Monday, April 9, 2012

Reading Paul Auster's White Spaces with Heidegger and Lacan



One writer who went down the Holzweg to writer's block is Paul Auster. The prose poem White Spaces is the clearing at which he arrived. Its a remarkable text, both born from an actual case of writer's block and about the experience of writer's block, and whichprecisely by focusing on the whiteness of the blank pageaccomplishes an overcoming of writer's block in an ecstatic discharge of words, a writing for the sake of writing, in which ultimately 'nothing' is said as well as 'everything'.


The philosophical import of Auster’s White Spaces
White Spaces is a key text among Auster's works. It forms the transition from his early poetry to his mature prose. Only after Auster had triumphed over his writer's block through White Spaces did he write the novels that established his name as a writer, such as The Invention of Solitude and The New York Trilogy. In line with this transitional status of White Spaces, the text consists of a mixture of prose and poetry. Whereas the poetry of White Spaces evokes the experience of the blank page as a Heideggerianclearing of Beingwhich is closely connected with the mortality of the writer, the more prosaic parts take on the form of a philosophical reflection on that experience. Due to the seamless blending of poetry and prose, however, these philosophical ideas remain vague, elusive and veiled behind an evocative language of metaphors. This is what makes White Spaces such an interesting text from a hermeneutic point of view: it begs for a philosophical reading. In this way White Spaces, as an exemplary work of literature, enables us to put the above ideas about the connection between writer's block and Heideggerian ontology to the test. Conversely, these philosophical ideas allow us to develop an illuminating interpretation of this hermetic and fascinating prose poem.

The fact that this interpretation features the ontology of Heidegger (and, in connection therewith, the psychoanalysis of Lacan, as we shall see) is no surprise in light of the philosophical inspiration which motivated Auster's writing from its inception: the young Auster was a great fan of Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein. See, for example, the ordered propositions  – quasi-more qeometricowritten in 1967 by a 20 year old Auster and which are included in his Collected Poems as Notes from a composition book (Auster 2004: 201-205). His subsequent writings testify to a clear fascination with and knowledge of continental philosophers like Barthes, Benjamin and Blanchot (see Barone 1995). In White Spaces, however, the ideas of Heidegger and Lacan play an especially important role. They are not mentioned by name in this text, but some of their central themesthe event of phenomenal appearance, the world as horizon of meaning, the void as a necessary condition of phenomenality, desire, death drive, the Realare clearly central to the vision articulated in White Spaces. In Auster's prose poem these themes appear in close connection with writer's block as an experience of the 'abysmally' blank page. The title White Spaces refers to that experience. There are many synonyms for "writer's block" which express this 'phenomenology of the white page', such as "white page anxiety", "white page panic," "syndrome de la page blanche" etc. Do these expressions not clearly suggest an affiliation with Heideggerian anxiety? That at least is the wager of the present essay.

The impossible poetry of the young Auster
To repeat: Auster's work as a writer was philosophically motivated from the start, with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein being especially important for the young Auster. It was, among other influences, their preoccupation with the relationship between language and reality that inspired him to write poetry (Finkelstein 2004: 11). From 1970 to 1978 Auster published six collections of powerful, harsh and demanding poetry. They received enough critical acclaim to justify the conclusion that a very talented albeit still young writer was struggling to find his voice here. The 'youngness' of this poetry is reflected in the fact that Auster had set himself an impossible task, befitting of an adolescent. In his poetry he wanted nothing less than to capture in language what happens outside of language, the flux of the sensory event, what Auster called "the realm of the naked eye". The fleeting singularity of that event eludes the universality of the non-spatiotemporal meanings of language (see below). In this sense Auster wrote in his aforementioned Notes from a composition book:

“The eye sees the world in flux. The word is an attempt to arrest the flow, to stabilize it. And yet we persists in trying to translate experience into language. Hence poetry, hence the utterances of daily life. This is the faith that prevents universal despairand also causes it.(Auster 2004: 204)

