Fall Thesis

Fortunate Fragmentation: Battling the Violence of Language in Paul Auster’s City of Glass

Thesis Adviser: Professor Margaret Vandenburg

Class: Senior Seminar: The American Sublime (Barnard College)

Submission Date: 5 December 2013

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

―Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The story, as we know it, begins with the Word. Since the first utterance that brought the universe into being, humankind has made use of a language that has its roots in the biblical text of the Torah. The language that characterizes the creation narrative both encapsulates and anticipates the proliferation of binary language, as first categorized by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. But postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida reveals the violence lurking in the shadows of this oppositional, implicitly patriarchal system. He develops the concept of “the trace” to explore the violence caused by binary language as reflecting the modernist quest for ultimate meaning—or the elusive and problematic “transcendental signified.” In City of Glass, the first book of The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster exhibits the violence of binary language through the character of Peter Stillman Jr., whose disturbing speech patterns result from his confinement as a child at the hands of his father—a part of the elder Peter Stillman’s quest for phallogocentric[1] meaning. Auster also exposes the normative power of names as a perpetuation of the same patriarchal system of oppression. However, Auster’s protagonist, Daniel Quinn, represents an alternate way of approaching the “fragmented” nature of our world. By adopting negative language and by decentering the self, Quinn is able to escape both the system of hierarchical, violent language and the oppressive, colonizing power of names. He ends up residing in a realm of Derridean “freeplay” and embracing a fluidity of meaning that allows language to take on a significantly less violent place in our world.

City of Glass begins at the beginning, where Paul Auster consciously parallels—and subtly subverts—the biblical creation narrative. The first word of the Torah, “In the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית), is also found in the very first paragraph of City of Glass, and, like the biblical text, the events of Auster’s novella are set into motion with an instance of “the first word.”[2] According to the Genesis narrative, the universe was “unformed and void” before God entered the scene, and it is only through language—through a set of performative speech acts[3]—that the world is brought into existence. The days of creation involve an explicit separation and an establishment of fixed, opposing poles (light/dark, water/firmament, sea/land, sun/moon, sea-creatures/sky-creatures, and of course, male/female) and the description of each day is capped off with the phrase “There was evening and there was morning,” further hammering home the binary divide. Auster invokes the creation account at the genesis of his tale as a means of calling attention to the patriarchal Word and setting up a critique of the biblical, oppositional language that is embraced by the elder Peter Stillman.

In A Course on General Linguistics, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure concretizes the logocentric importance of the biblical Word as the source of all being, and discusses the parallel importance of common human language to everyday human life. Saussure’s theory of semiotics (the study of signs within a society) affirms the Torah’s distinctly dyadic way of viewing the discipline of linguistics: he differentiates between the signifier, or the form of the sign, and the signified, or the concept that the sign represents. The sign is the association between signifier and signified—it stands for something other than itself. Saussure’s linguistic system is predicated on the differences between signs, or the oppositions that force humans to think in pairs, which reflects back on the creation narrative in Genesis. He teaches that concepts are defined “by contrast with other items in the same system. What characterizes each most exactly is being whatever the others are not” (Saussure 67). Viewing language in such a way necessitates the use of oppositional binaries as the only arbiter of “true” meaning. According to structuralist theories, language only makes sense in an oppositional system; as John Sturrock explains, “a one-term language is an impossibility because its single term could be applied to everything and differentiates nothing; it requires at least one other term to give it definition.” [4]

