cities and, more specifically, architectures. In the passage that follows, Derrida reveals the extent to which a preoccupation with spatiality underwrites arguments about the post-political while offering a critique of Hegelian dialectics: “What makes possible the living community of the generations who live in and construct the city…is the paradoxical renunciation of the absolute tower, of the total city which reaches the sky: it is the acceptance of what a logician would perhaps call the axiom of incompleteness….It is necessary to inscribe, and to thematize, the respect for this non-knowledge in architectural and urbanistic science or know-how. Otherwise, what would one do other than apply programs, totalize, saturate, suture, asphyxiate?” In Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, Tim Brennan offers a compelling way to read a move like Derrida’s, which, “allergically recoils from the Hegelian notion of a progressive telos to history and is therefore drawn methodologically to a synchronic analysis, expressed in metaphors of spatiality” (136).
Not surprisingly, however, this investment is hedged, for the narrator is haunted by history, and she is, moreover, hysterical, a condition which indicates, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, “a radically ambiguous protest against [the] Master’s interpolation [sic] which simultaneously bears witness to the fact that the hysterical subject needs a Master, that she cannot do without a Master” (Žižek, “Woman”). The hysteric, in short, makes power visible, but to understand how her protest belies accounts of ours as a post-political age first requires rescuing this condition from reduction to spectacular skin shows. That is, though Jean-Martin Charcot’s notorious skin projects are at times relevant to American Genius, A Comedy, I argue that skin ultimately functions as a figure enabling us to chart the distance that Helen travels from history to design. At the same time, I propose that the novel’s fetishization of skin invites us to consider whether the hysteria Helen exhibits ought to be celebrated as a constitutive condition of democracy or whether hysteria registers democracy’s limit, makes the case for a return to dialectics, and ultimately calls on intellectuals to acknowledge and engage with rather than bracket politics. While psychoanalysis informs my discussion at every turn, I want to heed Tim Brennan’s Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right and his critique of the “psychoanalytic politics of pop Lacanianism, where one posits the body as a substitute regime for mere government” (Brennan 151).
Written a dozen years ago, Out of Touch: Skin Tropes and Identities in Woolf, Ellison, Pynchon, and Acker, emerged, on the one hand, from my disappointment that literary critics consistently refused to engage the politics of race registered by skin - claiming to be plumbing well below the skin’s surface for matters of real substance - and, on the other hand, from my dissatisfaction with the way that feminist theorists treated the modification or transgression of skin as a politics in its own right. Whereas liberal humanists took shelter from politics “under the skin,” feminists, especially those informed by Foucault and Derrida, invoked skin either as a staging ground for contravening biopolitics or as a surface on which a new politics might be writ. The latter tendency derived from accounts of the body which posited skin as a homology for textuality and which, furthermore, took as their premise the priority of language and ineluctability of discourse in order to make the case that “woman” is an historical phenomenon, not an essential condition. Ironically, the broader theoretical embrace of the structuralist insistence on language as synchronic and discourse as pre-eminent which also underpins so many feminist interventions - “writing the body” - illuminates a disastrous turn away from history and politics in contemporary theory. In the place of politics, feminists especially have pursued a program of performativity, which promises agency and, in its self-consciousness, a sophisticated alternative to identity projects. For all of the critique of identity inaugurated by feminists, however, the performativity program, with its endless deferrals and recursiveness, fails as dramatically as identity projects do. That is, where identity itself can be characterized as a symptom of a withdrawal from and perhaps a sublimation of historical conflict, performativity is best understood as a project to dissolve agency and subtract the dialectic - the very conditions of conflict, revolution, and freedom. If anything, a good deal of contemporary theory has appropriated skin because, understood as the conflation of the material and textual, the skin appears as an index of the body in the world and thus offers an easy way to make the ubiquitous campaign to re-write the body seem substantive and transformative, while simultaneously shrouding the extent to which such discursive interventions fail to yield political transformation.
