ON THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF NOT BEING A GHOST
Ghosts Catalogue Essay, 2003 (Pp. 3-5)
Suppose you are a writer.
Suppose you write a novel. You create characters, situations, and a plot in which those characters and situations interact. Eventually, you finish it. You feel that you have added something to the world. And indeed you have. The world depicted in your book had never existed before you made it up.
Is it only a matter of addition, though? What about yourself? Are you still what you were before you wrote the book?
Listen to what Black and Blue, characters in Paul Auster's Ghosts, have to say about it:
Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he's there, he's not really there.
Black, the writer, says that if you are a writer you are not there even when you are there, Which is to say, you are not entirely in this world, Nor are you entirely in the other world you have created. You are in limbo. You become a ghost.
You may say, well then, I won't be a writer. I want to stay who I am. I'll be an engineer. Or a baker. Then I won't be a ghost.
You think so? Blue reads Thoreau's Walden. and here is one of the passages he writes down in his notebook:
We are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.
—Rather similar to what Black says about the writer's life, no? And Thoreau is talking not just about writers, but about all of us. True, by "cases" he means false ideas, stories, assumptions, etc. which prevent us from being where we are, from living in the present, while Black is talking about the act of serious, presumably creative, writing. But it's not always possible to draw the line. Ultimately, one can say that any use of language puts us in "a false position." As Auster noted in one of his poems he wrote in the1970s:
... The tongue
is forever taking us away
from where we are, and nowhere
can we be at rest
in the things we are given
to see, for each word
is an elsewhere ... ("Facing the Music")
As long as we use the tongue, as long as we speak, we cannot be at rest. We are all restless ghosts.
All right, you might say. I won't say anything then. I won't write anything. I'll just hear and read. Then I can stay myself.
Hmm. You may have a point there. Holden Caulfield daydreams in The Catcher in the Rye about going around pretending to be a deafmute in order to remain himself: "That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody." Yet even Holden imagines buying a lot of books for his children he'll have with his deafmute girl he'll marry. He won't give up reading. If so, will the world leave him alone? Will he leave the world alone? Here's a passage from Auster's The Invention of Solitude, in which he discusses the "strangeness" of the act of translation:
A, sits down in hit own room to translate another man's book, and it is as though he were entering that man's solitude and making it his own. But surely that is impossible. For once a solitude has been breached. once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude, but a kind of companionship. Even though there is only one man in the room, there are two. A. imagines himself as a kind of ghost of that other man, who is both there and not there, and whose book is both the same and not the same as the one he is translating. Therefore, he tells himself, it is possible to be alone and not alone at the same moment.
–Still another ghost. A translator as a ghost's ghost. Apparently, we are all ghosts of one another.
All?–you might ask–what do you mean, all? The guy is only talking about translators, right? And translators are a dull. boring, totally uninteresting lot, aren't they? Hardly a shining representative of the human race.
A good point. As a translator (who by the way translated, among others, Auster's Ghosts) I heartily agree with your view of translators as a bunch of bores. I wonder, though, if we are so different from others. Translation is, after all, an act of reading. Perhaps it's an intense, sustained kind of reading, yet in essence it is no different from what everyone does every day. You listen to your boss, your girlfriend, a car salesman, trying to figure out what they mean. You try to interpret what they say. What is it but an act of translation? You do that every day, from morning till night. To live is to translate. And to translate is to become someone else's ghost. Ergo: we are all ghosts of one another.
In Ghosts, Blue keeps watching Black. He feels at one time as if he were "looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself." The other as a mirror, the world as looking glass. Does that mean that Blue discovers himself through watching someone else? Well, yes and no. He does make a discovery of sorts, but the self he discovers is a puzzle. He knows now that his self is unknowable. There is something wrong with the mirror.
This, more than anything else, links Paul Auster with the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century. The shortest description we can give of those writers is that they were the kind of people who look into a mirror and cannot recognize themselves. People who are an enigma to themselves. For instance, this is what Herman Melville says in Moby Dick:
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Everyone else imagines Narcissus as someone who saw his own image in the water and fell in love with it, but not Melville: for him, Narcissus is someone who discovered in his own image the "ungraspable phantom of life." And according to Melville, we are all Narcissi.
Nathaniel Hawthorne. whom Melville admired and whom Black mentions in Ghosts, begins a piece entitled "Monsieur du Miroir" with: "Than the gentleman abovenamed, there is nobody, in the whole circle of my acquaintance, whom I have more attentively studied, yet of whom I have less real knowledge. beneath the surface which it pleases him to present." The guy talks about his own mirror image as if it were someone he meets on the subway every morning but has never talked to!
And we shouldn't forget Edgar Allan Poe: true, we almost never encounter a mirror in Poe's work, but that's because for Poe the whole world is an immense mirror. We keep encountering doubles, doppelgängers, mirror images in Poe's stories and poems. It is not for nothing that the protagonist in Auster's City of Glassmirror againcalls himself William Wilson, a famous Poe character pursued by his own double. as a mystery writer. There are a number of twentiethcentury artists who can be called Poe's offspringSteven Millhauser who revives Poe's dark romanticism in the context of American adolescence in the midtwentieth century, Joseph Cornell who never believed in the newness of the New World just as Poe never did, and Patrick McGrath whose early stories reproduce Poe's kitschy blend of horror and laughterbut if we are to choose the heir of Poe, Auster is our man.
But you are forgetting something, Blue says to Black toward the end of Ghosts. And so am 1. I'm forgetting to mention color. Ghosts is a novel in which every character is named after a color, but paradoxically the world it depicts is curiously devoid of color, as if, as Naoyuki li puts it in his wonderful review of Ghosts, "the names had consumed all the color in the book." Yet there is of course a highly memorable passage in which Blue "thinks how strange it is that everything has its own color" and makes a mental list of blue things, white things, black things … :the passage is all the more memorable because the novel as a whole is so devoid of color.
Jon Kessler's fascinating installation, which he collaborated with Paul Auster, draws attention to this paradox. He does so, for one thing, by making Blue's face literally blue (one is reminded that one of the films Auster has worked on is Blue in the Face), Black's black, and so on. The whole installation in a way literalizes a statement Auster once made: "The world is in my head. My body is in the world." On the eighth floor of the Ginza Maison Hermès, you are thrown into the world that is in the writer's head, and you find that your body is trapped in that world.
Whose ghost are you now?
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