In City of Glass, the once-estimable Peter Stillman is distraught by the “fragmented” state of the world; he laments that “our words no longer correspond to the world” (Auster 92). In order to put back together “what is left of it” (91), he attempts to (re)create his version of an ideal linguistic system by restoring the dualistic system of Edenic language. At the same time, he aims to undo the alleged fall of language that accompanied the Fall of humankind by compelling upon his son Peter the “constant presence of a paternal figure” (Little 158). Peter, as the result of Stillman’s experiment, demonstrates the violence that the patriarchal system of language causes. In an initial effort to rediscover Edenic language, Stillman had locked his son in a room and allowed him no outside influences—no influences at all, save for, of course, himself. Young Peter’s mother is physically and metaphysically absent from this picture, and he relates his father’s opinion on her absence: “Big father said: it makes no difference” (Auster 19). Stillman the elder is described not just as “father,” but as “big father,” as the ultimate father, and as the phallogocentric source. The word of “big father” is normative and violent; or, to use the terms of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the Big Father embodies normative and violent law. According to Lacan’s theory of the three orders of psychic development, the Oedipal crisis propels the child from the Imaginary order, where the child believes itself to be identical with the mother, into the Symbolic order, where the word of the father is law. Stillman’s active enforcement upon his son of the “pure presence” of the father represents an exaggeratedly traumatic transition between the Imaginary and the Symbolic Order. Though “Big Father” Stillman proclaims that there is no “difference” without the mother, this lack makes all the difference. In the Symbolic order, says Lacan, the phallus of the father comes to signify lack—specifically, the lack that the child feels in separating from the mother, and in recognizing that its identity is separate from the mother. The phallus, therefore, represents absence in presence, or what Jacques Derrida terms “the trace.”

The trace is inherently violent, as the character of young Peter Stillman proves. Young Peter, the result of Stillman Sr.’s megalomaniacal assumption of the role of Big Father, is irrevocably deranged. Through him, Auster demonstrates the idea that because the language we utilize is oppositional, it causes conflict in a very physical way. As Derrida explains, the trace is integral to defining the difference that categorizes Saussurean language. That is, when a word is assigned a fixed meaning that differentiates it from other signs, it is imbued with traces of what it does not mean. Derrida’s concept of différance emerges to help clarify the concept of the trace. Différance implies both difference and deferral—one signifier defers meaning onto another signifier, which defers meaning onto another signifier, ad infinitum. The process of deferring meaning is endless, which is why, according to Derrida, the concept of the transcendental signified as meaningful in and of itself—as the beginning (or the source) and end of all meaning—is oppressive. Indeed, Stillman’s quest to re(dis)cover Edenic language through his son results in his son’s descent into madness and his own incarceration.

When the experiment with his son fails, the elder Peter Stillman sets out to fulfill a revised version of his original goal. He aims to colonize the concept of the transcendental signified—to ultimately arrive at the Source—by pinning down the “essences” of each worldly object. His striving for phallogocentric truth stems from his belief that the language we use no longer corresponds to the “essences” of things—a state of being which Stillman views as unacceptable. Stillman is committed to the idea that after the Fall of Adam and Eve, linguistic signs became duplicitous and their “true meanings” were lost. The world is “in fragments,” he says, and the language we use does not adequately mirror this “new reality. Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent” (Auster 93). He brings in the example of the word “umbrella” to prove his point to Quinn:

“Not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function—in other words, expresses the will of man. …What happens when a thing no longer performs its function? Is it still the thing, or has it become something else?” (93)

Clearly, Stillman’s answer to his rhetorical question is “no”—the notion of a thing’s function is not permanent, not unchanging. An umbrella that is broken, Stillman argues, is no longer an “umbrella,” because its main function has been stripped away. Says Derrida: “the circulation of signs defers the moment in which we can encounter the thing itself, make it ours, consume or expend it, touch it, see it, intuit its presence” (113). This deferral of meaning troubles the elder Peter Stillman, and his foray into the world of Edenic speech marks his attempt to “encounter the thing itself” without embarking on the infinite loop of circulating signs.

As a solution to this crisis, Stillman’s life work becomes an obsessive search for a way to “fix” the state of the world, which he intends to do by (re)inventing a language that reflects the world’s fractured reality (91). He specifies that he will “invent new words that will correspond to the things”—or the things’ new “essences,” as it were (94). Stillman gripes that the majority of humankind views words as immovable stones; but words must change, he insists, to keep up with the changes of life. However, despite Stillman’s professed dedication to the fluidity of words, he still maintains that he is searching for “the truth,” for the fixed, overarching Word. Though he intends to create a new language, he is still attempting to recapture the “absolute intentionality of paternal speech” in which “everything becomes essence” (Little 155). It is with this pursuit that Stillman’s noble intention of “putting the world back together” begins to slip. In the Saussurean system of language, the “thing itself” remains absent. The structuralist system insists on some origin, a source of all meaning, one that unifies the system and cannot be represented by any signifier. This structure, Derrida notes, promulgates “the process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin” (“Structure, Sign and Play” 278). It is this problematic “transcendental signified” that Stillman seeks. Stillman’s character therefore embodies a paradox—like Herman Melville’s Ahab, he is shaking his fist at the phallogocentric system of language but he, himself, is the paternal figure, attempting to restore the patriarchal language which he views as “absolute essence.”