So if in Out of Touch, I was working to make skin visible and “identity” is what emerged, here I wish to contend that Tillman’s novel dramatizes skin as a trace of the subject - a subject which has not yet disappeared altogether into discourse - and I propose, furthermore, that skin forms the novel’s most insistent locus of recursion, as though it were the spur to recur. In order to understand the relationship between skin and recursion, I take a detour through film, by way of Jonathan Auerbach’s essay, “Chasing Film Narrative: Repetition, Recursion, and the Body in Early Cinema”. At first glance, Auerbach’s investigation might seem hardly apropos at all, especially insofar as he focuses on the convention of the “chase,” suggesting something far more ambulatory and urgent than anything in American Genius, A Comedy. Meanwhile, though some have speculated that Tillman’s novel is situated in something like a sanitorium, it is hardly an asylum like that which provides the backdrop for Biograph’s The Escaped Lunatic (1903), one of the filmic texts central to Auerbach’s discussion. Nevertheless, self-imposed isolation renders Helen, a one-time academic in history, virtually locked in her cabin where she, like most of the residents, burrow away from one another and yet long for each other’s distraction; the institutional arrangement, meanwhile, does seem to call for residence on a voluntary basis, a condition which, for example, makes a dramatic performance of captivity intolerable and, ironically, grounds for expulsion. Helen, in her oblique way, intimates that those who crave captivity seek an escape from contingency:
Jerry Lewis throws away socks after he wears them once, and I’d like to do that, because it may be wrong and is certainly indulgent, and also because doing laundry is repetitive, and throwing away socks makes less laundry…but now I’m not certain what’s a waste of time, or what’s nothing, since I may find something when not looking, and because time is all we have inexplicably. Almost lackadaisically, I toss a pitcher of water onto the blazing fire, dousing it while explaining to myself the reasons I shouldn’t have, because I’ll have to deal with the aftermath later, but I do anyway, as it’s urgent that I leave the room, a temporary shelter or refuge, though some people refuse to accept temporariness, although it’s all there is. A woman chained herself to her bed, a man boarded his door against intruders and they were removed, forcibly… (Tillman 124)
Implicitly, Helen proposes that repetition is at once a buffer against the contingencies of time and a prison of nothing but time, and though she is fairly certain that she does not yearn for captivity - imagining free-wheeling consumption as its antidote - she only occasionally yields to the urge to burst through her well-circumscribed locus the way she plans to in this passage.
Urgency, rather, tends to find relief in fantasy as we discover at the novel’s inception where, alone in her cabin, Helen recollects pleasures she enjoys in the “cramped, dingy space” beyond the collective, a salon where she routinely indulges in facials; thus, we find the narrator triply enclosed: in her residence, in her fantasy, and in her skin. Contrary to Lucy Ellman’s suggestion in “Woman Worrier,” that the narrator “all but flays herself alive, peeling off layer after intricate later, to give us a sense of what she’s thinking,” Helen is assiduous about protecting her skin and curiously reticent about what she thinks, finally. That is, in the absence of routine facials during her stay at the residence, she distracts herself with an endless swell of digressions worthy of Scheherazade. Encyclopedic, banal, and yet often quite funny, a deluge of digressions simultaneously signal acute and minute observation - both external and internal - as well as constant deferral (including well-sustained accounts of skin itself), but at a rate that makes it impossible to say with any certainty what Helen thinks. Moreover, the ceaseless repetition of her digressions, each iteration issued as though for the first time, makes it seem the narrator and reader are, alike, held captive, suspended in and out of time. Much of what drives the novel, then, is what appears to be a tension between a claim of temporariness and the rival, totalizing claim that time is “all we have,” that time is “all there is.”
