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The Ego, the Self and the Subject in Paul Auster’s Fictions

Catherine ROGER

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1In Paul Auster’s fiction, the self can become the other very easily because it has no cohesion or continuity. Yet the subject speaks loud and clear, even though it cannot be grasped easily. Paul Auster’s fiction mostly deals with the unconscious. The conscious part of the self spies on the intimate, secret, unconscious self, so as to see through its workings. A split between conscious and unconscious selves occurs during writing and it is this process that Auster stages in his poetry and in his prose. Not only does the individual criss-cross his own inner world but he also explores the outside world. After coping with his inner conflicts, he attempts to adapt to society. Yet two possibilities for confusion crop up. The “I” in Auster’s works is both the subject of French Lacanian psychology and the self of American psychology. On the one hand, the subject is both present and impossible and the whole of Auster’s writing turns around “aphanisis,” the process by which a subject disappears as soon as it has appeared to consciousness. Dissociation, alienation and imperfection characterize the subject which is inaccessible by nature. On the other hand, the “I” is also the ego and the self of American psychology in Auster’s works. The American self has nothing to do with the Freudian self: it is a complex blend of conscious and unconscious. The self of Auster’s fiction is situated in between Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein’s ego-psychology and Kohut’s self-psychology. It partakes both of the Lacanian subject and Kohut’s self. Writing enables Auster to stage the fundamental alienation of the subject and to find out how to prop up, back up a weak, fragmented self, how to give it cohesion and continuity. Finally, by questioning the subject, Auster makes it more present than ever in his fiction.

2In this essay, I intend to show that the “I” in Auster’s works partakes both of the subject of French Lacanian psychology and the self of American psychology and that, in his fiction, Auster gradually moves away from the former and comes to accept the latter while deriding it. In a way, Auster’s works can be considered as the successive steps of an existential quest which can be summed up thus: after coping with his inner conflicts, the individual tries to adapt to society - except that none of these tasks is ever over, it has to be performed again and again in each work. Such a terse definition of Auster’s writing deserves a little explanation.

3The unconscious is a repository of signifiers, both visual and auditory, that are repressed at the oedipal moment when incestuous desire for the mother is no longer perceived to be acceptable by the ego. What’s unconscious in mental life is also infantile, it is the initial, primitive part of psychical life. The unconscious is inaccessible to contradiction, location and time. It pays no attention to the demands of external reality and seeks to satisfy pleasure rather than be regulated by the reality principle to which the ego is subject. It is a system which is in direct and continual conflict with the ego, in a constant state of resistance due to the striving of the wishes to obtain immediate satisfaction. Thus Auster’s characters act despite their conscious will: when Quinn goes to Stillman’s appartment in City of Glass, when Jim Nashe criss-crosses America in The Music of Chance, they obey the demands of the unconscious. The ego combines common usage of the word: the image one has of oneself, the conscious data, the knowable information about oneself, and an accepted use in psychoanalytic theory: one agency among others functioning within the psyche (Freud’s ego, superego and id). The ego and the conscious do not coincide exactly in so far as the ego strives to maintain repression of the unconscious. In Auster’s fiction, characters are on the lookout for the unconscious. Quinn in City of Glass claims the writer is a detective spying on “the tiny life-bud of the body buried in the breathing self” (9). Lacan takes up the Freudian ego: the mirror stage becomes a decisive step in ego-identity in which the ego constructs an image of unity, permanence, and substantiality, but which is marked by the misrecognition and alienation inherent in the reflected specular image. Moreover, Lacan thinks that the center of the human being is not the ego, but the subject which sometimes corresponds to what Freud calls the id. The unconscious, according to Lacan is “that which vacillates in a split in the subject” (Four Fundamental 28). Unconscious discourse is other to conscious discourse and it speaks to the self through the symptom. Moreover, Lacan distinguishes between need, demand and desire. Whereas need belongs to the realm of the Real (it is short-lived and instinctual, it can be satisfied easily), demand belongs to the realm of the Imaginary (it is a call to the other, to the Imaginary mother, to the image in the mirror), desire belongs to the realm of the Symbolic. Desire is the hallmark of the subject, it is insatiable and unfulfillable, predicated on lack and absence. The desire of the subject is the desire of the Other. Lacan defines the subject as forever wanting and privileges the Other as the locus of want, lack and speech. Auster’s characters are forever trying to grasp otherness in themselves. The desire of the other is called “hunger” in Paul Auster’s fiction. It is what motivates his characters, what makes them walk endlessly. They are subjects because they are forever wanting (The inhabitants of the City in In the Country of Last Things are insatiable “The stomach is a bottomless pit” - Marco Fogg in Moon Palace almost starves himself to death, hoping that someone will take pity on him and rescue him, which finally happens since Kitty Wu comes to his help - characters cultivate that hunger both as a rejection of society and a call to the other).