Paul Auster incorporates this idea into the story of young Peter Stillman’s oppressive childhood by utilizing the Lacanian theory of the three orders of psychic development. Coincident with entering Lacan’s Symbolic order and accepting the phallus as the exemplification of the Law of the Father is the development of (Saussurean, patriarchal) language, and Auster illustrates—by hyperbolizing—the effect of this violence as it plays out in the speech patterns of the younger Peter Stillman. The chapter in which Quinn encounters Peter Stillman Jr. marks the longest passage in the novel, and it is also, semantically, the passage with the least to say. Containing an unnerving amalgamation of linguistic paradoxes, Peter’s garbled speech—littered with incomprehensible phrases such as “Yes. No” and “Wimble click crumblechaw beloo”—illuminates the binary nature and oppressive effect (respectively) of patriarchal language (19, 21). As a manifestation of the violence of the trace in action, Peter’s character reveals the effect of the imposition of the patriarchal language of everyday speech, which is then exacerbated by his father’s attempt to rediscover the ultimate patriarchal language of biblical times.

“Big Father” Stillman asserts his power as the phallogocentric source by physically imposing upon his son only his own presence, thereby triggering a literal demonstration of the violence of binary language. But the systematic exploration of names in City of Glass incorporates violence as much as—if not more than—the patriarchal language that traces back to the biblical creation narrative. At first glance, Auster seems to undermine the alleged fixity of names by turning them into a model for the Derridean concept of “freeplay.” Freeplay, Derrida explains, is the very “disruption of presence” (“Structure, Sign and Play” 279). By  assigning the same name to multiple characters and the same character to multiple names, Auster continuously disrupts presence and, therefore, meaning. The name “Peter” is perhaps the most expressive of this idea—the two Stillmans and Quinn’s late son are all named Peter. Quinn’s first name, Daniel, is also the name of the “real” Paul Auster’s son. And, of course, the name “Paul Auster” can refer to the book’s author, to the character Paul Auster, or to Quinn, pretending to be the “real” (character) Paul Auster. The lines of identity are purposely blurred through the complex web of names—there is no set signifier for each signified. The most obvious case to explore is the father-son duo, both named “Peter Stillman.” Their identity situation is further complicated by the appearance of  what seems to be another Stillman at the train station—one whose face “was the exact twin of [the elder] Stillman’s” (68). Yet the two men who appear as identical signifieds do not have identical signifiers, and the two men who have identical signifiers (the father and the son) are not identical people.

Even without taking Quinn’s numerous pseudonyms into account, Quinn’s name is the epitome of Derridean freeplay, thus offering a possible solution to the oppressive pursuit of a one, true meaning. The elder Stillman is particularly delighted by the potential range of meanings suggested by Quinn’s name:

“I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this…quintessence…of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmm. Even rhymes with djinn. Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been. Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn. It flies off in so many little directions at once.” (90)

Stillman’s fascination with Quinn’s name is surprising considering his myopic quest for a single, fixed essence to ascribe to each earthly thing. Yet his analysis of Quinn’s name suggests that he is still grasping for fixity amidst the name’s play—though his name “flies off in so many little directions,” Stillman’s goal is to force those seemingly divergent lines to converge back at the Origin. As William Little points out, this “quintessence of quiddity” connotes “both the essence of the essential (a tautology) and the essence of a trifle (a paradox)” (139). That is, Stillman “likes [Quinn’s] name enormously” because its incorporation of apparent oppositions implies the underlying presence of a larger, all-encompassing Meaning. Indeed, his very identity as the Big Father—as pure presence—problematizes the proliferation of freeplay. In other words, Stillman undercuts this flow of play-fulness by taking on the implicitly patriarchal role of the namer of names, thereby ascribing to the view of names that refers to persons, places, or things specifically by capturing their perceived “essences”—that is, by colonizing them.

