Université de Charles de Gaulle - Lille 3
Reading John Banville's work as a literature belonging to the modernist or postmodernist traditions1 in fiction seems to have preoccupied the criticism about his work since the very first general critical introduction about Banville written by Rudiger Imhof. On a geberal consensus, however, one could claim that it is a fiction preoccupied with the relation between imagination and reality especially, how the former “operates upon the latter.”2. The boundary between reality and fiction is constantly addressed by John Banville. A typical Banvillean protagonist is a first person male narrator who tells his story to an imagined audience demonstrating a theatricality which is inherent to nearly all of Banville's protagonists. However, in his rendition, more often than not, the narrator stages reality and fiction side by side in such a way that at times it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary. This results, according to Elke D’hoker, in their “inability to tell apart fact from fiction,” for they “persistently [read] reality in terms of fiction or fantasy, and at the same time, [they] fully believe these fantastic interpretations to be real”3
Moreover, imagination, for Banville, acts as an agent that can infuse the protagonist-narrators with life and its lack might drive Freddie Montgommery, the narrator of The Book of Evidence, to murder. Imagination, or in other words, that which belongs to the world of virtual images, thoughts, and phantasms seem to function as the virtuality which creates and maintains real life. Also, the relation between the virtual and real/actual is further complicated when the narrative is rendered in a self-conscious, metafictional style allowing the reader to assume that it cannot be treated as a realistic text because of a number of references in the novel which suggest that the text is merely a construct of the narrator’s imagination. For instance, in Birchwood one easily comes across such remarks as “Such scenes I see, or I imagine I see…Be assured I am inventing.”4 [My italics] On the same token, in Mefisto, metafiction is combined with what Hedwig Schwall calls a “psychotic shell”5 enabling Gabriel Swan, the protagonist, to create a wholly different version of signifying universe of paranoid delusions.
Metafiction, as a feature of postmodernist literature, questions belief in objective reality and truth. If objectivity is taken from our lives and if, as the Poststructuralists claim, our being is given to us arbitrarily, then what we have as individuals are “roles” rather than “selves.”6 If we do not have the ability to consciously form our subjectivity as individuals and if we are assigned roles randomly, it can be contended that individuals in quotidian reality and characters in fictional reality are given functions roughly in a similar way. Accordingly, “the study of characters in novels may provide a useful model for understanding the construction of subjectivity in the world outside novels.”(3) This attitude towards fiction allows one to assume that the world created in novels, for instance, can be viewed as an “alternative” to the world that we have in real everyday life. (100) Thus, the world in fiction becomes another possibility to the quotidian 'real' world. Consequently, it can be argued that the real world has no superiority over the world in fiction because both worlds are in a way fictional and there is no such thing as the real world but rather, “alternatives” of worlds. Therefore what seems to be a preoccupation for Banville's protagonists, insofar as their narratives are metafictional, is the illusive and virtual nature of reality itself.
In the absence of truth and reliable objective reality Banville's narrators embark on a journey of subjectivity exploring the very notion of being and self. In Birchwood and Mefisto, like in other Banville’s works, the protagonist realizes that he is incomplete and his narrative becomes a quest for self completion through the motif of twins as two halves which, by being reunified, would recreated a whole stable self. Elke D'hoker sees these quests to be accompanied by the “problem of representation.” In her Visions of Alterity: Representation in the Work of John Banville she studies Banville's fiction as an “investigation of the relations between self and other, and self and self, as negotiated in representation” where she examines representation as “mediating the gap between subject and object.”7 In chapter 7 of her study she focuses on instances of the double in relation to “mind-body” dualism in the case of The Book of Evidence which she claims to be a deconstruction of true versus false self. On the other hand, Brendan McNamee argues that Banville’s protagonists “long for a sense of completion that neither their own psyche nor the world can satisfy.” He sees the novels as “theological and mystical” and claims that Banville’s characters are “searching for God.”8 Interesting as it is, seeing Banville as indulging in “spirituality” does not seem to be the most fruitful approach when dealing with narrators whose primary concern seems to be the tension between reality and fiction accompanied with an intense suspicion towards any conception of solid truth.
