Who are you, really?
This is a picture of me at age fifteen. I’m thirty-two now. I feel very little connection to the teenager holding that guitar. Imagine it for yourself, and go younger if you need to. When you look at a picture of yourself at ten, what do you feel? Is that ten-year-old you?
Mentally, developmentally, socially – I’m a very different person than the teen in that fairly embarrassing picture. I don’t know if that’s me, except in the sense that we share the same timeline. We came from the same parents – the teen is bodily the same as myself, at least to a degree. Philosophers Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon define this as the “somatic criterion” for personhood, but we’ll just call it “body identity.”
So, I do share a body identity with the kid in that photograph. I mean, our bodies regenerate, and over the course of seven years we are basically rebuilt from scratch, but that’s just a technicality. I share a continuum of body with that person; over time, we’ve shared the same cells. Case closed, right?
Maybe not. Let’s draw on the sort of high-brow literary reference you’ve come to expect if you’ve read a few of these blogs. The movie poster for Freaky Friday.
Let’s use the premise of this movie (a remake, I know, but I needed this tagline to make my point) as a philosophical thought experiment. These thought experiments are generally impossible fantasy, but they allow us to test our intuitions to determine if a concept still makes sense.
Read the tagline – it’s clear, and obvious to the audience, that the bodies are not the person. It’s also kinda sexually suggestive, but we’ll ignore that. The movie would only confuse and annoy the audience if we believed the body was the person. If that were the case, there would be no “swap” in Freaky Friday. Lohan would just act like her mom, and Curtis would act like her daughter, but they wouldn’t have changed places. So, the movie plays on intuitions that seem obvious to us – Lohan inhabits her mom’s body, and vice versa.
But let’s bring this higher up the intellectual ladder. One of the most important philosophers of the past five-hundred years, John Locke, defines identity in a form that fits what our intuition tells us when we observe the Freaky Friday premise. He defines our person by its psychological continuity. Meaning that when Lohan’s psychological continuity – her experiences, memories, personality, etc – jumps into a new body, that new body serves as a host for Lohan. The body itself is only a husk.
Okay, fair enough – maybe we’re our psychological continuity.
Except, what is that? Is it real?
To what degree are our psychologies shaped by our circumstances, by those who surround us, by our culture and society? If Scott Kelly had grown up in Pakistan, he would be unrecognizable from the Scott Kelly that exists today. The language, the culture, the society – it would all be so completely different that only the most basic and generic traits would be shared between us.
It could even be simpler than that. We all play multiple roles. When you’re a parent, are you the same person as when you’re a romantic partner? I hope not. Likewise for when you’re at work being a professional, rather than at home Netflix binging.
Let’s take these ideas of personhood to some extremes and see what we get. What if I faked my death? What if I abandoned the name “Scott Kelly” to such a degree that I could never answer to it again? My status, my various roles, my friends, my achievements, and those habits that might be used to identify me – all of those would be banished forever. I’ve already established that psychological continuity is far from concrete, so what happens when it’s severed completely?
The majority of my psychological identity would be stripped away. The memories would exist, but my ability to be the person who created those memories would not. That person is now “dead.” I would be my own ghost, in a sense.
So, we’re back where we started. Who are you? Take a person and start stripping away what defines them. Body, name, memories, experiences, ideals, social identity, personality. They’re all quite mercurial; none of these are solid foundations. So if you can only keep one piece, that cornerstone to a person’s identity, which is it?
Or does it exist at all?
This is the philosophical backbone of my Keep the Ghost trilogy, the line of questioning that led me to create the plot and characters and write the series. I think I put it more succinctly in Shadow Box. Below, find a brief, spoiler-free scene in which Sean – the narrator, who was forced to fake his death and become a fugitive – is quizzed by Morgan, his guide, about who he is now that he’s become his own ghost.
The world shifts on a boat; there is no stable point of reference. At all times rocking, sliding, floating. By focusing on Morgan, I can forget this—she sits at the opposite end of a twin bed from me, legs folded under her.
“This is my revolver,” Morgan says, holding up a snub-nosed thirty-eight. “That one is yours.” She points to my identical gun, which is tucked into a leather holster on the floor next to the bed. “Give it to me.”