The precedent for the normative power of names refers back to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, a tale which fascinates Stillman the elder due to its emphasis on language and its status as “the very last incident of prehistory in the Bible” (Auster 53). In this biblical tale, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (שֵׁם לָּנוּ וְנַעֲשֶׂה) is the primary motivation given for the construction of the Tower. The residents of Shinar aimed to overturn the authority of God by literally invading God’s domain with their phallic structure, thereby prioritizing their agency over God’s. And yet, “Let us make a name for ourselves” may be more than a mere motivation—it could also refer to the actual process by which the people plan to overthrow the paternal Source. For if words have profound metaphysical and ontological power, names—as proper nouns—are the most powerful (and literally effective) words of all. By making a name, this biblical population hoped to initiate their own creation process, to instigate a change in their essences, and therefore their destinies. Peter Stillman’s renaming of all the world’s objects reflects his desire to imitate the people who built the Tower of Babel, and he specifically attempts to harness the language of effective naming in order to “put the world back together again.”

This naming process as a means of encapsulating a thing’s essence and destiny has the same colonizing effect as oppositional language. Since binary logic “has its grounding in the phallus as primary signifier,” it establishes “the law of the father as the code of this order.” [5] While binary language necessarily others one side of the binary, naming reinforces patriarchal norms by imposing a fixed center—and both are equally violent. The references to Babel and the naming process in City of Glass allude to the gendered aspect of this type of patriarchal language—as Jeanette McVicker explains, the Man/woman dichotomy is “a ‘fixed’ opposition that precludes participation by women except in narrowly defined and enforced ways,” and the process of naming serves to define and enforce this opposition.

As Stillman explains, Adam, in the Garden of Eden, is specifically tasked with naming creatures, and his Edenic naming procedure in Genesis 2:19-20 both assigns and captures the “essences” of each being. Medieval biblical scholar David Kimhi elucidates:

“In the Torah’s concept, a name is not simply a convenient convention, but it reflects the nature of each creature and its role in the total scheme of the universe. Thus, as we find over and over in the Torah, the names of people had a profound significance that expressed their mission. Adam had the power to recognize the essence of every animal and name it accordingly.”[6]

Adam’s words are thus not “merely appended” (Auster 52) to things in the arbitrary, Saussurean sense; rather, his words metaphorically bring these creatures to life. Christine Froula, in her seminal article “When Eve Reads Milton,” genders this notion even further, expressing the idea that “the naming ritual enables Adam to translate his fantasy of power from the realm of desire to history and the world, instituting male dominance over language, nature, and woman” (Froula 332). Furthermore, the deployment of the male verb-form (בָּרָא – “He created”) in the creation narrative marks this emergence of a completely male God doing the very action unique to women: creating life. This power dynamic reflects Adam’s womb envy, or his desire to bring to life with words in the same way that Eve is able to bring to life with her physical body, and this is what Stillman aims to do by expelling the mother and taking over the “creation” role. The language of naming as creation, then, perpetuates the notion of the male ability to coopt the female’s creation ability merely through the process of naming which, unsurprisingly,  is also implicitly violent. In Eden, when Adam is commanded to “be fruitful and multiply,” he is also ordered to “subdue” and “dominate” the beings of the earth. The first interaction that Adam has with his fellow creatures features him naming them, which functions to demonstrate his dominion over them. Stillman covets biblical Adam’s ability to use language to capture “the essence of the thing,” and it is this search for essence that weaponizes Derrida’s concept of the trace and turns young Peter Stillman into a babbling shell of a person.

God is conventionally described using male language from the initial utterance in the Torah throughout all of Judeo-Christian history, and prominent Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow argues that the utilization of male language for Authority thus provides a platform for a connection between male language and authority. (Or—in the interest of historical accuracy—perhaps the male language for authority determined the use of male language for Authority.) Plaskow points out that “the maleness of God is not arbitrary—nor is it simply a matter of pronouns” (60). The biblical account of creation is therefore a necessarily hierarchical one, with the male side of the binary holding firm over the subordinate female. As Plaskow rhetorically frames it, “What if the subordination of women in Judaism is rooted in theology, in the very foundations of the Jewish tradition?” (56). These “very foundations” refer back to the initial act of creation—not only the binary language of separation, but the male-verb forms used in every canonical text that references God.