4Impossibility, alienation and imperfection characterize the subject in Paul Auster’s poetry. A voice can be heard but it corresponds to a subject which is divided, alienated in the Other. The poem White Nights (1972) starts with this line of verse: “No one here” and ends with “And each night, / from the silence of the trees, you know / that my voice / comes walking toward you.” The subject is alienated to itself: “The wall / is your only witness. Barred / from me, but squandering nothing, / you sprawl over each unwritten page...” (Unearth II). Its whereabouts cannot be mapped. While the poet keeps mentioning his wish to discover a true, personal language (the true seed - the seed of a single voice - the clandestine word - a flower), words come out corrupted, tainted, alien: language bespeaks the alienation of the subject (the babble - the rant - the mob - the work of sabotage - the skull’s rabble). Lacan teaches that language speaks the subject, that the speaker is subjected to language rather than master of it. The subject is hidden from view, it has to speak to give birth to itself, but the hoped-for clandestine word is forever replaced by “the hundred-faced lie that makes you visible” (Unearth XII). In Auster’s poems, the subject is this “you” which is forever barred from the “I.” Whereas Auster, before 1978, before White Spaces, dwells in his poetry on the voice of the impossible subject, on the inaccessibility, division and alienation of the subject, in White Spaces, he finds a way out of the dilemma: speech becomes as much a function of the body as an extension of the mind “no less a gesture than a hand outstretched  […] and in this gesture can be read the entire alphabet of desire, the body’s need to be taken beyond itself, even as it dwells in the sphere of its own motion” (White Spaces 82).

5Auster has found a clever way of escaping from the impossible and alienated subject as defined by Lacan. “In other words, it says itself, and our mouths are merely the instruments of the saying of it” (White Spaces 84). The subject, the unconscious, says itself through language. Writing remains minimalist “to say the simplest thing possible” and still deals with reality “how much sweeter to remain in the realm of the naked eye,” but, thanks to that leap in the unknown, the “I” achieves full subjectivity at last “as if in an act of blind faith, I want to assume full responsibility.

6While it is true that the subjective stance is an interaction of all three orders (symbolic, imaginary and real), it is only when the individual takes his rightful place in the sociocultural and signifying order that he attains full subjectivity, according to Lacan. Auster no longer refuses otherness and alienation, he embraces it. The poet has become a passive urn which welcomes otherness rather than refuses it. Language speaks the subject: whereas bodies are mere weak and vulnerable puppets, their voices are powerful and come from an alien world. This is the case for Stillman Junior in The City of Glass, but also for Effing in Moon Palace and Jack Pozzi in The Music of Chance. The “I” achieves full subjectivity through acceptance of the symbolic order. True enough, nostalgia for lost and impossible perfection and harmony still pervades Auster’s prose, but it is not hampered by the inability to speak which looms, weighs over his poetry. Alienation condemns the subject to appear only through division. Thus, in the world, we must make a choice between being and meaning: if we choose being, meaning disappears ; if we choose meaning, we can only have it minus that part of nonsense which corresponds to the unconscious. In The Music of Chance, Nashe is again and again compelled to choose between life or freedom. At first, he makes the wrong choice, he chooses freedom and realizes that life has lost all meaning: deprived of all company, he drives aimlessly from one end of the United States to the other. Living means living among others, being concerned with or caring for others, accepting life’s load of responsibilities. Then later on, Nashe meets Jack Pozzi and chooses life again, but what he is given is life minus freedom: they are both Flower and Stone’s prisoners. Finally, Nashe makes the right choice when choosing death, because ultimate freedom is the right to put an end to one’s own life. The general movement of Auster’s fiction is one toward compromise, which is in keeping with the disillusion experienced in life: idealism is gradually superseded by disenchantment (from Marco Fogg to Walt Rawley), absolutism gives way to compromise. Characters gradually come to accept the alienation inherent in life, life minus freedom. Nashe in The Music of Chance, Ben Sachs in Leviathan, Mr Bones in Timbuktu prefer to die rather than accept symbolic castration. In The Book of Illusions, Auster’s latest novel, however, it is not the main character Hector Mann who decides to put an end to his life and set fire to his movies, the work of a lifetime, but his wife who talks him into doing it. Whatever the decision made by the characters in Auster’s fiction, they are all confronted to the same choice: the subject must accept otherness in itself, that part of nonsense, servitude, darkness and death which inhabits it.