I lean across the bed, stretching past the circle of light shining through the little porthole window of our cabin. The gun is lifted to the sunbeam; Morgan’s hand enters its glow as she takes the weapon.
Our two pistols are laid out on the sheets between us. Morgan opens the cylinder of each and shakes the bullets into a waiting hand before depositing them in her lap.
“This gun is mine, and that one is yours,” she says. “I always recognize which one is mine by checking here.” She holds up the revolver she’s identified as her own—a pink smear of nail polish stretches across the grip. “I didn’t wait until my nails were dry, once, and so it’s got this little mark on it.”
She begins to disassemble each gun, using a small screwdriver to remove the cylinder and grips, placing the parts on the bed in two separate collections.
“Let’s say I do this,” Morgan says, and picks up each gun’s cylinder in her hands. She swaps the two, taking the gleaming, machined metal parts from one pile to the other. “Which one is my gun now?”
“That’s still your gun,” I tell her, pointing to her pile. “It’s just got my cylinder in it.”
This time she picks up the grips of the guns, and her nail-polish stained grip is traded for mine. “What about now?”
“Well, that’s tricky,” I say. “If I swapped these two while you weren’t looking, you would think this was your gun.”
“Except I’d be wrong?”
“Well, yeah. The frame hasn’t changed, and that’s the biggest piece.”
“Okay, so it’s in the frame.” Morgan swaps the grips and cylinders so that each are in the piles from which they began. Then she picks up the steel frames—barrel, trigger and base—and swaps them. “Now?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I guess the frame is the gun, so we swapped. Even though you’ve still got your grip with the mark on it, and the old cylinder.”
“And what if I sat here and switched every screw, spring, and pin in the guns, but kept the original frame?
“I have no idea.”
“That’s a good place to start,” Morgan instructs. “So, how much of you needs to be swapped before you’re no longer Sean Reilly?” She points to my head. “Everything about you is constantly changing, always rebuilding and adapting. Where is your frame?”
A brilliant poem is reduced to Hallmark tripe – but is that wrong? In fact, can anything a reader says about literature really be considered ‘wrong?’
To examine this, we’ll need to understand some fundamentals of the study of literature. How do guys with doctorate degrees critique books? It’s done through different modes of thinking, called styles of literary criticism. As a test study, today we’ll be using Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s very short, and I recommend you refresh your memory by reading it here.
There are many distinct styles of literary criticism. The one that feels most natural to me is the biographical style of criticism. Biographical criticism pretty much does what it says on the can, and you will be using details of the author’s personal life to explain their work. Let’s say Robert Frost did an interview in which he explained that The Road Not Taken is a literal poem about one of his rambling walks through the forest, and about specific paths he did not walk down. “It has no broader significance,” Frost says. “It’s just a pretty poem about a walk in the woods. I took the less popular path, and at the end I saw a rad woodpecker.”
He didn’t say that, thank God. But if he had, then our biographical criticism of The Road Not Taken would be to call it a poem about a specific walk in the woods and nothing else. Or if some letter or news piece revealed the exact location of the walk in the woods, we would use that biographical information to influence our critique. “Of course Frost wrote about this path, he walked down it every day.” And if we knew that, we could go get a look at that woodpecker.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find formalist criticism. Formalism throws away any information about the author, and instead examines the different techniques and styles of the artwork. It takes into account the popularized forms of literature – for instance, The Road Not Taken is an English poem written by an American in the early twentieth century in iambic tetrameter but with nine syllables per line instead of the normal eight and… you get the idea. Formalists look at literature like Darwin looked at a finch: what are the features, how does it relate to others, what distinguishes it.
But is either the formalist or biographical interpretation more correct? Well, that’s not necessarily the point. There are many different styles of literary criticism – postmodern, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, Jungian, feminist, etc. Each of these is simply a filter you can lay over a work of art and attempt to find connections. Sometimes they fit very well and seem plausible. Other times, you find no connections and move on. You can’t do biographical criticism of the Iliad, for instance, because no biographical information about Homer exists. He’s probably not even a real guy.
Yet there is one style of criticism to end all others. It’s relatively recent (1970’s) and scares the crap out of me. I also can’t deny its validity. I’m talking about reader response criticism.
Here, we remove both the author and the text as objects completely. The book itself happens when a reader is consuming a text, and not a moment before. The book doesn’t even exist on its own; all that exists is the reader’s relationship to the book.