Derrida’s solution to the problem of the trace is to embrace différance as “not,” and Auster puts forth this idea at the outset of his novella by focusing on the being/non-being dichotomy of “is” versus “is not.” The word “not” appears four times in the first paragraph alone, and the term “nothing” is invoked in an utterly all-encompassing way of describing “reality”: “Nothing was real except chance.” This notion of “chance” serves to challenge the idea of fixity, of an inherent, essential meaning. Though Auster makes use of the binary language of “is” / “is not,” he emphasizes the negative language over the positive (which, ironically, is anything but positive in the “certainty” sense), as he upholds the advantages of negative descriptions. Auster’s particular use of the word “not” in the story of “the beginning”—namely, with a voice “asking for someone [Quinn] was not”—further serves to usurp the phallogocentric notion of the paternal Origin (Auster 3). The principle of negative theology springboards off of this idea, albeit with the assumption that God—the source of all meaning, the transcendental signified—exists. However, even without appealing to the problematic notion of a transcendental signified, using the language of “not”s avoids the issue of colonization by avoiding description altogether, a theory that is expressed by Ehud Benor in his paper concerning meaning and reference in the philosophy of Moses Maimonides.

Benor’s elucidation of negative theology calls to mind Lyn Hejinian’s assertion that we humans (represented by the character of Peter Stillman) “long to join words to the world—to close the gap between ourselves and things,” and she believes that we “suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language itself.”[7] The issue of describing God, which rests in God’s inherent unknowability, exposes a heightened version of this “anxiety” and reflects negatively on the insurmountable “gap between ourselves and things.” As Benor explains, linguistic units reference extralinguistic units through the mediation of mental faculties, such as the notions of the essences of things. But because the referent and signified[8] in question—God—is missing, there is a gap in establishing meaning (348). In the case of God, the signifier is also lacking in meaning, given that our familiar concepts (such as beneficent, just, merciful, etc.) cannot refer to an inexpressible being in the same way that (we imagine) they refer to a flesh-and-blood human. That is, these terms are “completely equivocal; they have nothing in common; they share only a name” (340). Peter Stillman fixates on this perceived gapbetween the signifier of language and the signified—or “the thing itself”—with regards to everyday objects, and this deferral of meaning is multiplied exponentially when it comes to the God-figure. Like Maimonides, Stillman recognizes the problem; unlike Maimonides, Stillman still strives to capture an elusive essence of meaning, while the former recognizes the futility of this venture. Maimonides believed that viewing God in negative terms can alleviate this problem because it does not contradict the theological tenet that professes God’s unknowability; negative representation of a thing is a means of describing it without colonizing it, or understanding parts of it while leaving other parts unknown. As Benor notes, it is a method of “indirect identification,” one that “identifies the entity ‘God’ by determining the reference of the word ‘God’ [while leaving] the word devoid of meaning” (349-50).

City of Glass makes frequent use of negative language—indeed, the novella is framed by “not”s, “nothing”s, and “nowhere”s galore, not just in the beginning of the novel, but most notably at the story’s end. And insofar as Peter Stillman’s binary language of essences presupposes an “ineffable” transcendental signified, Quinn’s language of negation presupposes nothing of the sort, endorsing the non-colonizing value of negative language. Mirroring the story’s first page, the last lap of City of Glass opens up with the revelation that

Quinn was nowhere now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing. Not only had he been sent back to the beginning, he was now before the beginning, and so far before the beginning that it was worse than any end he could imagine. (Auster 124)

Yet while Quinn initially feels demoralized by his state of uncertainty—of primordial chaos, as it were—Auster intimates that this state of “nothing” is a positive one due to its avoidance of the violent trace that characterizes patriarchal binary language. It is Quinn, not Stillman, who manages to achieve a higher ideal of language; Quinn retreats outside the system, to the world of non-violent, non-colonizing “not”s, while Stillman’s status as “Big Father” counteracts his own mission from the outset. Indeed, Quinn is only able to achieve this state after Stillman commits suicide—that is, as soon as Big Father exits the picture. Quinn also, fittingly, foregoes names—he “thought back to the man who had been his agent and realized he could not remember his name” (153)—thereby foiling their colonizing effect.