Other critics such as Laura Izarra emphasize “the process of a new aesthetic synthesis in John Banville’s work.” Izarra argues that there is a “new synthesis” in Banville’s work and foresees “the end of postmodernism.”9 She also argues that “Banville's literary discourse lies on the border between two genres, the novel and critical theory” and she identifies “Banville's 'new synthesis in the process of 'becoming'.”(159) She rightly claims that the reason for Banville's style as a critical writer is what she calls the “crisis of the word.” (66) In other words, the gap between word and world; the signifier and signified. Like Izarra, Ingo Berensmeyer considers this gap as the “crisis of contemporary literature” (13) where there is “[n]o guarantee for a 'true' perception of reality.” Put differently, when nothing is truly what it seems, when everything is mediated by a third agent, i. e. language, Banville's protagonists are alienated from their world. Ultimately, “this estrangement drives them into states of neurosis, world-wariness, despair, and into desperate meaningless actions as the only possible means of escape.” (249) Banville's narrators, for that matter, speculate on the nature of language in a manner reminiscent of Post-structuralist thinkers. Freddie, for instance, muses:
I ask myself if perhaps the thing itself – badness – does not exist at all, if these strangely vague and imprecise words are only a kind of ruse, a kind of elaborate cover for the fact that nothing is there. Or perhaps the words are an attempt to make it be there? Or perhaps there is something, but the words invented it. (55)
There is an awareness on the part of the protagonists that there is no way out of language, that they are forever imprisoned by it, that language, as a system in its own right, imposes its rules upon them, out of which there is no meaning consequently depriving us of the freedom to articulate our very own desires. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, “[o]ne starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants […] we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”10 In a recent interview with the Libération, Banville talked once again about his-and consequently that of his protagonists'- preoccupation with the nature of language describing his daily work as a “struggle” with language11:
Le langage est difficile, si résistant. Quand on relit un article, une lettre d’amour ou à son banquier, on se fait souvent la réflexion que cela ressemble à ce qu’on voulait dire, mais pas exactement. Qui parle alors ? Le langage lui-même. J’ai souvent pensé que nous ne parlions pas mais que nous étions parlés. La lutte avec le langage est mon travail quotidien.12
If language speaks us rather than the other way around, then the protagonists are faced with an almost impossible task of understanding the world through the very language that shapes it. Ultimately, the narratives become a way to deal with the predicament of the undecidability of the “thing-in-itself,”13 or an exploration of the possibilities of trying to find a means of understanding it. Indeed, this attempt is perpetually doomed to failure and I think it is fair to claim that Banville's novels can be read as explorations of this failure. The failure is essentially rooted in the limits of consciousness split by language resulting in a divided perception that will never allow the possibility to perfectly “know” the thing-in-itself, but rather give one the illusory sense of understanding it. If one's sense of self is not unitary with itself, but rather split between an imaginary self, a real self, and ideal self etc., and if, on the same token, one's reality is similarly split between a subjective, objective, virtual, and real ones, then a stable sense of self would seem fairly impossible to attain. Rather, one perpetually inhabits an in-between sort of transitional liminality of a multiplicity of selves and worlds.
However, rather than a celebration of the sense of liberty following the destruction of truth systems as an aspect of postmodernist spirit, Banville's protagonists seem to demonstrate a feeling of disappointment if not disillusionment. According to Joseph McMinn, “Banville can deconstruct with the best of them but there is never the feeling is his work that the exposure of constructed myths about identity and nature is a simple cause for celebration.”14 (7) Derek Hand sees Banville's work as a “radical 'in-betweenness'”oscillating between Joyce and Beckett, as
being neither a Joycean modernist, nor a Beckettian postmodernist but an amalgamation of both; his desiring a word or words that can grasp the real, yet simultaneously despairing that such a language is possible; his many characters' relentless search for true authentic self that always ends with the pessimistic conclusion that aching hollowness is perhaps all there is.15
Banville’s fiction, says McMinn “has created its own very distinctive mythology about postmodern consciousness.”16 Rather than rejoicing the decentered sense of self, Banville and his characters seem to have developed a mode of exploring subjectivity that lies in a persistence, an urge to tell stories.