This is a heady concept, so let’s try an analogy.
Take a computer. The Road Not Taken is the install file for a program sitting on a hard drive. The install file is not really the program itself; it is just the potential for a program. You wouldn’t point at the install file for Word and say “that’s Microsoft Word.” You’d say, “that’s the install file for Microsoft Word.” They are two distinct entities, like a seed is distinct from a tree.
It is not until we install the program and run it that it truly exists. The same with the poem – when it’s on a shelf, it is only the potential for literature. It’s not until a reader installs the poem into their mind that it exists. The written text is just the recipe, and the final product only exists in your mind.
It’s your personal poem, and that’s the distinguishing feature of reader response criticism. There is no such thing as the poem itself – there are only the millions of different responses that exist in the minds of everyone who has read it.
You could print the text of The Road Not Taken, weigh it, and say it has X for its mass. But that’s missing the point; that’s just paper. The poem is not paper, and it is not a collection of letters on a page. The poem is what happens in your mind when you read it.
Imagine, for instance, you are holding The Road Not Taken and standing next to a person of your age and intelligence who does not know the English language. When you look at the page, you read it and experience the poem. Your foreign friend is looking at the same object, yet only sees a page full of random symbols in black ink. Because two people are having entirely different experiences looking at the same object, we can safely assume that the important stuff is happening inside the viewers. The object is just a trigger, both artwork and not. Quantum poetry.
What bothers me is that reader response criticism could be seen as permission to never look beyond the surface of a work. If anyone knows what secrets lay inside a work, it’s the author – and we should listen. And yeah, look, I know. I’m an author, I’m telling people to listen to authors, maybe this is all my ego talking. I’m going to deflect from that by talking about Frost.
Why did I pick this poem as an example of something deep being boiled down to a sugary residue? Partly because it’s so common. I’m sure you’ve seen something like this in your life:
Or maybe you’ve bought one of these (good lord, seriously) 74 different Etsy products containing the iconic last lines?
Everyone remembers the last three lines of the poem, shown on the graphic above. Frost’s message is apparently urging us to get off the beaten path and become trailblazers. Firebrands. Venture some capital. Kick a homeless guy.
But is that what Frost is really saying? I would contend that it is not. What Frost is saying is much deeper, something that speaks to a fundamental depressing truth about the nature of reality itself. Frost – and good poetry in general – is way more complex than comes across on the first read. Our initial reader response is typically lacking.
It’s probably unintentional, but very misleading that in the hundreds of examples I’ve seen of these lines being used, the way it’s attributed to Frost leaves out the fact it’s from a poem. It looks like it’s just a thing he said once, in response to a question. This is not how the poem should be read – we can’t assume the narrator in a poem is the actual author of the poem. That’s an easy mistake to make, but in poetry we need consider the possibility that the narrator of the poem is a tragic or flawed character. Think Humbert from Lolita, featured in one of my previous blogs.
Let me walk you through what I consider the key text. In stanza one:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood”
Notice that phrase “be one traveler.” He is pointing out that he is a single person only. Seems obvious, but it becomes important. Frost establishes each fact he will deal with, a bit like a philosophical treatise.
In the second stanza, Frost is looking down each path in the woods, comparing them.
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,”
The two paths are pretty equal to each other; he can’t tell the difference between them, but he’s worried he will miss out on something great by taking the ‘wrong’ path. This is the sort of person who stops in the woods and frets about which way to take, despite the lack of any evidence that one is better than the other. He’s a bit insecure.
Now the key, in the third stanza.
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The narrator is deciding which of the two paths to take, and admitting he’ll never be able to double back. My favorite phrase in the entire poem is “how way leads on to way.” Each decision leads logically to the next decision. It is the nature of time that you can’t go back and re-make a decision. Even if he comes back to the same path tomorrow, he may have already missed whatever would occur today (it’s that badass woodpecker). We only move forward; we will never come back to the exact same decision again.
Now let’s return to the last lines of the final stanza:
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Okay. I think that people are reading the wrong message into “and that has made all the difference,” assuming Frost is saying that choosing the lesser-traveled path improved his life for the better. In fact, I think Frost’s narrator is just expressing the same human doubt we all express when making decisions on a daily basis.
