Sunday, April 19, 2009

Discourse and Terror

Paul Auster's Leviathan foregrounds the way a particular discourse is contingent upon a narrative construct. What a person sees in a situation depends upon the stories that she puts faith in, a perspective built upon communication. The viewpoints of the characters in the novel are each dependent upon who they trust and what story they believe. For example, the narrator, Peter Aaron, comes to understand the differing points of view of a relationship when his friend, Ben Sachs, describes his marital situation differently than his wife Fanny. Ben lies to her to keep her happy, fabricating stories of infidelity to maintain his wife's interest in him. "Words have power, after all." And Ben describes the way the stories "were all very real to her."

When Ben Sachs becomes a terrorist, bombing replicas of the Statue of Liberty, it is to confront the prevailing discourse of freedom in the U.S. "He simply wanted America to look into itself and mend its ways. In that sense, there was something almost Biblical about his exhortations, and after a while he began to sound less like a political revolutionary than some anguished, soft-spoken prophet." Ben aspires to reopen the discussion of what freedom means and not allow a statue to be a misguided icon that people hide behind. This use of bombs to send a message might be "[u]nlike the typical terrorist pronouncement," but it brings to the forefront the idea of terrorism as discourse, violence that attempts to hijack the discourse and put forth its own message. However, the text's critical awareness is always focused on particular perspectives. Terror, thus, amounts to one perceptive, and even though it dominates the headlines due to fear and horror, it must be dealt with through discursive means.

The question then becomes, what is literature's role in this mess? Can writers, in the novel's case both Ben Sachs and Peter Aaron, effectively shape discourse so that terrorism will not? Paul Auster does not answer these questions because Ben becomes the terrorist as a result of his inability to influence political dialogue, and Peter writes to challenge the inevitable opinions that will be formed when the government learns that Ben Sachs is the bomber called the "Phantom of Liberty."


Natasha Albert said...

It is no surprise that writers are loosing their influence in the contemporary era. In the world of You Tube and Hulu there are endless streams of images that attempt to compete for our attention in a world where not a lot of things seem to be that original, for we are a culture that has seen it all. Literature’s role is to create a unique and compelling narrative that adds yet one more perspective to a world that is full of them. In an attempt to bring understanding to the efforts behind terrorist actions literature should try to create a narrative for the terrorist. DeLillo attempts to create this narrative in Mao II and Auster’s responds in Leviathan, stating that the writer has lost its influence and DeLillo’s effort is in vain. Even someone like Sachs who has suffered on behalf of the American ‘leviathan’, just as the terrorists feel they have, cannot depict a narrative that insights political change in the way terrorism can through the vehicle of the spectacle. Sachs himself becomes a spectacle and we do not know if Peters efforts to vindicate Sachs’ actions prevailed. The role of literature in Leviathan is merely a commentary of the spectacle that dominates the consciousness of society. Peter comments on Sachs’ actions and in no way attempts to further his message. Peter struggles throughout the novel to convey his own idea of Sachs and his message, highlighting the inadequacy of language in the novel. Auster sees a bleak future for the author, where words can longer compete in a world that is dominated by the spectacle.

U. S. Wanker said...

I simply can't take as bleak a view of Auster's Leviathan as Natasha, probably because I take a more interior, mythological view of literature -- maybe my fundamentalist upbringing, abandon the bible for Dostoyevsky and his progeny.

I agree with the original post that the reliability of communications plays an important thematic role in the plot and with most good post-modern literature, the layers of potential meaning are onioned nicely. Paul Auster to Peter Aaron to Ben Sachs. Fact to Fiction to Fact and back again.

Sure there is a surface terrorism element, but it really isn't about politics or terrorism, but the internal struggle that all humans and writers in particular undergo to reach some sort of liberty from their words.

Sachs surrenders his liberty to find it, from being locked up at 18 to going on the run in a cross country spree of blowing up Statue of Liberty replicas. I reach just the opposite conclusion of Natasha -- the language of the novel is not dead as long as authors like Auster compel us to examine our world.

On a side note, I think the masses have always been distracted by spectacle -- even prior to You Tube and Hulu. Authors like any other etertainer have to appeal to the groundling aspects and those that last seem to combine the high brow with the low.

U. S. Wanker said...

entertainer --- Jeez.