This urge perhaps is the only reason why they do not fall into absolute nihilism, but rather they find in the “ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things” brief moments of harmony and order in which some form of essence “breaks forth, and something is not explained, not forgiven, but merely illuminated.” (25) These brief moments represent for Gabriel a form of “fixity within continuity.” In dealing with the sense of failure, loss, and absence, their aim becomes the strife to find an articulation of the very absence and failure. Aware of the limits caused by language, “all of Banville's protagonists are driven […] to give words to [their] thoughts, no matter how imperfect they can be.”17 They accept the challenge to struggle with language heroically and keep on narrating. “The role for a new type of hero,” Izarra argues, is “to continue to search for words, symbols and fictions adequate to our predicament.” (176)
The insistence or urge for narration may well be Banville's Beckettianism. Facing what Alain Badiou calls “Truth-Event,” as with Beckett's cloising phrases of The Unnamable --“You must go on, I can't go on. I'll go on” – the writer assumes an attitude that involves a necessity to “go on.” According to Slavoj Žižek, “what 'must go on' is ultimately writing itself” as a “necessity,” as “something that ne cesse pas a s'ecrire [sic], that doesn't cease writing itself.”18 . In this regard, Žižek reads Beckett's trilogy “as a gradual getting rid of subjectivity, a gradual reduction of subjectivity to a minimum of a subject without subjectivity […] a subject of the DRIVE [sic] which is Freud's name for immortal persistence, 'going on.'”19 By disintegrating the subject, Beckett shows his characters' “subjective destitution.” Similarly, as Scwhall notes “[t]he whole of Banville's oeuvre is one big enterprise to deconstruct the illusion of identity. His fiction is a laboratory in which he tries to split the subject [...].”20
Indeed, the issues Banville's protagonists ponder – the divided, incomplete self, deconstructing the world, preoccupation with language -- echoes a concern central to Poststructuralists like Jacques Lacan who totally rejects a unified self as such and rather formulates his famous model of the human mind in which he argues that the psyche is made of three interwoven dimensions namely the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. For Lacan, too, language becomes the first and foremost object of study. Language is what we use to construct the world as well as our sense of self.21 According to Lacan, then, the narrators in Banville face the possibility that nothing is real or solid. One's sense of self is not real either, but becomes, rather, an illusion, a virtual entity. Therefore, one could argue, by constantly rendering metafictional narrative and thus deconstructing it, Banville's narrators reduce the world to a series of virtual images and their narratives become a postmodern journey of subject reduced to notion of the drive as Lacan's notion of the Real – that dimension of our psychic system which resists symbolization which is not to be confused with reality– around which a whole system of virtuality rotates giving the illusion of meaning.
Toshio Kawai names virtuality -- the prominence of a virtual dimension to human existence-- as a feature of what he calls “Postmodern consciousness”22 The primacy of the virtual is also fundamental to Žižek when he speaks of “the reality of the virtual” where he argues that “real effects are generally produced by something which does not fully exist, or which is not fully actual.”23 Similarly, he claims that ''reality implies the surplus of a fantasy space filling out the black hole of the real.'' Objective reality, according to Žižek, is no more than a staged virtual reality which is there to help us avoid the encounter with the Lacanian Real.