A comparable tension in temporality structures The Escape of the Lunatic. Eschewing the obvious answer to the question of why the lunatic runs - “he is crazy” - Auerbach suggests that madness in the film is
less a cause than a symptom of a broader kind of corporeal hysteria that marks these chase films generally….[the] impatient pacing [of a deluded Napoleon] marks what Andrey Tarkovsky…suggestively calls cinematic ‘time-pressure,’ the sense that time is ‘imprinted in the frame’ and ‘runs through the shot.’ An impotent bundle of pent-up energy confined to a locked room, the inmate embodies the urge - shared by filmmaker and spectator - to break free from the restrictions of the imprisoning fixed frame and the limited potential for narrative it contains. When he goes through the window and out the frame (his prison cell), he literally seeks to escape the bonds/bounds of the single shot format. (Auerbach 805)
The emphasis here is on time as a palpable and overriding effect of the single shot format, so relentless as to constitute a prison and precipitate a kind of madness - a psychological state with a physical corollary for the inmate, whose accumulated energy is embodied in pacing, “impatient[ly]” and “impotently.” The ensuing escape and chase, however, belies the contention that such films form a “kind of ground zero for film narrative,” since, as Auerbach maintains, “once this anarchistic energy is released outdoors, and the camera begins to track the madman running, we discover that he truly has nowhere to go” (806). He makes the case for the nullity of the chase based on the near absence of “matching cuts on action…so that all of the next eleven shots follow no special order and are virtually interchangeable with one another” and its culmination in the escapee’s voluntary return to his cell (806). What appears initially as a rupture, a breakthrough or, simply, a break from the single shot format, ultimately fails to yield narrative; the lunatic’s flight amounts to little more than unmotivated, “automatic” running, disclosing neither a “geography” nor a chronology. Characterizing this as “recursion” and refusing to attribute it to the individual filmmaker, Auerbach proposes that we treat the chase as a suitable analogy for the film’s structural ambivalence, which, in turn, makes the film an “allegory enacting the problematic of film history itself, oscillating between one mode of representation and another” (810). His notion of recursion in the film seems quite apt as a way to characterize the digressiveness of Tillman’s novel more than a century later, particularly insofar as American Genius, A Comedy rarely seems to suffer the kind of cuts that would enable us to treat it, even minimally, as a series of discrete scenes arranged in any particular order. Nor is Tillman’s novel constituted through structurally parallel scenes which resonate episodically, but, rather, it is a stream of ruminations which recur and dilate, consistently waylaying the few acts Helen risks undertaking.
Insofar as Auerbach treats the lunatic as primarily a figure which functions self-reflexively to signal a “transition” in technology specific to the turn of the twentieth-century, it might seem an irrelevant exercise to pursue a more nuanced account of the lunatic in juxtaposition with Tillman’s narrator. But given that Auerbach also suggests that “the chase’s recursive pattern more generally derives from a certain hysterical formation…that centers on anxieties about the human body” (810), we have reason to pause a little longer and explore the continuity between the figures at the center of The Escape of the Lunatic and American Genius, A Comedy, respectively. The anxieties about the human body that the film dramatizes seem best understood within the critical parameters provided by Mark Seltzer, whom Auerbach cites: “Early cinema’s chase film at the turn of the last century thus represents one important example of what Mark Seltzer has called naturalist dramas of uncertain agency wherein ‘the principle of locomotion which in liberal market culture is the sign of agency is in machine culture the sign of automatism’ ” (807). Though Auerbach invokes Seltzer’s analysis to suggest that the genre of the chase film represents nothing so much as anxiety about agency, much of Auerbach’s argument elides the agency of the lunatic, perhaps as a way to extinguish the very anxiety he invokes; put another way, Auerbach proposes that the lunatic, interpolated into mechanism of observation (both the prison and the film), is not driven to escape because of an internal imperative - especially not from a desire for freedom - but, rather, he escapes in a spectacular exercise meant to reveal the disciplinary power of social mechanisms. Auerbach suggests the extent of the film’s disciplinary power when he observes the occlusion of geography which, in turn, seems to produce time as purely something the lunatic “does” in a well-sealed, filmic circuit; further, in a gesture that reveals how deeply his account is indebted to Foucault, Auerbach implies that the lunatic’s locomotion is mere resistance, incorporated into or co-opted by the machine.