7Whereas Lacan explores the domain of the Other, with a capital O, as the locus where the subject originates, American psychology explores the domain of the other, the alter ego, the one the self identifies with. Whereas in the making of a subject all three orders of existence intervene - the real, the imaginary and the symbolic - in the making of the ego, only two orders of existence intervene: the real and the imaginary. Whereas the ego is a series of imaginary identifications necessary to the subject, the subject is a structure dynamically articulating the three orders of existence. Lacan condemns ego-psychology, American psychology, as mired in the imaginary because it promotes an identification between the patient’s ego and the analyst’s. On the contrary, the whole point of French Lacanian psychology is “the return to the subject: what the analyst must do is reply to what he hears. That reply sends back to the subject in inverted form what he was saying (not from his ego but from elsewhere, from the thing, from Es) that he could never hear if he did not hear it returned from the analyst. Thus is accomplished the recognition that is the goal of analysis, recognition not from the other, but from the subject.” (Reading Lacan, Jane Gallop, 109) Whereas in France, the unconscious desire of the subject has remained the mainstay of psychoanalysis, in the United States, on the contrary, it has long since been given up. The American self has nothing to do with the Freudian self, it is a complex blend of conscious and unconscious. It is both an intrapsychical structure as defined by Winnicott and Melanie Klein, and an intersubjective structure which interracts with its environment. Obviously, it is the cultural context which has modelled these two utterly different stances: for or against Freud. This is what Judith Feher - Gurewich makes clear in an introduction to a collection of essays entitled “Lacan et la psychanalyse américaine” written after a symposium which took place in November 1994 in Paris.