In language happens "the shipwreck of the singular", as Auster says following the poet George Oppen (whose "objectivism" was one of the influences on the young Auster). To grasp in language what happens outside of language is an impossible task, which – as Auster knew from the start – had to end in failure. This failure became an explicit theme for Auster in his final book of poems Facing the Music, where his poetry 'celebrates' its own failure so to speak. Facing the Music can be read as a literary farewell, "a valediction to poetry rarely found in modern letters" (Finkelstein 2004: 14). In everyday language, of course, "to face the music" means to the face the negative and painful consequences of one's behavior. What Auster had to face in his last last poems was the failure of his poetic program.
The opposite speeds of language and flux
It was a very 'successful failure' to be sure, since Auster's poetry retains its fascinating beauty to this day, precisely because of the great struggle to which it testifies: the struggle to express in language what withdraws from it. Many other poets would kill for such a failure. Auster has therefore – and rightly so – never distanced himself from it, though he wrote no more poetry after Facing the Music. “I
still stand by it,” Auster said about his poetry: “In the final analysis, it could even be the best work I’ve ever done.” (Auster 1997a: 303). But the failure remains. It was a struggle he could never win. Such an impossible goal is in a sense heroic, but it is difficult to remain loyal to it over a longer period of time: it is too demanding, too humiliating, too unsatisfactory. Facing the Music is therefore characterized by a sentiment of futility and quietism. Typical examples are the poems Obituary in the Present Tense (“It is all one to him – / where he begins / and where he ends”) and In Memory of Myself (“Simply to have stopped. /.../ I cannot speak.”). The final and also central poem – the title poem of the collection, Facing the Music – is directly dedicated to the impossibility of Auster's poetic program, the capture of "the realm of the naked eye" in language. One of the verses touches on what we might call the 'opposite speeds' of the fleeting singularity of the sensory flux and the universality of linguistic, non-spatiotemporal meaning:

                          Impossible
to hear it anymore. 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, a thing that moves
more quickly than the eye, even
as this sparrow moves, veering
into the air
in which it has no home. I believe, then,
in nothing

This verse could not be more clear: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. In other words: language (the “tongue”) removes us from the here and now, the sensory flux, which – once captured in language – is flux no more but a linguistic meaning with a universal, ideal, non-spatiotemporal validity. Linguistic meaning transcends space and time and is in that Platonic sense ideal. Whereas the sensory flux is precisely the singular event in space and time, here and now. In this light one can, in the spirit of this verse, argue that language and sensation have two opposing 'speeds': the sensuous here and now is constantly changing and vanishing, but speaking and writing tend towards the universal and ideal being of meaning. And here – as Auster indicates in this verse – language moves more quickly than the sensuous, bound as the latter is by the limitations of space and time, in contrast to the ideality of linguistic meaning: “…each word / is an elsewhere, a thing that moves / more quickly than the eye, even / as this sparrow moves, veering / into the air. Language moves with infinite speed away from the sensuous. “Impossible(as the verse begins) is therefore the pursuit to capture the flux in language. Thus the foundation under Auster's poetry fell away.

From writer’s block to White Spaces
After Facing the Music things grew quiet around Auster for some years. He writes about this period in the autobiographical Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure:In my late twenties and early thirties, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce, my work as a writer foundered, and I was overwhelmed by money problems... I was an ex-writer, a writer who wrote only for the satisfaction of crumbling up paper and throwing it in the garbage...(Auster 1997b: 3, 119) In short: Auster suffered from a writer's block which was philosophically motivated from the start, due to the failure of his poetic program. It was out of this poetic-philosophical and existential impasse that Auster eventually wrote White Spaces: It was a liberation for me, a tremendous letting go, and I look back on it now as the bridge between writing poetry and writing prose. That was the piece that convinced me I still had it in me to be a writer.(Auster 1997a: 302)

Reading White Spaces one gets the impression that Auster is reworking the philosophical assumptions of his poetry, to analyze where he went wrong and how the impasse can be overcome. Paradoxically, he appears to find the solution in the experience of writer's block itself. The experience of the blank page, as an abyss of meaninglessness where the blocked writer falls into, is re-evaluated by Auster as a profoundly positive experience, in which the event of reality itself is at stake. Auster wrote White Spaces in the space of about a month; he completed the text late into the night of January 14 1979 – in the middle of winter so (a significant fact, as we shall see). The text of White Spaces, which is included in Auster's Collected Poems (2004: 153-162 – henceforth WS), covers 8 pages and includes 24 sometimes short, sometimes long paragraphs, separated by blank lines. For an impression of the entire prose poem, here is a link to the first two pages: http://www.angelapatchellbooks.com/spreads/whitespace/1.pdf