Look at the title of the poem. It’s not a celebration of the path he took – it’s “the road not taken” that has earned the title spot.
The first line of this stanza is “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” meaning our slightly anxious narrator will be admitting that he’s made a decision, for better or worse. But did he know it would be important before he made it? It doesn’t seem so, because when the narrator looked at the paths in stanza two, they looked about the same. It’s only in retrospect that we look back and realize a decision was important, and this admission is why he’s sighing.
Spending ten minutes finding your car keys seems unimportant, but if burglars break into your home during that ninth minute, suddenly the car keys are life-changing. Critically, you can’t know losing the car keys are important until after the burglars arrive.
The specific paths are not the point of this poem. You are one traveler. You will never know what is down the other path – every time you do literally anything, the millions of potential outcomes that could have occurred had you acted differently die. If you had toast for breakfast this morning, that means you’ll never have had waffles or corn flakes or vodka.
That’s what Frost is saying. He’s describing the nature by which we move linearly through time. Time only moves in one direction, and our lives only make sense in retrospect. We’re all basically blind.
Or is my entire theory just this reader’s response to the poem? Well, many scholars agree with something close to this interpretation, so I can’t take full credit. In fact, Frost is a modernist poet and his body of work is filled with exactly this sort of message. Behind the friendly veneer of his poetry lies a brooding traveler disheartened by the very nature of reality itself.
As for reader response criticism, I think the appropriate reaction lies somewhere in the middle. It’s a valid school of thought with seemingly indisputable premises. However, that can’t be all that matters, or we’re only taking away surface impressions of artist’s work.
It is worth engaging with an artist to gain a full appreciation of what they’ve created. How do you engage? Read about their lives, read about their influences. Read what contemporaries and important critics said about their work. Figure out what they liked or didn’t like about the art that came before them so you can understand what your artist was trying to change or preserve.
If you’re interested, I actually wove the meaning of Frost’s poem into a scene in my novel [sic] – specifically the bonus chapter, titled (appropriately) “One Traveler.”
Thanks for reading.
I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think. I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.
Great works of art are not so much created as uncovered. That is, the themes which resonate most strongly with people already exist, and an artist only hopes to find those themes. It is when the audience recognizes the work as being true – that is, validating the art within themselves by agreeing with it – that “great art” happens.
So, if what an artist does is stumble around in the dark for truth, we must have been stumbling across the same truths from the start.They can’t change, after all, or they wouldn’t have been true to begin with.
To test this hypothesis, let’s go back to the beginning: the birth of the written story.
Storytelling is likely as old as language. It is a way for humans to communicate hypothetical situations to each other, a useful survival tool. Our memories are much more adept at storing information encoded in a narrative, and the story often serves to establish rules, customs, or general survival advice.
However, the refined and written story is relatively recent in comparison – around five-thousand years old, at least that we’ve been lucky enough to find. What is generally considered the world’s oldest written story is called “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Gilgamesh is ancient. It is a Sumerian text that was first compiled in the form we know it in 1800 BC. Let me put that into perspective: The Greeks didn’t even exist yet, not the way we think of them. The Iliad and the Odyssey would not be scratched into tablets for another twelve-hundred years. It would be fourteen-hundred more years before the first versions of what we would recognize as the Old Testament were put into writing. When you notice similarities between the Book of Genesis and this story, it’s worth recognizing that available evidence suggests this is much older than Genesis.
The Sumerians who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh date back to 5000 BC, and theirs was one of the first three civilizations we have evidence of. But I’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh (as an English translation), and what struck me wasn’t a view into our ancient past. What surprised me was how familiar it all seemed.
The story opens to introduce the titular Gilgamesh – a Sumerian king who is two-parts god, one-part man. He is young and hot-headed, powerful and energetic but cruel and oppressive. Specifically, he is a serial rapist who enslaves people and works them to death. His subjects are terrified of their irresponsible tyrant, and pray to the gods for help.
The gods respond by sending an equal and opposite force into the world… which is probably not what the terrified subjects had in mind. But they get the wild-man Enkidu, who shares demigod status with Gilgamesh and is his only equal in beauty and strength.
But Enkidu is spiritually the opposite of Gilgamesh. Where Gilgamesh is a cruel man who lives a life of luxury, Enkidu is a kind man who lives a primal life with beasts.
