Excess, Extension, and the Partial Object (Eclipse, Shroud, Ancient Light)

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Mefisto or the struggle for being

The first part of the novel introduces the reader to the narrator’s troubled relationship with his family during his childhood together with his universe which is rife with numbers and formulae. Gabriel Swan is a mathematics genius whose brilliance is recognised by his schoolmaster Father Barker as well as his subsequent math teacher Mr. Pender. Later, he meets the enigmatic, obscene, and profane Felix who becomes his mentor. Together they live with the ageing mathematician Mr Kasperl, who is involved in some risky mining business that ends up being a catastrophe for everyone. Sophie, a deaf girl whom Swan becomes infatuated with, turns out to be Kasperl’s bed mate. The first part ends with an explosion in Ashburn killing Kasperl and Sophie, leaving Gabriel heavily injured and disfigured. The second part deals with Gabriel’s nightmarish recovery in hospital, his subsequent struggle with severe disfigurement, pain, and drug addition. Felix, the only character who accompanies Gabriel from the first part into the second, resurfaces and with his help, Gabriel becomes involved with some secret underground project run by another old mathematician, Kosok. Adele, Kosok’s daughter and Gabriel’s second infatuation, dies as a result of an overdose caused by a drug supply provided by Gabriel in return for sexual intercourse.
Mefisto is a narrative about the gap between numbers and things in external reality and the narrator’s strife to explore the possibility of bridging this gap. As in other works by Banville, Gabriel realizes that he is “[a] riven thing, incomplete” (130). In Mefisto, the narrator’s uneasy relation with his self is explored through the idea of twins. Wondering about a pair of twins at school, he is fascinated by “the thought of being able to escape effortlessly, as if by magic, into another name, another self […] and the ease to with which they could assert their separate identities, simply by walking away from each other” (17). Yet, looking at other twins does not provide him with sufficient knowledge as to how to relate to his absent sibling. This is arguably why he introduces the idea of twins in the opening lines of the novel by evoking the myth of the Gemini brothers, Castor and Polydeuces. That is to say, unable to find the way in which he can make sense of his dual existence, he attempts to find it elsewhere, namely, mythology. According to the myth, Castor was the mortal of the pair while Polydeuces was conceived as a result of Leda’s sexual encounter with Zeus, who seduced Leda in the guise of a swan. Swan is also the narrator’s last name, thus linking the narrator to a mythic and divine heritage. The myth, then, serves two functions in Gabriel’s fantasmatic scene: on the one hand it is an answer to the child’s primordial question regarding the origin of babies and, on the other, it provides him with a narrative to make sense of his relationship with the dead sibling. Like the demigod Polydeuces who asked Zeus to enable him to share his immortality with Castor, thereby resurrecting the dead twin, Gabriel sets upon himself the task of bringing his nameless dead twin brother back to life through mathematics. The latter’s significance in Gabriel’s narrative is evident in the first page of the novel in which he identifies the “mathematics of gemination” in the middle of life as a process of “chance” (3). He rejects the “random” (3) nature of the reality he is thrown into and in response to the ruthlessness of chaos he develops “my equations, my symmetries, and will insist on them” (4). Regarding the intensity of the way in which he relates to his brother’s absence, he says: I had something always beside me. It was not a presence but a momentous absence. From it there was no escape. A connecting cord remained, which parturition and even death had not broken, along which by subtle tugs and thrums I sensed what was not there. No living double could have been so tenacious as this dead one. Emptiness weighed on me. It seemed to me I was not all my own, that I was being shared (17-8).
This rather lengthy passage is chosen advisedly as it contains two elements which are crucial in the narrator’s subjective existence. Firstly, the dead twin has left a peculiar, unnameable, inescapable absence that links Gabriel to an emptiness. Secondly, Gabriel speaks of a sensation of “being shared.” The latter is expressive of an anxiety-provoking passivity that lies at the heart of his subjectivity. In order to link the two elements, a detour through Lacan’s theory of psychosis is necessary. But for now, suffice it to say that the indestructibility of the “connecting cord” links the dichotomy absence/presence, forever binding being and non-being, weight and emptiness. Thus, the twin motif also serves as a way for the narrator to problematize the binary opposition presence/absence and introduce into their relation a different dimension. He emphasizes that his subjective duality is not so much indicative of a multiplicity (i.e. two subjects) as it is characteristic of a lack of wholeness. That is to say, at the level of subjective experience there exists a hole, so to speak, a “tenacious” absence that is part and parcel of his sense of self, rendering self-identity and self-containment forever elusive. This intense absence accompanies the narrator all along the narrative and figures consistently under different guises in his interaction with the world. For instance, the house is plagued by an “airy emptiness” (63) as it is filled with “big empty rooms” (61).