The suffering of Peter Freuchen
The title of Auster's prose poem is already a direct reference to the experience of the blank page in writer's blockor, if we emphasize the plural in the title, a reference to the gaping spaces that the blocked writer has to 'jump over' to get from word to word. The threat of writer's block is addressed quite explicitly somewhere halfway the text when Auster admits that the desire “to destroy everything I have written so far” because of “revulsion at the inadequacy of these words” “remains a distinct possibility” (WS: 161). And in the paragraphs quoted above the theme of writer's block reappears in the silence that Auster wants to fill "without breaking it" and in the snow falling outside, a fact mentioned twice by Auster. We have already seen how snow blindness or being snowed in are familiar metaphors for the experience of writer's block. The theme of snow in White Spaces is a notable variant thereof. Particularly significant in this regard is the following passage:

In a book I once read by Peter Freuchen, the famous Arctic explorer describes being trapped by a blizzard in northern Greenland. Alone, his supplies dwindling, he decided to build an igloo and wait out the storm. Many days passed. Afraid, above all, that he would be attacked by wolvesfor he heard them prowling hungrily on the roof of his igloohe would periodically step outside and sing at the top of his lungs in order to frighten them away. But the wind was blowing fiercely, and no matter how hard he sang, the only thing he could hear was the wind. If this was a serious problem, however, the problem of the igloo itself was much greater. For Feuchen began to notice that the walls of his little shelter were gradually closing in on him. Because of the particular weather conditions outside, his breath was literally freezing to the walls, and with each breath the walls became that much thicker, the igloo became that much smaller, until eventually there was almost no room left for his body. It is surely a frightening thing, to imagine breathing yourself into a coffin of ice [...].(WS: 160-1)

In this crucial passage the theme of writer's block connects with the theme of mortality and the death drive of Auster himself. Before I discuss the theme of death drive more extensively, however, I want to delve more deeply into the writer's block. It recurs in the above passage on three levels. Firstly, of course, in the white spaces of the snowstorm and the igloo as metaphors of the blank page. Secondly, there is the inability of Freuchen to raise his voice above the monotonous roar of the snowstorm, no matter how hard he sings, which can serve as a metaphor for the experience of the blocked writer of having his 'voice' cut off or absorbed by the monotonous whiteness of the blank page. Thirdly, there is the much more dramatic situation of the igloo turning gradually into "a coffin of ice" at each breath, which can serve as a metaphor for the claustrophobic experience of the blank page as a kind of prison in which the author languishes. The more he writes (or speaks, metophorized bybreathing), the more he is confronted with his lack of inspiration, the more the walls of his prison close in on him, until he can breathe (speak, write) no more.

The hermetic room
Here we encounter a broader metaphor which plays a central role in White Spaces as well as in Auster's subsequent novels, the metaphor of the hermetic room – "hermetic" in the sense of being both closed off and enigmatic (compare, for example, the story The locked room in The New York Trilogy). The room in which the protagonist – nearly always a lonely and languishing writer – lives, functions as a metaphor for the blank page that imprisons the blocked writer. This metaphor becomes explicit in White Spaces, where the process writing is described as analogous to pacing up and down a room:

I remain in the room in which am writing this. I put one foot in front of the other. I put one word in front of the other, and for each step I take I add another word, as if for each word to be spoken there were another space to be crossed, a distance to be filled by my body as it moves through this space. It is a journey through space, even if I get nowhere [...].(WS: 159)

Here the room appears as a three dimensional projection or extension of the white page, as if the writer has actually fallen in the blank page (like Alice through the rabbit hole) and must henceforth live in this white space. This passage also clearly features the spaces between words ("as if for each word to be spoken there were another space to be crossed"). The activity of writing is presented here as a physicaljourneythrough the space that separates words. The theme of writer's block appears in the last clause: "even if I get nowhere". Thus thejourney through spacecan falter, so that the writer gets trapped in the interval, like Freuchen stuck in his igloo. In that sense Auster's journey through the white spaces can be compared to a Heideggerian Holzweg.