We’re introduced to an Enkidu who suckles from wild animals and grazes in meadows. Hunters marvel at the wild god-man, and send some prostitutes to seduce the guy.
Okay, so this part isn’t familiar. Let’s look into it – it’s a theme in Sumerian culture that sex is used to introduce wild men to civilization, perhaps as a lure to draw them in. The Sumerians exist in a time when they are literally *the* civilization, mankind’s sole outpost against a savage earth. This fact is very much on their minds. Sex that you don’t have to kill or risk dying for is probably one of the most attractive features of city life, and so comes to represent the allure of this whole project to a patriarchal society.
Freud would also have a field day with this. Enkidu is seduced by one of the prostitutes sent his way, and accepts the offer of civilization. With his virginity lost, the beasts of the wild reject him, and he’s banished from his old life. Bit of a Garden of Eden predecessor.
Enkidu enters civilization and becomes a decent guy – he is Gilgamesh’s opposite, after all. He learns about the tyrant king and is outraged, then sets out to challenge Gilgamesh.
He arrives just in time to witness Gilgamesh committing some more tyranny, and the two demigods clash. Gilgamesh wins, but only after the first serious struggle of his entire divine existence. Recognizing each other as two sides of the same coin, the duo become inseparable friends. The friendly rivalry with Enkidu gives Gilgamesh an outlet for his destructive tendencies.
The tyrant king and the civilized wildman go on adventures together – think Hercules with a sidekick – that culminate with the two of them killing both a demon and a god. The other gods don’t take kindly to this, and so decide to punish the two friends by killing one of them. Enkidu is chosen to die (what did you expect? It’s not “The Epic of Enkidu”.)
Up until now, it’s all standard ancient myth stuff. Here’s where the story gets interesting from my perspective.
The gods knew that killing one of the two friends would be harder on the survivor than the deceased. Gilgamesh is devastated by Enkidu’s death. Not just because his best friend has died, but because he’s seen his opposite and equal be slain. Now, Gilgamesh cannot stop thinking about his own mortality. If Enkidu can die, then Gilgamesh will die as well.
I want to provide some background on Gilgamesh’s fear of death, as it’s one of my favorite recent realizations. The perception of the afterlife held by the Sumerians is very similar to that of the Greeks (up to a certain period), and one that I think needs to be understood. For both cultures, concepts of heaven or hell did not exist. There was an afterlife, but it is described as a gloomy place where ghosts roam around in a confused and lethargic state. There is no better place you go if you’re great, or worse place if you’re bad. Everyone winds up a ghost in this bland netherworld. So for both the Sumerians and the Greeks, life was really all you had. For the Sumerians, the concept of a pleasant afterlife had not even been seriously suggested yet. They saw death like an atheist sees death – as the end of the road.
Our bold tyrant is afraid for the first time in his life. But he’s still a fool, and so rather than facing his fear, he sets off on a quest to figure out how to cheat death. He’s got a decent idea where to start – a mythical figure called “Utnapishtim.”
Utnapishtim is worth his own paragraph, because he’s basically who we would recognize as Noah. That is, in Sumerian myth, Utnapishtim is the guy who put all the animals on a big boat before an enormous flood wiped out the world, thus saving life as we know it. In this flood story, the gods wiped out the earth in a fit of rage, but later regretted it and were very happy to find Utnapushtim had filled his ark. For his trouble, the Sumerian gods granted Utnapishtim the secret to eternal life.
Which is why Gilgamesh wants to find him – he wants to avoid death altogether.
The tyrant king goes through an epic series of adventures in search of Utnapishtim – greater than any of his struggles so far. He eventually meets a ferryman and is taken across the Waters of Death in a sort of proto-Hades setting where he finds the proto-Noah.
Gilgamesh insists on being taught the secret to eternal life. Utnapishtim agrees, but only on the condition the king undertakes a relatively simple challenge – staying awake for a week. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but promptly fails it.
I believe what’s happening here is a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s failings. He is impulsive and brash, and a boring test which requires constant vigilance is beyond him. Utnapishtim realizes this, and defeats the protagonist of our story with a few sentences.
So Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh packing. But on his way out, he’s granted information about a miraculous plant that restores youth and is the true secret to immortality. Our protagonist grabs the plant and leaves, thinking that despite having lost the challenge, he’s all set.
But after he’s taken the ferry back across the Waters of Death, a snake steals the plant, then sheds its skin to become young again. It was all a trick, and Utnapishtim made a fool of Gilgamesh.
Eternal life escapes Gilgamesh. All of this trickery with the challenge, the plant, and the snake are to demonstrate the sort of folly you’ll get into by chasing immortality rather than valuing life. Utnapishtim, the guardian of eternal life, humiliates the world’s most powerful demigod. Before that, he proved he had more foresight than the gods by saving creation from the petty rage of their flood. We don’t stand a chance.
The king’s quest and subsequent failure bring him to face the abyss. Death is inevitable, and trying to escape this only wastes what time you have. In this moment, Gilgamesh finds wisdom and patience, and is forever transformed into a great and fair king. Gilgamesh realizes that while he will personally die, civilization and mankind will live on. He devotes the rest of his long life to building up the cities of his kingdom.
The name Gilgamesh translates to “he who saw the deep.”
A literary analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh uncovers the same themes you’ll find in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard 5000 years later. Life is meaningless, death is inescapable, so make the world a little better by contributing as best you can. Accepting your own mortality leads to wisdom and humility, necessary attributes for greatness. And a true mortality, not a life spent expecting an afterlife – rather, the full acceptance that a person’s time is truly limited.
And it’s all in the first story we ever wrote down.
Scott Kelly is the author of four existentialist novels. You can find his works here.
I love postmodernism, and I’m willing to bet you do too – whether you know exactly what it is or not.
To explain it, I’m going to jump back into my favorite period of literature – a span from about 1910 to 1970, where modernism starts to fade a bit and postmodernism arrives. Let’s look at James Joyce, who is undeniably one of the most influential English-language authors of all time and was active between 1914 and 1939.
If you discount Finnegans Wake (which defies any attempt to categorize it), Joyce is a modernist writer. His epic Ulysses is one of the top ten in any good list of modernist novels from this era, and sometimes shows up in the number one slot for all books written in the twentieth century. Joyce breaks a lot of tradition and was indeed very modern for his time: the works are stream of consciousness, there are jokes that you need to speak multiple languages to get, you often have difficulty discerning what is real and what is thought, words and timelines are toyed with, and classical traditions are broken with aplomb.
It’s edgy and difficult to read, even today. Hell, about a third of the entire 800 page novel takes place over the course of one acid-trip dream sequence. You will find beautiful rule-breaking sentences like this one, in which a woman is lying in bed remembering her acceptance of a marriage proposal: “He asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
So, how do you get weirder than that? Postmodernism thinks further outside the box. “Why is the story being written, and what is the reader’s relationship to the narrator? From what angle can the reader experience the story? Does there need to be a story at all?”
I’m going to focus on the first two, here, because I don’t connect as well with the ponderous postmodern work that becomes recursive in the sense that it exists to question its own existence. Waiting for Godot by Beckett might fit into this category, or any story where the author intentionally makes sure that either nothing happens, or nothing makes sense. These works are asking why they need to exist, or what the nature of storytelling is. I prefer to get past that, and build something with the techniques.
Let’s look at a classic postmodern book from my favorite postmodern author, Vladimir Nabokov, with Lolita in 1955. Yes, it’s about an uncomfortable subject, and no, it doesn’t glorify or apologize for pedophilia. Lolita is a brilliant postmodern novel and Nabokov is the postmodern brain-punching grandmaster.
In Lolita, the first person tale is told by our narrator, the disgraced and imprisoned pedophile Humbert Humbert. The book is written as his plea for leniency to the judge who is currently deciding his case, which involves his sexual abuse of a young girl. Humbert is a narcissistic liar, and everything he tells you in the book (which is the book itself, as he is the narrator) must be taken with the same skepticism you’d take while listening to any convicted prisoner lie about the circumstances of his crime.
This is called the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique. The reader isn’t just accepting the words on the page as he is with Ulysses, where the thoughts of that first-person narrator are always honest and accurate (no matter how difficult they are to decipher.) Rather, we know Humbert is lying to us. Hell, our narrator is the villain of the story. Out of his squeamishness, or boastfulness, or casual glossing past events that incriminate him, we unravel the truth.