The narrator’s exposure to the Real

In Mefisto, the paternal signifier fulfils none of its Symbolic functions: Gabriel’s father provides neither the prohibition nor the protection the Symbolic order is supposed to offer. In fact, the father remains nameless throughout the novel. Not only he is a scarce language-user, he does not make distinctions, he is colourless and indistinct himself. His epithet is “dull” (8). He is a poor and unconvincing representative of the Symbolic order. Other family members that could supply the Name-of-the-Father are equally absent from Gabriel’s psychic scene. Potential father figures are often portrayed in terms of their appearance and remain largely Imaginary. They are depicted as ridiculous, evil, bewildering, and physically overwhelming. The school headmaster has “big feet” that “stuck out from under his desk” (22). A “large unhappy man,” Father Barker, he has a “moon face” and is nicknamed “Hound” (23). Later in senior school, his math teacher, Mr Pender, far from being depicted as a figure that can represent the Law, is described in animal imagery, transformed in Gabriel’s psychic scene into a sly, surreptitious animal: Pender has “a narrow wedge-shaped head and long, curved limbs, he moved with the stealth of some tree-climbing creature” (24). Insofar as the word “stealth” is associated with secrecy as well as hidden acts or agendas it points to the narrator’s specific relation with potential father (Symbolic) figures that will be developed further on with regard to the latter’s paranoiac perceptions.
Since it is the Symbolic order that structures one’s sexual, social, and linguistic identity, the failure of its proper installation leaves the psychotic with a problematic sense of individuality. One consequence, according to Vanheule, is that he “remains an outsider” with regards to the social order (Psychosis 68). In the case of Gabriel, his problematic installation in the Symbolic order is manifest via his awkward relation to his proper name: when he is asked about his name, he refers to himself as “Nobody” and is mocked by Felix18 for his last (paternal) name, Swan (17). His lack of belonging to the social order is further evident in his relation with language. As a child, he invents “a private language, a rapid aquatic burbling, which made people uneasy” (9). Besides, while he is able to carry out extremely complex calculations he does not feel at ease with everyday numerical concepts such as dates and age: “I could do all sorts of mental calculations, yet the simplest things baffled me. Dates I found especially slippery. I was never sure what age I was, not knowing exactly what to subtract from what” (21).

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From epistemological quest to paranoid perceptions: from signifiers to signs