The fact that the Arctic explorer Freuchen stands model for the writer, eventually Auster himself (as an explorer of the blank page), becomes apparent from the analogy staged in White Spaces between Auster's situation and that of Freuchen. We remember the snow from the last paragraph of White Spaces. How can "the snow falling endlessly in the winter night" (as a second white room around the room in which Auster is writing) not remind us of the situation of Freuchen, doubly caught in a snowstorm and a stifling igloo? It is, in short, Auster himself who is slowly crushed to death by that igloo. He puts himself there: the analogy between the igloo and the snow falling outside Auster's room is undoubtedly intentional. Hence there is a death drive at work in White Spaces, a self-surrender to the disappearance in the white space.

A terrible, unimagined truth
This is also suggested, supported by some psychoanalysis, by a seemingly insignificant phrase that Auster adds to the paragraph about Freuchen: “Curiously, I do not remember how Freuchen managed to escape his predicament.” (WS: 161) This "curious" case of forgetting is a classic example of a Freudian Fehlleistung, a seemingly inexplicable kink in the functioning of the psyche, calling for a psychoanalytic interpretation. Assuming that nothing in this seemingly rhapsodic text is accidental (such as the analogy between the Freuchen's situation and the snow falling outside Auster's room), and given the fact that Auster clearly refers to Lacanian psychoanalysis at various places in White Spaces (see below), we must conclude that Auster here deliberately asks for a psychoanalytic interpretation. That is, Auster asks the reader to exlain why he (Auster) forgot how Freuchen escaped his predicament. And he asks this, because there is only one possible answer, which Auster wants to evoke in the reader: an explanation in terms of death drive.

That this death drive should be understood in Lacanian terms is suggested by the following passage  where Auster reflects on the activity of writing in which he is engaged: “at any given moment I feel myself on the brink of discovering some terrible, unimagined truth. These are moments of great happiness for me.” (WS: 159) This "terrible, unimagined truth" that he is about to discoveris this not precisely the incredible truth of his own inevitable death? A truth which is inconceivable in the superficial sense that we can never witness our own death, becauseas Epicure saidas long as I am there is no death, and once there is death I am no more. In that sense, the fact of one's own death principally eludes consciousness and can never be given in self-evident presence. As such it is a fact which, when thinking about death, we are always juston the brink of discovering. But the truth of one's own death is also unimaginable in the more interesting psychoanalytic sense that the conscious ego can admit this truth only on penalty of its own disintegration, so that the ego must repress it, push it into the unconscious. In that sense Auster's "unimagined truth" can be understood as referring to what Lacan calls the imaginary level of the ego, incapable of facing up to its own mortality.

Death drive: Lacan vs. Freud
Here
lies an important difference between Freud and Lacan. Freud based the inconceivability of death on the phantasies of omnipotence created by the unconscious libido, which as pure life drive can have no idea of death and is therefore convinced of its own immortality. Lacan, however, locates this inconceivability at the level of the conscious ego whichas an imaginary identification with the mirror-image of the significant otheralienates the subject from its true desire (at the level of the ego desire is always narcissistic because aimed at the other as a reflection of the ego). Thus, according to Lacan, the unconscious turns itself as death drive against the unity of the ego, in order to rid desire from its imaginary alienation.