One of my favorite examples of this is Humbert’s recounting of how the titular Lolita’s mother mysteriously dies one day. And, right after she finds Humbert’s secret journal detailing his lust for her daughter. Right before she’s about to expose him to the police. She just runs right out in the middle of the street, and wouldn’t you know, a car creams her. Strangest thing. Too bad no one else was around to confirm or deny Humbert’s accounting of the event.
What the reader gets is Humbert’s somewhat implausible story of a distraught woman running into the street and getting hit by a car, the details of which he’s eager to gloss over. We suspect Humbert killed her, of course, but we can’t know that because our only source of information is the murderer himself – and he’s not about to admit it. The reader is now looking between the words of the book to find the actual story. This is postmodernism. The book isn’t simply read at face value. The way in which the reader is given the story is a part of the story itself.
I’m going to stick with Nabokov to give you a more extreme example: his brain-melter, Pale Fire (1962). Pale Fire is a forty page poem by a recently deceased famous (but entirely fictional) poet. The poem is very nice – Nabokov was a poet before he became a postmodern novelist, and read and wrote poems alongside giants like Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.
But the poem isn’t the real book. You see, the poem has been annotated and released by one Charles Kinbote, who is also fictional. We’re introduced to him by his brief prologue to Pale Fire, in which Kinbote hints that perhaps the poet’s wife and peers feel Kinbote should not be editing or releasing the work.
And the rest of the story comes in the form of Kinbote’s footnotes on the poem. It all starts innocently enough, with footnotes which add backstory and biographical information to the poem. But by the end, Kinbote’s footnotes weave in stories of political assassination, an imaginary Soviet country of which Kinbote is apparently royalty, and a near psychotic obsession with the poet of Pale Fire. By the time you finish reading the footnotes, you will be left wondering just how involved in the poet’s death Kinbote really was – and just what the true identity of this mad editor actually is. In fact, there are still readers and literary critics arguing over Kinbote’s true identity, and Pale Fire is one of the most studied and critiqued works of the twentieth century.
It’s the most postmodern work I’ve personally ever read, especially given when it was released. Pale Fire is a complete puzzlebox. I think it would blow people away if it were published as a new novel today.
There are downsides to a work this postmodern, of course. It’s hard to read a story that’s crammed into footnotes, and the lack of a constant narrative makes the thing hard to follow. But taken as a whole, it’s simply astonishing.
We see these techniques all the time in literature and cinema today. Watch Usual Suspects, which makes great use of the unreliable narrator technique and the nested plot-line technique. Go watch Lego Movie and notice the postmodern (and existential) twist in the last act. Look at how Arrival (which I could devote an entire blog post to) uses its plot to toy with our expectations of how a flashback should work. Or even “found footage” films like Blair Witch or the earlier Cannibal Holocaust, where the audience’s expectations from the nature of the footage itself plays into how they view the film on the screen.
Keeping with the cinema theme, let’s separate modern from postmodern again. A movie like The Matrix is trippy, and clever, and yet not postmodern. It is existential because it questions the nature of reality and our perception of it, but it does not use any of the “why does this film exist” techniques that help separate postmodern from modernist works. The format of the Matrix is over two-thousand years old and the concepts are predated by Plato’s Parable of the Cave. It is ultimately a traditional story.
I love postmodernism. You take a story, but essentially wrap the whole thing in a second story. If the classic story is two dimensional, postmodernist works are three dimensional – you’re not just interpreting the words, but you’re interpreting their relationship to the narrator and the way in which the words have been delivered to you.
The most postmodern of my works is [sic], in which I fully deploy the unreliable narrator and nested plot-line techniques. I’d classify both The Blue and the Keep the Ghost trilogy as modernist works, as they’re told straight-through in a first person style much closer to Joyce than Nabokov. That said, I’ll be making a return to postmodernism at some point.
Thanks for reading – literature fascinates me, and I hope to use this blog to explore some of my favorite aspects of its history and development.
I often refer to myself as an existentialist novelist, so I thought I’d prepare a post explaining what that means as well as recommending other novels written within this genre.