The subject and his/her reality deprived of their essence and, thus, its replacement for a virtual rotation around an ever elusive Real is at the heart of Banville's writing. Moreover, his themes of failure, absence, and chaos can be very well studied as the failure of the Symbolic, the absence of the Thing, and chaotic nature of the Real. After all, the entire Lacanian edifice can be seen precisely as what drives Banville's narrators to failure, i. e. the Real. By offering a theory of the subject that rejects wholeness, unity, and stability and by making its fundamental assumption the subject's inherent split nature insofar as he/she is a speaking being, Lacan's model of the psyche provides an excellent tool for the study of a literature which challenges the idea of an autonomous, harmonious individual. In addition, like Banville, Lacan, “accepts the antifoundationalism, the dissolution of truth into 'language games', the emphasis on the contingency and interminacy, that we associate with postmodern thought” while at the same time, instead of rejoicing the demise of grand narratives, he searches for a medium of expression “that encompasses contingency."24
In exploring contingency and virtuality as characters of the postmodern consciousness this study seeks to answer the following questions: how does the virtual become a component of the Post/modern consciousness for Banville's narrators? And how does the virtual achieve such prominence in the representation of the narrators' psyche? Drawing principally on Lacanian theory, and especially Žižek's understanding of Lacan, the subject of narration is studied a set of interactions with the other and the narrative to be the interplay of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real where the power of the Real and the Imaginary usually wins over the Symbolic Imaginary resulting in a feeble symbolic reality as well as a precarious sense of self.
1Or simultaneously both or neither.
2 Imhof, p.61
3 D’hoker, p. 185
4 Birchwood. p 21. This metafictional style of naration is not specific to Birchwood. It is present inn several others of Banville’s work such as The Book of Evidence.
5 Schwall, “Keys,” p. 20
6Waugh, p. 3
8McNamee, p. 2
10Slavoj Žižek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. p. 52
11The struggle with language is also a hallmark of Lacan's work which is known for often being utterly obscure. He too, seems to follow the same logic.
12«La fiction obéit à un processus de rêve» http://www.liberation.fr/livres/01012324673-la-fiction-obeit-a-un-processus-de-reve 10/03/2011
14 Or to put it in John Kenny's words, it is “modernist nostalgia misplaced in a postmodernist chaotic world.” (Kenny. 15)
18Zizek, “Beckett with Lacan” p.1
20Schwall, “Mirrors”, p. 120
21Indeed Lacan insists that language is completely inadequate for both those tasks.
22 Kawai. “Postmodern Consciousness.” The other features he counts are a sense of dissociation from the notion of reality and arbitrariness. p. 437
23For instance, the way two individuals immediately perceive one another – which is primarily based on virtual images- structures the way these individuals interact towards one another in reality.
24Zaretsky, Eli. p. 165
Banville, John. Athena. London: Picador, 1998.
—Birchwood. London: Picador, 1998.
—Doctor Copernicus. London: Secktor & Warburg, 1973.
—Eclipse. London: Picador, 2000.
—Ghosts. London: Picador, 1998.
—«La fiction obéit à un processus de rêve» http://www.liberation.fr/livres/01012324673-la-fiction-obeit-a-un-processus-de-reve . Libération, 10/03/2011
—Mefisto. London: Secktor & Warburg, 1986.
—Shroud. London: Picador, 2002.
—The Book of Evidence. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Berensmeyer, Ingo. John Banvill: Fictions of Order. C. Winter, 2000.
D’Hoker, Elke. Visions of Alterity: Representations in the Works of Banville. Amsterdam: Costerus, 2004.
Hand, Derek. John Banville: Exploring Fictions. Dublin: Liffey Press, 2002.
Imhof, Rüdiger. John Banville: a Critical Introduction. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989.
Izarra, Laura. Mirrors and Holographic Labyrinths: the Process of a "New" Aesthetic Synthesis in The Novels of John Banville. International Scholars Publications, 1999.
Kawai, Toshio. “Postmodern Consciousness in Psychotherapy”. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2006, 5, 437-450.
Kenny, John. John Banville. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009.
McMinn, Joseph. The Supreme Fictions of John Banville. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
McNamee, Brendan. The Quest For God in the Novels of John Banville 1973-2005. New York: The Edwin Meller Press, 2006.
Scwall, Hedwig. “keys and Codes: Psychotic Perception in John Banville’s Mefisto” (?)
—“Mirror on Mirror is all the Show”: Aspects of the Uncanny in Banville’s Work with a
Focus on Eclipse. Irish University Review. 2006: 36.1: 116-133
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.
London: Routledge, 1984.
Zaretsky, Eli. “Psychoanalysis and Postmodernism.” American Literary History. Vol 8. No 1. Spring 1996. pp. 154-169.
Žižek , Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Boston: Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology Press, 1992.
—Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.