8Psychoanalysis reflects and models the social ideals of the community that hosts it. When Freudian psychoanalysis reached the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was used as a way to articulate Protestant ethics and the ideals of free enterprise. It provided a community of pioneers with the means of thinking its members as independent, responsible and self-sufficient people. Individual ambitions and social well-being came to overlap. Individual creativity became unexpected ferment, leaven, which could disrupt generally-accepted ideas. It could promote social progress. In Leviathan, Paul Auster praises Ben Sachs ’s subversive bomb-planting action as “creative sabotage.” The American ego was as famous for its capacity for adaptation as for its ability to innovate. Psychoanalysis was expected to solve the problems met by the individual in a changing society such as adaptation to industrialisation, emigration or the sprawling of big cities. The classic function of psychoanalysis - unmask, unveil what is unknown or repressed in the self so as to free the unconscious - was being reversed. Psychoanalysis was supposed to provide the ego with solid ideals to cling to. It was meant to give the ego cohesion and continuity to help it face the hazards of a changing society. This explains why American psychoanalysis became a science of adaptation, why it enabled the individual to master himself, while French psychoanalysis was supposed to liberate the unconscious force of the subject. Throughout the century, American psychoanalysis had to adapt to reflect changing social relations: ego-psychology, self-psychology, object relation theory... In the 1920s, Freudian psychoanalysis revealed both the opportunities and the pitfalls of an individual and sexual freedom which the American society of the time longed for. In the 1940s, ego-psychology urged the individual to gradually replace narcissism by object-love: the autonomous responsible ego has a taste for sublimation and is entitled to orgasm. Although Hartmann, Kris and Loewenstein’s ego-psychology was very popular, it was less so when the ideals it promoted started collapsing. In the 1970s, and the Auster self dates back to that precise time, America had grown sick and tired of the excesses of capitalism, the “time is money” motto. The strong male self rebels, revealing its weakness. Psychoanalysis must become more maternal toward the patient. Heinz Kohut’s self-psychology contends that a healthy self is an intersubjective structure that has been modeled by the loving gaze of the other, the alter-ego. Recognition by the other enables the self to mature and assert itself. Alienation does not originate in the subject but is the result of a deficient parental environment. A healthy self has both reasonably high self-esteem (love of the self, subject-bound narcissism) and intense object love (love of life or object-bound narcissism). The mirroring of the mother, confirmation by the father, a sustaining environment are essential for the development of the self. Others are needed because they are agents for self-confirmation, for self-approval. This short historic survey of American psychology enables me to show that the “I” in Auster’s works both partakes of the French Lacanian subject and of Kohut’s self. Ego-psychology and oedipal conflicts are both derided in his fiction. In Mr Vertigo, the main character, Walt Rawley, is shown to climb the ladder of success again and again but it never changes anything concerning his lot. His social ascent is ridiculed, spiritual uplift is brought to the same level as the sexual pleasure Walt experiences in masturbation. Auster debunks the capitalistic ideals of social progress extolled in the fifties and sixties. Moreover, he insists on Oedipal conflicts, using them as pretexts a weak fragmented self invokes to account for his failure. Auster even scoffs at his own narrative strategies, thus dabbling in meta-textual derision, he laughs at this weak self who needs the gaze of the other to live. In Timbuktu, Mr Bones, the narrator, splits up into a dog-self and a fly-self so as to be able to attend his friend and master Willy ’s last hours on earth. After the self in society, after the inner self, writing strategies become the main target of Auster’s derision. Not only does writing enable Auster to stage the fundamental alienation of the subject but it also allows hims to prop up, to back up a weak, frail and fragmented self, to give it cohesion and continuity. The father’s gaze, the mother’s smile, enable the self to mature, goaded by its ambitions and guided by its ideals. In Kohut’s self-psychology, self-esteem and ideals are compatible. But Auster goes much further. Auster questions the world, the self and the Other. He stretches the limits of the self beyond reason. Just as for reality, his aim is to teach us not to take anything for granted: everything is possible, anything can happen in real life ; similarly, Auster shatters the commonly accepted ideas one has about the self, the comfortable belief in the cohesion and continuity of the self. Thus the self becomes the other by usurping its place: Quinn becomes Auster in City of Glass, Blue becomes Black in Ghosts, the narrator becomes Fanshawe in The Locked Room. Ben Sachs takes up Reed Dimaggio’s terrorist action in Leviathan. The self follows the drives of the unconscious and becomes the Other. Quinn steps across to the other side and altogether stops living to spy on Stillman. Not only does the self change utterly from one moment to the next but it has no cohesion: Marco Fogg in Moon Palace becomes a horde of strangers under the intimidating gaze of Chandler, the bookseller. So, on the one hand, Auster questions the self, on the other hand, when the self seems to have matured and strengthened in his fiction, he starts deriding it. From calling the self into question to deriding it systematically: this is the main movement in Auster’s fiction. Finally, the terse definition I used at the beginning of this essay to sum up Auster’s work was more relevant than it seemed to be: after reminding us of the fundamental alienation of the subject, after propping up a weak and frail self, the individual, armed with greater cohesion and sense of continuity, can turn to the world.

9Auster can boast of a double culture since he spent four years in France, from 1974 to 1978, writing poetry and essays and translating French poets and writers such as Mallarmé, Dupin, Blanchot or Sartre before returning to the States. Indeed, several trends of thought merge in his works: on the one hand nihilism and French existentialism, on the other hand American pragmatism. The atmosphere of negation, destruction, violence and suicide which pervades Auster’s works conjures up a nihilistic tendency. The belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence dates back to the end of the nineteenth century when Nietzshe proclaimed that God was dead. A whole system of values collapsed and marked the advent of nihilism. There was such a gap between man’ s expectations and the world’s inhumanity that it was not possible to believe in God any longer. Only two options were left: resignation or revolt. Nihilism marked the beginning of modernity: the old world had to be destroyed before anything could be rebuilt. Existentialism was the way out of that European crisis of awareness. On the one hand, it expressed the fear of meaninglessness, the feeling of nausea man felt in a world ruled by chance ; on the other hand, it helped articulate the contradictions which had given birth to nihilism: concrete existence takes precedence over abstract essence, human beings are totally free and responsible for their acts, their responsibility is the source of their feeling of anguish. Nashe in The Music of Chance and David Zimmer in The Book of Illusions both realize how hard it is to be free. Men exist only in moments of intensity and thanks to their feeling of anguish. In Auster’s works, life’s meaninglessness, the certainty of death, foster a feeling of anguish that the individual attempts to transcend: characters give a meaning to their life by risking to lose it, by endangering it. They constantly risk their lives in games ruled by chance. Pozzi and Nashe both lose their freedom and their life because of a poker game with Flower and Stone, in The Music of Chance. Moreover, Auster’s characters start with a posthumous existence which has turned them into ghosts, they have lost all wish to live, then, after performing a return to their origins, they all reach a transitory moment in which they succeed in restoring a meaning to their lives before dying. Writing enables Auster to make life meaningful, even when he writes about the meaninglessness of life. It also enables him to live among others and go beyond nihilism because he cared for himself and others. For example, in Leviathan, Auster balances Reed Dimaggio’s destructive nihilism with Ben Sachs’s constructive revolt, which aims at bridging the gap between American ideals of freedom and democracy and the reality. On the other hand, as the gap between expectations and reality widens, Auster seems to have become more of a pragmatist and less of an idealist. Let us make it clear, pragmatism has nothing to do with materialism, pragmatists denounce materialism and industrialisation, “the rat race of vain hopes and illusion” (Timbuktu). In In the Country of Last Things, Anna Blume declares “If the gold from your husband’s tooth can feed you for a month, who is to say you are wrong to pull it out?.” Similarly, Mr Bones in Timbuktu evinces a pragmatist’s wisdom and common sense when he tries to make the most of a downright rotten situation.