More than a century after Biograph produced The Escaped Lunatic and quite some time since neo-liberalism articulated itself through the matrix of machine culture, substituting locomotion for agency, Tillman’s American Genius dramatizes this development. For instance, Helen remarks on wanting, as a child, “to run along, not to be bothered by anyone,” and fearing “quitting or failing [as well as] people I perceived as static, who carried immobility in them. I wanted to move, had to keep moving, or I’d die. Without realizing it, I was an American” (Tillman159). Here she explicitly links movement, or locomotion, with U.S. nationalism which, elsewhere, she phrases in terms of manifest destiny. In what follows, we see how Helen links locomotion and citizenship, on the one hand, and, on the other, U.S. imperialism and the celebration of capitalism, which F.T. Marinetti made famous in his futurist manifesto:
My father and mother urged me to do things fast, it was important to them, and even now that my mother is very old, she grows impatient when I or she can’t accomplish a goal quickly, and one day I asked her, ‘Why is speed so important?’ Without glancing at me, continuing to knit a yellow sweater for her internist’s granddaughter, not missing a stitch, though her hands tremble, my mother said: ‘Speed’s the thing.’ Then I realized that modernity had a room in her old body. (Tillman 196)
Speed’s allure is the chance to triumph over time, deflect interrogation, remain ageless, and indeed, inhibit memory, which falters where Helen’s mother’s hands do not. If, furthermore, modernity has a “room in her old body,” as Helen suggests, then one might imagine that it has usurped the place that has come to register as the “space” in a woman’s body: the womb. As such, modernity seems one of those tenants whose protracted tenure makes it eligible for “rent-control” status, which is to say that one might infer Helen has had to sublet there, for nine months or so. Bathed in modernity, Helen has acquired a range of remarkable sensitivities, including a host of allergies, which mostly coalesce around a dermatographic condition not unlike that which Jean-Martin Charcot catalogued and photographed in the Salpetriere hospital in the decades before Biograph produced The Escape of the Lunatic.
In The Book of Skin, Stephen Connor observes that dermatographism “exercised a particular hold upon the imaginations of medical writers in France” and particularly Charcot, for whom
The process of deciphering the complex patterns of symptoms on and beneath the skins…was certainly itself long and laborious, and some of the symptoms were strangely and puzzlingly various. But at the heart of the theory of hysteria is a conception of the body permanently marked in an instant, at the speed of light; by the flashpoint of trauma, or by the cataleptic fixation induced by sounds or sudden shocks….The skin exhibited by hysteria is immediate, discontinuous and spasmodic, like the modern world itself. (Connor 135)
Whereas Charcot insisted that his patients, largely women, perform their hysterical conditions as spectacle - either for the camera or in theatrical settings in the hospital - Tillman’s narrator experiences the intensification of her symptoms while a spectator at a play centered on Franz Kafka, with whom she would appear to have something in common: a father whose status as a “persecutor and a pleaser” she remarks on quite explicitly in the midst of the play (Tillman 228). In his discussion of the Name-of-the-Father, Žižek advances an elaborate analysis of an identical, paradoxical fantasy in Kafka’s writings, where the author documented feeling persecuted under his father’s excessive authority, an “obscene superego” to which the writer was nevertheless attached (Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes 88). Žižek proposes that Kafka’s fantasy screens him from his father’s impotence; in other words, both patriarchs abdicate their positions as the “Big Other.” In Helen’s case, a full-blown episode of dermatographia follows from seeing this abdication dramatized: “My skin seethes with vermiculations, which promiscuously derange my body…” (Tillman 229). The “vermiculations” with which her skin seethes conjures both the abject and the aesthetic, conflated to startle the imagination.