Existentialism, in general, is a philosophy with its roots in the works of the Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard, who was active from around 1847-1855. While the heyday of artists referring to their works as existential has largely passed, you can still fit most modern literary giants into the category “existentialism” without much effort.
In a nutshell, I describe existentialism like this: The recognition that life is inherently meaningless, and that it’s up to us to create our own personal meaning in life. This is to say, an existentialist does not believe that you will someday “win” life and cause the credits to roll (either by triggering an afterlife or otherwise). Rather, life is inherently chaotic and absurd, and we must find peace and happiness in the face of this fact. Chiefly, we have two conflicts: We feel very important and our minds create narratives out of our lives in which everything revolves around us. However, we also routinely face the fact that life is chaotic and that humans die for little or no reason.
That said, ‘existentialism’ has a more general definition involving any question of the nature of our reality or our purpose in it. While this is an accurate definition, it does not adequately explain the philosophy.
The primary philosophers in this field (in chronological order) are Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre – though Nietzsche and Sartre both rejected the label, their philosophies really are explorations within the broader guidelines I set in the paragraph above. Where I’m particularly influenced is in Sartre, but also his contemporary Camus. These are both French thinkers who survived the Nazi invasion of France, which brings me neatly to what I feel is the real rise of a worldwide acceptance of existential theories – World War II.
Aside from a few outliers like Nietzsche, philosophy before World War I and II is quite a bit rosier than what came next. Philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson were still guiding American lights, with ideas about rugged individualism and a reconnection with nature. Something about seeing millions of people, innocent or otherwise, hurl themselves into the meat grinder of the world’s largest wars started to sour people on the idea that the universe was a kind place built for humans to thrive. Post World War II, it seemed a bit more likely that the universe was a cold and uncaring place and that only our fellow humans decided how kind or otherwise it would be.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were the post-war French thinkers who drove existentialism home for modern society. While Sartre perhaps is rightly credited for being a greater philosopher, I can safely tell you that Albert Camus is a much better novelist. The milestone existential novel, and in my opinion the greatest existential work of all time, is Camus’ “The Stranger.” The world tends to agree – indeed, the book earned Camus a Nobel Prize in Literature.
“The Stranger” (also translated as “The Outsider”) is a French novel written in stark, plain terms about a man named Mersault who has no humanity of his own and only reacts apathetically to the events around him. He is a character study in a man fully consumed by the absurdity of modern existence, a man who truly believes that life is meaningless and yet hasn’t “come out the other side” to create meaning for himself, or even attempt to understand it. Through Mersault’s journey, each reader receives a mirror into their own view of the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence.
You’ll see these themes in all of my novels. In Keep the Ghost, Sean is driven to question the value of a human’s place in society and indeed their own view of themselves when he’s forced to fake his death and assume an entirely new persona, freed from everything that made him a person in his past life. These themes are further explored in Shadow Box and the upcoming Kill the Ghost.
In The Blue, Derek confronts the meaningless of reality itself as he is thrust into a situation in which everyone around him is trying to decide on their own version of reality – an inherently paradoxical exercise we engage in daily.
And in [sic], a group of teens embrace chaos by creating a game in which their lives become governed by random chance and forced choices. After all – if life is meaningless, and change is inevitable (two conclusions that I find hard to escape) then what harm could come from embracing these two facts and living life in their honor?
You’ll find themes stemming from Sartre and Camus’ work from a bevy of famous American literary figures. Books I’d recommend, including handy links to Kindle versions of the work, include…
- Kurt Vonnegut – chiefly Slaughterhouse V, but really all of his works.
- Joseph Heller – Catch 22. Incredible post-war existentialist novel.
- Ernest Hemingway – Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s greatest novel explores existentialist themes without really becoming an existentialist novel in a postmodern sense (more on that in another post.)
- Chuck Pahlaniuk – Fight Club. This is a great example of existentialist literature from an American author who is still active to this day.
- Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot. While better experienced as a play, this is largely regarded as one of the most important existential and postmodern plays of our time.
To one degree or another, you can find existentialist traits in the works of John Green (“Fault in Our Stars“), Jack Kerouac (“On the Road“), Philip K. Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep“) and countless other modern works. For a more comprehensive list of novels with existentialist themes, I’d recommend this GoodReads list of the of the best existentialist works of fiction… and not only because my novel [sic] comes in at #93.