Having arrived outside the system and “before the beginning,” Quinn makes his way to the now-empty Stillman residence. When he gets there, “[t]he place had been stripped bare, and the rooms now held nothing.” What’s more, “Each [room] was identical to every other”—that is, there is no difference, and therefore no trace. As Quinn retreats to the darkest room in the apartment, this negative language of non-difference persists. Quinn wakes up in the room and cannot tell “whether it was the night of that day or the night of the next. It was even possible… that it was not night at all.” Auster hearkens back to the binary day/night dichotomy that characterizes the biblical creation narrative in order to subvert it—in City of Glass, day and night are not dichotomous poles, but concepts that co-exist. As Quinn notes, even if it were dark in his present location, it would be light somewhere else. Suddenly, “[n]ight and day were no more than relative terms: they did not refer to an absolute condition. At any given moment, it was always both” (152). By relinquishing a commitment to an “absolute” signified, or  an ultimate source of meaning, Quinn successfully exits the system of patriarchal oppression.

Before ending up at the Stillmans’ (former) apartment, Quinn wanders aimlessly around New York City, scrupulously recording his observations in his red notebook. Amidst his meandering, he scribbles down an idea of the French poet Charles Baudelaire:

“’It seems to me that I will always be happy in the place where I am not.’ Or, more bluntly: Wherever I am not is the place where I am myself. Or else, taking the bull by the horns: Anywhere out of the world.” (132)

Through Quinn, Auster posits this need to exit the system, to embrace a world of “not”-ness, in order to avoid the pitfalls of colonizing, patriarchal language. Yet it becomes clear that merely using negative language is not sufficient—though the philosophy of negative language addresses the colonizing problem of binary language, it fails to appropriately dispel the patriarchal notion of the existence of a transcendental signified, given that its roots are planted firmly in the realm of negative theology. Benor touches upon this thorny concept in his paper:

Just as the universe emanates from the ineffable One in a process of differentiation and particularization that increasingly obscures its sublime source and true being, the human intellect approaches the intellectual overflow that pervades reality by overcoming veils of perception and conception, negating all that obscures its vision until it can gaze, if only for a fleeing moment, upon absolute being. (Benor 344-45)

As is typical in the discourse of God-language, Benor describes God as “ineffable.” Yet for twentieth-century author Donald Barthelme, labeling something as “ineffable” is anathema precisely because it suggests that there is something ineffable—which is a veritable contradiction in terms. Another problem with negative language is that it keeps the “Big Father” invisible. Negative language ensures that the “sublime source” is suitably obscured; or in Lacanian terms, the phallus is kept resolutely veiled. These “veils” presuppose a hidden God, one that, according to Freud, is classically patriarchal, and one that perpetuates the oppression of “difference” that categorizes the binary system of language. In Moses and Maimonides, Freud credits “the preference for an invisible God” as a provision for “the establishment of patriarchal power.”[9] Given the problematic situation that arises even through the use of negative language, there must also a negation of the self—or a decentering of the self—in order to fully exit the patriarchal system.

Auster advocates for escaping the colonizing pitfalls of binary language (as manifested by Peter Stillman the younger) by utilizing negative language, and Quinn disrupts the colonizing nature of the naming process by performing it on himself. Quinn’s adoption of the name “Paul Auster” gives him a new life, a new personality, and a new “I/(Private) Eye.” In explaining Quinn’s creation of his detective-writer alias, “William Wilson,” he notes that “a part of him had died…and he did not want it coming back to haunt him. It was then that he had taken on the name of William Wilson.” As Quinn’s authorial alias, Wilson “had been born within Quinn himself,” but now “led an independent life” (Auster 4). The effect of the combination of Quinn’s self-naming and his use of negative language is the act of self-negation; by decentering the self, Quinn avoids the violence of difference in a way that “Big Father” Stillman does not. Whereas Stillman looks only to himself (that is, to the phallogocentric source) in order to come up with universal truths about the essences of things, Quinn feels that “his words had been severed from him, that now they were a part of the world at large” (Auster 156). Stillman imagines that the world rests on his shoulders, that he “hold[s] the key” to language, that it is his job “to put it back together again.” He is committed to sacrificing anything—even his own son—for the sake of uncovering the ultimate “truth” (91), but Quinn recognizes that “the world [is] outside of him” (4), and his assumption of the role of “Paul Auster” exemplifies this [notion of being] “taken out of himself.” Auster delineates Quinn’s transformation:

By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, [Quinn] felt incomparably lighter and freer. At the same time, he knew it was all an illusion. But there was a certain comfort in that. He had not really lost himself; he was merely pretending…The fact that there was now a purpose to his being Paul Auster—a purpose that was becoming more and more important to him—served as a kind of moral justification for the charade and absolved him of having to defend his life. For imagining himself as Auster had become synonymous in his mind with doing good in the world. (61-2)

Quinn subverts the colonizing nature of the naming process by performing it on himself in a redemptive act of self-negation. Unlike the residents of Shinar in the Tower of Babel story, Quinn does not use the naming procedure in order to colonize or capture a universal Truth, but to “do good in the world.” Taking on the name “Paul Auster” allows Quinn to exist in a world outside of himself, and Auster’s contention that there is “a certain comfort” in this suggests that that the decentering of the self is key to escaping the phallogocentric system of oppression.

In assessing his transformation into the persona of Paul Auster, Quinn notes that Auster’s memories, fears, dreams, and joys are all “a blank to him.” As a result, Quinn concludes that he must “remain solely on his own surface, looking outward for sustenance” (Auster 75). Looking “outward” and not inward, Quinn’s “surface” life becomes his only life—and this, Auster suggests, is not a bad way to live at all. This “surface,” a nod to Jean Boudrillard’s simulacra, intimates a worldview that disparages the transcendental signified and rejects the notion of any signifieds at all. While the aforementioned “gap between ourselves and things” causes “anxiety” for a man like Peter Stillman, it is not an issue for Quinn, who know represents the shift from a Stillmanesque modernism to un-patriarchal postmodernist thought. In the words of writer Lance Olsen:

Interest, then, no longer falls on the modern and premodern quest for a transcendental signified, some ultimate realm of truth, some eventual coherence, some over there that in the end helps define, articulate, unify, and make intelligible the here. Rather, interest falls on the signifier and its relationship both to the writer and reader.[10]

Or as Boudrillard expresses, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”[11] This contention that we have replaced “reality” with the mere “signs of reality” is far from fatalistic. Viewing our language as referring to an ultimate reality and eventually tracing back to a transcendental signified perpetuates the Stillmanesque system of oppression. Where binary (and necessarily hierarchical) language represents “reality,” the system of oppression persists. But a world of surfaces allows for Derridean, linguistic play and proposes a break from the centered, fixed world of essential meaning. The “fragmented” state of the world that so angers Peter Stillman is precisely what is good about the world. “Fragments,” Donald Barthelme wrote, “are the only forms I trust.”[12]

William Little suggests that the elder Peter Stillman is “trying to live up to his name [by insuring] a centered stillness of meaning and identity” (Little 158)—but Quinn, by contrast, “no longer [has] any interest in himself”(Auster 156), to the extent that he can barely recognize himself in the mirror. By going back “before the beginning,” Quinn also reverts back to a pre-Mirror Stage version of himself, where there is “no difference…no absence” (Moi 99) and no centered concept of the self. As he studies himself in the glass, he slowly begins to notice that “this person bore a certain resemblance to the man he had always thought of as himself”—but he does not certifiably identify the image in the mirror as himself. Quinn shrugs and muses, “It did not really matter. He had been one thing before, and now he was another. It was neither better nor worse” (Auster 143). This gentle acceptance of a decentered self marks the way in which Quinn succeeds where Stillman failed—that is, he achieves satisfaction only after relinquishing the colonizing quest for meaning, domination, and absolute presence.