This hysterical episode is best understood in the light of an earlier reflection in which Helen invokes skin to elucidate her turn from history to embrace design, while in the process suggesting continuity across sovereignty and empire:
…I could be a mole, my skin pulling and drawing, prickly, demanding that I shed it and everything else, too, to begin again in a common but unique American fantasy of life as an entirely different person with a virgin’s body whose hymen, a membrane of thin skin protecting an essential orifice that, once penetrated, effects a change whose connotations deny it a single definition, and is also just another frontier. Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that ‘waves’ of human movement westward defined the character of the American nation… (Tillman 90)
The literary figures gathered in a palimpsest here are dense, and to see the intertwining juxtapositions more clearly it is helpful to identify each discretely. In the first instance, Helen imagines herself as a mole on the skin, “demanding” sui generis transformation, the very phenomenon which drew Alexis de Tocqueville’s scrutiny and elicited this version of the American experiment: “Picture to yourself … a society possessing no roots, no memories, prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character” (qtd. in Sollers 1). Or, as Joan Copjec puts it Read My Desire, “If all our citizens can be said to be Americans, this is not because we share any positive characteristics but rather because we have all been given the right to shed these characteristics, to present ourselves as disembodied before the law” (146). The difference between Tocqueville and Copjec seems to arise from the former’s emphasis on the American disavowal of history, and the latter’s emphasis on the disavowal of the body. Copjec is critical of contemporary historical orthodoxy for proposing to rescue the disavowed body - or what she calls the universal subject - by adding back in “positive characteristics.” Providing a thicker description, for some historians, would confer specificity on the democratic subject and thereby bolster its defenses against voracious sovereignty and its corollary: an imperial imperative. But if, instead, for Copjec the universal subject is a condition for democratic politics, the “virgin” that Helen proposes as the quintessential democratic subject is, surprisingly, more like Nietzsche’s hero in her infinite potential for creation and self-invention. That “virgin” should also serve as Helen’s metaphor for the “frontier,” moreover, tells us that she sees imperial movement as an opportunity, one that affords the pleasure of personal triumph if not significant material profit. The dialectic has been eclipsed by the aesthetic.
Thus, while Helen’s rhetorical figures suggest a preoccupation with the threats that imperialism poses the virginal, her pedagogical practice reveals her taking a more sanguine position: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave, the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Tillman 90). Whereas her contention that “our American civilization can be treated as a series of periods” would seem to confirm an account of history as dialectical, we quickly come to realize that Helen resists seeing history as produced through class conflicts (Tillman 90). Rather, Helen proposes that the “series of periods” forming American civilization are constituted by “individual colonists or members overcoming their own savagery” (Tillman 90). There is much to remark here, not least of all how easily Helen conceives of “colonists” as “individuals,” as though their acts can be extricated from the systematic violence of the colonial project; equally mystifying is Helen’s characterization of “overcoming” as purely an internal, psychological mechanism. In this way, Helen reduces broad political conflict and social development to the individual subject’s confrontation with an inherent savagery. If the notion of taming savagery is not easily reconciled with a Nietzschean perspective, we can nevertheless discern in Helen’s philosophy certain affiliate notions, particularly where she observes “the nation’s theoretical similarity to a fetus’s development … except [that], in the case of the American political and social body, the fetus is born over or born again, and the infant introduced into a new context, but without advancement, repeats it all” (Tillman 90). Hostile to a telos and committed to beginning always again and again, there is no room in Helen’s landscape for genuine conflict and transformation; the dialectic has been displaced, subsumed, and psychologized and, not surprisingly, the Master, or what Copjec and Zizek might call the Big Other, is notably missing.