Contrary to the problematic way in which Gabriel relates to ordinary numbers, he feels “at ease” with “pure numbers”: “if a sum had solid things in it I balked, like a hamfisted juggler, bobbing and ducking frantically as half crowns and cabbages, dominos and sixpences, whizzed out of control around my head” (21). Gabriel’s uneasy relation with ordinary numbers has to do with the fact that they represent solidity. That is to say, they conjure up a sort of presence he fundamentally lacks as we saw earlier. The encounter with concrete presence throws him off balance insofar as it highlights his lack of positive (Symbolic) existence. On the other hand, insofar as they function at a purely formal level, pure numbers and complex “mental calculations” do not necessarily require understanding for their functioning.23 Rather, what is vital for carrying out such abstract calculations is mathematical knowledge. In this sense, pure numbers offer a convenient, formal, substitute realm in which Gabriel can pursue his quest despite his epistemological predicament at the Linguistic-Symbolic level (which is governed by meaning and understanding). In other words, his lack of access to the signifier leads him to pursue his epistemological quest at the level of the pure sign. This is why he is more at home when it comes to knowledge: “about mathematics I knew everything, but understood nothing” (233). Similarly, he claims “the more [he] knew, the less [he] seemed to understand” (187). However, Gabriel’s over-emphasis on his ability for mental abstraction increasingly isolates his psychic reality in an Imaginary shell. According to Lacan, for the psychotic, the function of the Imaginary becomes, not to balance one’s sense of self as a stable ego, but to patch the hole created by the lack of the Name-of-the-Father. It aims at the “reconstruction” of Symbolic reality by filling the void created by this lack. But, at the same time, it starts to construct a separate “field of signification” (Psychoses 121): “the subject moves into another mode of mediation […] and substitutes for symbolic mediation a profusion, an imaginary proliferation, into which the central signal of a possible mediation is introduced in a deformed and profoundly asymbolic fashion” (87). It is this Imaginary proliferation which is sometimes called psychotic delusion, paranoia, etc. The paranoid delusion, in the Freudo-Lacanian sense, is understood as a “defence” against the return of what has been previously rejected, namely the Name-of-the-Father.24 Therefore, paranoia is not an illness but a protection against the invasion of the Name-of-the-Father which, for the psychotic, returns menacingly from the Real. Thus paranoia, as Aline Flieger remarks, becomes a “mode of perception and thought” (“Postmodern Perspective” 91). The paranoiac supposes that behind the disorder of appearances, there is a hidden reality somewhere, a truth of which he is absolutely certain, that gives sense to whatever happens to him. This truth is usually a conspiracy prepared against him by what he conceives of as the Other of the Other, the ultimate Other that pulls the strings from beyond.

Table of contents :

1. John Banville’s subject of narration
2. The Lacanian subject
3. Aim and scope of the thesis
I. Psychotic Certainty, Hysteric Play
Chapter One: Psychotic Perceptions in Mefisto
1. Mefisto or the struggle for being
2. The narrator’s exposure to the Real
3. The neurotic subject of narration in Birchwood
4. From epistemological quest to paranoid perceptions, from signifiers to signs
5. Postmodern subject of narration?
Chapter Two: Hysteric Structures in The Book of Evidence
1. The hysteric subject
2. Discomfort in Symbolic identity
3. Impossible sexuality
4. Hysteric speech
5. Preponderance of the Imaginary: play
6. The reconstruction of the Symbolic: the hammer
II. Uncertainty, Undecidability
Chapter Three: The (Post)modern Gothic in Eclipse
1. From the uncanny to the Gothic
2. Haunting, stillness, silence
3. Spectrality, virtuality, duality
4. Gothic sublimity, extimity as Gothic
5. Extimate encounters
6. Spectrality and duality revisited: doppelgängers
Chapter Four: Excess, Extension, and the Partial Object (Eclipse, Shroud, Ancient Light)
1. Uncanny reflections
2. The uncanny eye: the gaze as object a
3. Partial bodies
4. The uncanny voice
III. Frames, Surfaces, and Aesthetic Selves
Chapter Five: Framing the Elusive Self in Shroud
1. Autobiography, defacement, effacement
2. Surrogacy, theatricality, performativity
3. Surrogacy, textuality, materiality
4. From de Man to Nietzsche: the self at the edge
Chapter Six: Framing the Other, the Other as a Frame for the Self (Eclipse, Shroud, Ancient Light)
1. Framing “the woman”
2. From the woman to the medium: framing vision
3. From the medium back to the woman: materiality and de Man revisited
4. From the woman to the self: Nietzsche revisited


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