10In short, Lacan has alienated the subject, but, by positing the existence of a third term, the symbolic order, in what was previously a dyadic relation, he has made it possible for the individual to achieve full subjectivity. In Auster’s fiction, subjectivity has to do with circulation, exchange, transformation and transmission. Circulation of money and stories makes symbolic exchange possible. When the self is recognized as a son, or as a father, or as a writer, he becomes a subject, but it is only possible through acceptance of symbolic castration and repression of oedipal desire. In Kohut’s self-psychology, the true mirror transference allows the individual to be acknowledged as a mature self. In Auster’s novels, transmission is staged but never achieved or completed in mock ritual “death-bed scenes” in which one character attempts to transmit to another some truth or secret about life. Thus in Moon Palace, Marco Fogg keeps Effing company on his death-bed, by telling him stories ; thus in The Locked Room, Fanshawe speaks to the narrator from beyond the grave, soon disappointing his hopes of discovering the hidden truth ; thus in Leviathan, Ben Sachs transmits his story to his friend Peter Aaron, at night, in a room where candles are burning. But there is ultimately no transmission because there is no truth to be conveyed. As for the true mirror transference, in which the individual is at last acknowledged as an ego or a subject, it seems to take place several times in Moon Palace: when Effing crosses the gaze of Tesla, the bankrupt millionaire who once spurned the young man’s admiration, and is at last acknowledged as a subject ; when Marco Fogg recognizes his own features in his father, Sol Barber - after the latter has shed hundreds of pounds of fat before dying. Then he realizes that he has mattered for his father, after all. But, at the same time, none of these privileged moments is free from derision - these scenes often crop up with grotesque elements - and access to full subjectivity belongs to the realm of wishful thinking rather than reality. In Paul Auster’s fiction, the subject tries to find the trace of a lost presence: its own presence.

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Auster, Paul. Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays, 1970 - 1979. London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

—. The Art of Hunger and Other Essays. London: The Menard Press, 1982.

—. The Invention of Solitude. New York: Sun Press, 1982.

—. The New York Trilogy. London: Faber& Faber, 1987.

—. In The Country of Last Things. New York: Viking, 1987.

—. Moon Palace. New York: Viking, 1989.

—. The Music of Chance. New York: Viking, 1990.

—. Leviathan. New York: Viking, 1992.

—. Mr Vertigo. New York: Viking, 1994.

—. Timbuktu. London: Faber & Faber, 1999.

—. I Thought My Father Was God. New York: Henry Holt & co., 2001.

—. The Book of Illusions. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

Feher Gurewich, Judith. Lacan avec la psychanalyse américaine. Paris: Denoël, 1996.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kohut, Heinz. The Kohut Seminars on Self Psychology. Edited by Miriam Elson. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. 1978, translated by Alan Sheridan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1981.

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Catherine ROGER, « The Ego, the Self and the Subject in Paul Auster’s Fictions », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 21 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.438

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Catherine ROGER

Université de Bordeaux et Université de Toulouse le Mirail
Catherine Roger, agrégée d'anglais, docteur ès lettres, chargée de cours à l'Université de Bordeaux et à l'Université de Toulouse le Mirail, spécialiste de littérature américaine contemporaine, a écrit une thèse sur Paul Auster : Le monde, le moi et l'autre dans l'oeuvre de Paul Auster et quelques articles sur Paul Auster, Henry James et Tennessee Williams.

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