In Hegel’s account, the veiling of the Master inhibits slaves’ awakening to class consciousness and their chances for freedom; in Helen’s account, the veiling of the Master inhibits sovereignty and empire and gives rise to self-control. Above all, though, for the post-political like Helen, freedom is best expressed as a flight from history; it is ironic, then, that she should offer an historical narrative that locates the origin of her own turn from history to design in a larger cultural shift:
Not long after Turner published his paper [on the frontier as “meeting point between savagery and civilization”], which he delivered first as a lecture in the 1893 World’s Fair, the Viennese architect and designer Adolf Loos, in his essay ‘Crime and Ornament,’ used a similar ontological argument… . The relationship between Turner and Loos marked a moment when thinking about American history and international art and design collided, at least theoretically. (Tillman 91)
The collision between history and design to which Helen alludes here appears purely a “theoretical” one, for in her own narrative, the shift from history to design is accomplished in a dramatic leap rather than through a dialectical conflict. Absent the Master or Big Other, the vermiculations that seethe across Helen’s skin later in the novel bear no resemblance to the western waves of U.S. expansion but, instead, appear to the narrator as little more than a wavy, winding pattern, with neither origin nor telos. At most, the vermiculations, which seethe and derange, have purely psychological purchase for Helen. While psychology has, of course, made great currency of derangement, I propose that we consider its derivation from the Old French, “desregnier,” which signals a disturbance in rank, and, then, more broadly, the disordering of the plans of a commander or the affairs of a nation.”The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following etymological information on “derange”: “[(18th c.) a. mod. F. déranger, in Contgr. (1611) desranger ‘to disranke, disarray, disorder”, in O.F. desrengier…mod.F. rang RANK, order.” The word is defined thus: “1. Trans. To disturb or destroy the arrangement or order of; to throw into confusion; to disarrange.” A second, obsolete definition, borrowed from Webster 1828, reveals that “derange” at one time referred to a removal “ ‘from place or office, as the personal staff of a principal military officer.’” This obsolete definition is supplemented by and illustrated in John Ogilvie’s The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language (1883), which notes, “to derange the plans of a commander or the affairs of the nation.”That the vermiculations also “seethe” invites another etymological foray; in the Middle English, “seething” denotes churning and foaming, as in a boil, an apt metaphor for foment. The Oxford English Dictionary records the following use of “seethe”: “5. fig. To be in a state of inward agitation, turmoil, or ‘ferment’. Said of a person in trouble, fever, etc.; of plans, elements of discontent or change; also of a region filled with excitement, disaffection, etc…” Though several examples do suggest individual illness, nearly as many reveal the use of “seethe” to characterize a state of political agitation.Helen’s hysterical episode thus marks her withdrawal from the dialectic and discloses the only freedom available to those who subscribe to the post-political: anarchy.
I would suggest that when Lacan tells us that language carves up the body, ‘Witness the hysteric,’ he is speaking of a more unkind cut than that which merely carves out (or defines) a body image through which the subject will assume its being. The cut to which Lacan refers instead carves up (divides) the body image and thus drives the subject to seek its being beyond that which its image presents to it; it causes the subject always to find in its image something lacking. (Copjec 51)
As Copjec, Connor, and Beizer suggest, a great deal of contemporary theory, including feminist critique, has flourished on the premise that everything from gender to desire, from nature to history, from the body to political authority has been “carve[d] out” or constituted discursively, and still more theory proliferates on the question of whether resistance might be effected (or, better still, power derived) through re-inscription or whether such re-inscriptions merely yield to renewed appropriations. Copjec is less interested in this debate, however, than she is in the crucial point missed in emphasizing our being carved out rather than “carved up”: the modern subject emerges in misrecognition, a fantasy sparked when an idealized Other returns a blind stare, thereby effecting an identification founded on mutual occlusion and foundering on lack while nevertheless leaving intact a singularity that the Other, a “power…disjoined from knowledge,” cannot account for.
Not only does this singularity or difference withstand the Other, it also motivates, but never yields to, a ceaseless quest to procure something to fill the lack s/he does not fully register. Thus, Copjec recapitulates the psychoanalytic account of the hysteric:
Lacan is asking us to witness the paralyses and anesthesias of the hysteric, those blind spots in consciousness, those spaces of inattention that mark the point where something is missing in the hysteric’s image of herself. The fact that she is constructed by society’s language means to the hysteric that part of her body will not be visible, or present to her. (Copjec 51)
Though it may be difficult to imagine that Helen misses anything in her extraordinary acuity, she does establish, as she takes inventory of her co-residents early in the novel, that she is absent to herself:
[The young married man’s] appetite sets him apart from many of the others, while his grumpiness, which may come from missing his home, since he receives many telephone calls from his wife and makes many to his mother, also distinguishes him. I’m not sure what I miss, I often think I miss nothing, that there is nothing to miss, and yet I’m aware that I do, since I am often missing to myself. (Tillman 11)
Home is the source of what’s missing for the young married man who shuttles, Oedipally, between calls from his wife and calls to his mother, whereas Helen has left no one behind, except, perhaps, her mother whose general affect seems to have put her among the lost, long before her splintering memory does. A certain measure of homelessness, then, may explain why Helen is initially tentative about the relevance of loss or lack, may explain why she resists or, at least, appears to resist articulating what she might be missing in the terms psychoanalysis provides; instead, she translates psychic loss into physical blindness, a gap in her observation. Once she acknowledges the gap in her observation, though, she rather seamlessly conflates that gap with “nothing,” until, finally, conceding that she might be the “nothing” which functions as the source of the occlusion. In other words, Helen concedes that the gap in her vision might just as easily be a gap in herself or, rather, she considers the possibility that she has become hidden in (her own) plain sight, thanks to what Joan Copjec calls an “indeterminate something” or, following Lacan, the objet petit a (56). If Helen, at times caught up in the rapaciousness of her observations, seems to play a quintessentially panoptic role, she does periodically sense the constitutive blindness of the position and yields to the jouissance of the objet petit a, or, in her case, the pleasures of the skin which, undulating and alarming, receives and yet escapes her microscopic attention. Helen thus exemplifies the case that Copjec makes for the subject in the modern democratic state:
Democracy hystericizes the subject….If one’s difference is, by definition, that which escapes recognition, then any recognition of it will always seem to miss the mark, to leave something unremarked. The subject of democracy is thus constantly hystericized, divided between the signifiers that seek to name it and the enigma that refuses to be named. (Copjec 150)
In effect, Helen’s digressiveness, rather than her dermatographia, provides the strongest evidence of hysteria. But I would argue that disgressiveness is not a condition, in itself, adequate to democracy. Indeed, Helen fails to seize the opportunity afforded by the gap between signifiers and the enigma that refuses to be named; she neither desists in her habit of beginning again, nor does she act. Instead, she returns to her skin.
Contending that skin serves as the objet petit for Helen, as the “indeterminate something” which escapes recognition, may seem implausible insofar as her preoccupation with her own skin is, in itself, tantamount to fetishization. Yet if we recall that the objet petit a comes to stand in for a lack and the fetish functions as a disavowal of that lack, then we can trace how skin works to enable Helen to entertain and disavow the sign of her father: textiles, or as she playfully refers to them bundled in a singular mass, the “Fabric Monolith” (266). He has bought textiles, sold them, weighed them, cut them, and, in times of rationing, even innovated synthetics, while taking great pleasure and luxuriating in them. He turns an equally discriminating eye on his daughter. For instance, if not for her father, Helen would have neither knowledge nor proof of the birthmark which he characterizes as a “cherry” and which, he insists, “would be a way to identify [her] always” (82). Uncertain as to why she might need to be identified, she conjures up scenarios from which she would be absent: killed during a war or amnesiac after a fainting spell. In her father’s vision, Helen’s “cherry” is a defining mark, a means of identification even though its persistence over time is cast in doubt; despite the fact that Helen cannot recollect whether it appears on the back of her right or left thigh; and in the absence of all medical documentation. Indeed, the birthmark functions as an index of identity only insofar as death is its corollary; while she is alive, the mark eludes Helen, yet in death, the mark will claim her, asserting an identity on her behalf or, rather, in lieu of her.
Helen’s fantasmatic birthmark thus seems to invert the trajectory of Georgiana’s birthmark in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic tale where, some critics contend, Alymer succeeds in extinguishing his wife while also extinguishing the objet petit a which drives his own desire - the tiny crimson hand, “deeply interwoven” (301) on her cheek. As in Georgiana’s case, however, Helen’s birthmark acquires its significance in the eyes of a patriarch; Helen’s father implicitly confers sexuality on the mark by insisting on its abatement, in perpetuity, under the sign of a woman’s virginity: the cherry, itself a metaphor for the hymen. Helen waves off the interdiction, noting, finally, “The cherry isn’t part of my medical records…. [The family doctor’s] files must be lost or were discarded after his death, and unless I pointedly remark, Please note the cherry birthmark on the back of my upper thigh, and record that in my file, no one will know about it, it wouldn’t identify me” (82). Significantly, Helen neither rules the cherry in nor out, but, instead, preserves its indeterminacy, preempting identity and death simultaneously.