In City of Glass, Paul Auster exposes the inherent violence of language through the interplay between a father-son duo, both named Peter Stillman, while presenting an alternative to this oppressive binary through the novella’s protagonist, Quinn. The elder Peter Stillman, disturbed by the impotence of language with regards to describing the ostensible “reality” of the world in which we live, takes on the role of the phallogocentric source in his monomaniacal quest  to eliminate the “gap” between what he takes to be the thing and the thing’s essence. He inflicts violence—physical and patriarchal—on his son, Peter, in his initial attempt to recapture the lost Word of the Torah, and then resorts to the colonizing process of naming when that experiment fails to produce the desired result. Taking on the role of the detective, Quinn initially follows Stillman—both literally and metaphorically—to more Babel and more confusion, as Quinn makes the same mistake as his subject by “looking for a sign” (Auster 83). But Quinn soon comes to reside in the Boudrillardesque world of simulacra, a place of freeplay that envisions an alternative to patriarchal language. The negative language associated with Quinn functions to brush aside the patriarchal problem of oppositional language, while his act of decentering the self embraces a preferable world of “surfaces” that dismisses the colonizing idea of a transcendental signified. At the close of the book, the narrator breaks apart the fixity of the Word by insisting that Quinn’s red notebook—the “source” of his tale, as it were—is “only half the story.” As Quinn fades away, we realize we are left in a “bare, empty” place with only fragments—and that this is exactly where we want to be.


Works Cited

Auster, Paul. “City of Glass.” The New York Trilogy. London: Penguin, 1990. 3-158.

Benor, Ehud Z. “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’ Negative Theology.” The Harvard Theological Review 88.3 (1985): 339-60. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

Boudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques, Antony Easthope, and Kate McGowan. “Jacques Derrida from ‘Differance’ (1968).” A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (2004): 108-32.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing      and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge,  279.

Froula, Christine. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy.” Critical   Inquiry (1983): 321-47.

Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” Editorial. The Language of Inquiry 13 Oct. 2009:  The Poetry Foundation. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

Little, William G. “Nothing to Go On: Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’” Contemporary Literature 38.1 (1997): 133-63. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

McVicker, Jeanette. “Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father: ‘Girls Talk’ and the Displacement of the Logos.” Boundary 2 16 (1989): 363-90. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

Moi, Toril. Sexual-Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985.

Olsen, Lance. “Linguistic Pratfalls in Barthelme.” South Atlantic Review 51.4 (1986): 69-77. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

Plaskow, Judith. “The Right Question Is Theological.” The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics,1972-2003. Ed. Donna Berman. Boston: Beacon, 2005.

Scherman, Nosson. The Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1998.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Riedlinger. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986.

Sturrock, John (1979) (Ed.): Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida. Oxford: Oxford UP.

[1] Introduced by Jacques Derrida, “phallogocentrism” is a conflation of the terms “phallocentrism” and “logocentrism.” The latter refers to the adherence to “the Word” as representative of irreducible meaning in the tradition of Western philosophy, and the former reflects Derrida’s view of the privileging of the male phallus in the construction of meaning. Taken together, “phallogocentrism” encapsulates the way in which this adherence to an ultimate source of meaning, or an origin, is inescapably gendered to the male viewpoint.

[2] All translations of the Hebrew Bible come from www.mechon-mamre.org.

[3] According to J. L. Austin, speech is itself considered a type of act if the words themselves accomplish something. Classifying God’s creation act as a performative utterance demonstrates the centrality of language to the Judeo-Christian tradition and highlights the incredible power that underlies language in these belief systems.

[4] Sturrock, John (1979) (Ed.): Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] McVicker, Jeanette. “Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father: “Girls Talk” and the Displacement of the Logos.” Boundary 2 16 (1989): 363-90.

[6] Commentary quoted by Nosson Scherman in The Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1998.

[7] Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry, 1985.

[8] It should be noted that there is a difference between the “signified” and the “referent” – while the former is a type of “mental construct,” the latter is the “actual object” in our world.

[9] As quoted in Froula, Christine. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy.” Critical Inquiry (1983): 321-47.

[10] Olsen, Lance. “Linguistic Pratfalls in Barthelme.” South Atlantic Review 51.4 (1986): 69-77.

[11] Boudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

[12] Donald Barthelme, The Talk of the Town, “See The Moon?,” The New Yorker, March 12, 1966, p. 46.


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