The indeterminate something which Helen’s father hopes to secure - by fixing his daughter’s sexuality - ultimately eludes documentation. That the objet petit a might provide the condition for reinvention, meanwhile, does not make it commensurate with the “unique American fantasy of life” I invoked earlier in the discussion of seething vermiculations that derange Helen’s body. That fantasy of shedding our skin to “begin again…as an entirely different person with a virgin’s body whose hymen, a membrane of thin skin protecting an essential orifice that, once penetrated, effects a change whose connotations deny it a single definition” (Tillman 90) is framed with subtle allusions to Gulliver among the Lilliputians and Brobdignagians as well as to Alice in Wonderland; that is, Helen suggests that her “scales” are frequently inaccurate and, as a result, she perceives herself growing and, alternately, shrinking. She is gigantic one moment and puny the next - a phallic dynamic which illuminates the notion of ceaselessly renewed virginity (Tillman 90). Under such an arrangement, penetration of the hymen effects a proliferation of signifiers that do not coalesce in a “single definition,” but, rather, resist the seductions of determinism, a resistance which seems, on the one hand, a hallmark of democracy; for Helen whose digressiveness often amounts to beginning again and again, it is easy to see the allure and error of this prospect.
If we were to follow Lucy Irigaray for a moment, we might say that the phallic fantasy requires a ceaseless splitting and suturing of the hymen in a structure meant to contain the indeterminate something or “the undecidability” of woman, as Sharon Nell puts it in “Sadistic and Masochistic Contracts in Voltaire’s La pucelle d’Orléans and Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne; or What Does the Hymen Want?” (Nell 220). Likewise echoing Irigaray, Derrida notes the “related etymologies of ‘hymn’ (hymne) and ‘hymen’: both words signify weaving and creating a text” (qtd. in Nell 204), reminding us, of course, that the displacement of the hymen in the cherry birthmark on Helen’s skin owes itself to her father, a textile maker himself whose devotion to his fabric both composes him and incites desire in his daughter who “one day… wanted to be absorbed, too” (Tillman 191). The emergence of Helen’s remarkably intense allergies and skin sensitivities testifies to the disavowal of this wish even as her digressiveness mimics her father’s habit of writing “over individual letters to make them clearer” - only to make “graphic the insecurity he felt” (Tillman 200). More consciously reckoning with her father - the blind Big Other, the impotent Master - would enable Helen to attend to what Copjec calls a “different notion of difference” and to escape absorption by the tyranny of her own fantasy of the persecuting/pleasing father.
According to Copjec, this escape would arise from a sense of difference which does not “demand to be attended to now, recognized now, but one that waits to be exfoliated in time and through a relation to others” (Copjec 151, my emphasis). The exfoliation that Copjec here trumpets diverges, of course, from the facial treatments in which Helen indulges quite routinely. According to Copjec’s vision, the democratic subject not only has potential for realization and transformation on a horizon we might call the future; what is more, a subject emerging from the dialectic has the capacity to revolutionize the past. Copjec’s exfoliations are not Helen’s however. On the contrary, Helen eschews the dialectic, and the narrative closes with her indulging in still another facial, from under which she speculates about a world of fantasy in which wishes, alone, can give rise to history and revolution:
I realized that, if you have wishes against all reason, immune to reality, if you have wishes no matter what, then the wish trumps everything, always, and so in a sense, nothing else matters as much. There it was, the triumph of the wish. This notion satisfied me, though if valid or true, it wouldn’t permit satisfaction…and instead ache like unanswered lust. Still, wishes foment relationships, history, design, there are so many wishes, unacknowledged longings for the impossible precede every endeavor, and consequently, there are so many failures, but then there are significant exceptions, history often tells the story of exceptions. I might wish to make my skin immaterial and stop itching. (Tillman 286)
In the post-political world Helen trumpets, we are left to wonder whether Jacqueline Rose’s warning to postmodernists is not, itself, a bit wishful: “The carapace of selfhood and nations cannot be willed - does not fall so easily away” (2).
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