Lacan's topology of the death drive does indeed appear to be more plausible than that of Freud, where the death drive always remained an anomaly, at odds with the alleged fantasy of omnipotence entertained by the unconscious. In Freud's topology the notion of death drive could only be sustained by means of the pseudo-biological hypothesis of some "organic" death drive, some hypothetical drive inherent in all life to return to the tensionless state of dead matter. Thisorganicdeath drive would then take its seat in the unconscious as a second basic drive next to the libido of the life drive, which thus turns to be not so fundamental anymore. With Lacan, in contrast, the death drive falls more or less logically into place as the resistance of the unconscious against the ego as the imaginary alienation of desire. In other words, Lacan collapses the distinction between libido and death drive: the latter is the way in which the libido strives to break out of its imprisonment by the ego. The strength of Lacan's topology can also be gathered from the fact that his conceptualization of the death drive allows him to give a clear explanation of ecstasy as a both painful and extremely pleasurable loss of self. For Lacan, ecstasywith la petite mort of the orgasm as cliché exampleis the enjoyment (jouissance) which is released when desire breaks through its imaginary limitations and which is therefore intrinsically bound up with the disintegration (fading, the instantaneous "death") of the narcissistic unity of the ego (compare the “terrible, unimagined truth” which gives Auster “great happiness”, WS: 159).

Heidegger on the Lacanian couch
Lacan's conception of death drive is especially relevant here since with this concept he gave a psychoanalytic twist to Heidegger's notion of being-unto-death. The death at which the unconscious is aimed in death drive is closely related to what Heidegger calls the Nothing, the background of non-being against the backdrop of which beings can first appear as beings. Death, as the unthinkable par excellence, is what Lacan calls the "Real", that which must be excluded from the imaginary interrelation of ego and other and which as suchthat is, as vanishing mediatorenables ego and other to appear to each other. Thus Richard Boothby:The real, says Lacan, is the impossible. It bears a special, inverse relationship to the imaginary. In the primordial partitioning of inner and outer effected by the imaginary, the real is the primitively excluded, the rejected, the spit out, the Ausgestosst...(2001:147-9) As the vanishing mediator in the phenomenal encounter of self and other, the Real functions as Heideggerian Being: that which must be hidden in order to enable theunhiddennessof phenomena to man. In the jouissance effected by death drive, through the disintegration of the imaginary unity of the ego, the Real momentarily reappears in consciousness, which is therefore fundamentally no self-consciousness or cogito. Boothby: “the real erupts in the disintegration of the imaginary” (idem: 149). The fact that Lacan also refers to this disintegration as “Anxiety” underlines his closeness to Heidegger in this regard (idem: 149). Heidegger's notion of anxiety as the mood in which one's being-unto-death is revealed, is thus given a psychoanalytic recasting by Lacan in terms of death drive, jouissance and the Real. Auster is clearly refering to this Lacanian problematic when he describes his aforementioned “journey through space” as a journey to some ocean “where each thought drowns in the relentless waves of the real" (WS: 159). Auster is therefore quite explicit about death drive as the motive power behind his writing: his goal is the Real where all thought perishes.

Bodies moving through space
The central thesis of this essay is that writer's block, as the writer's fall in the blank page as an abyss of meaningless, is akin to experiences like Heideggerian anxiety, the Sartrean attraction of the abyss and the Lacanian eruption of the Real in jouissance. In all these cases, manthrough a momentary awareness of his impendent deathexperiences an ecstatic intensification of Being, an ontological "intensification of life" (Nietzsche). In Auster's White Spaces we have so far found one central aspect of this thesis, namely, the experience of writer's block as a downfall, a "dying" of the writer in the empty space of the blank pagea death somehow desired or driven at by the author himself. Still missing, however, is the relationship with the Nothing mediated by man's mortality, the Nothing which according to Heidegger forms the receding background to all phenomenal appearance. How does this Heideggerian theme reappear in White Spaces? To answer this question we have to take a step back and discuss the direct and concrete occassion for Auster to write White Spaces. He tells about this in The Art of Hunger:

There were moments when I thought I was finished, when I thought I would never write another word. Then, in December of 1978, I happened to go to an open rehearsel of a dance piece choreograped by the friend of a friend, and something happened to me. A revelation, an epiphanyI dont know what to call it. Something happened, and a whole world of possibilities suddenly opened up to me. I think it was the absolute fluidity of what I was seeing, the continual motion of the dancers as they moved around the floor. It filled me with immense happiness. The simple fact of watching men and women moving through space filled me with something close to euphoria. The very next day, I sat down and started writing White Spaces, a little work of no identifiable genrewhich was an attempt on my part to translate the experience of that dance performance into words.(Auster 1997a: 302)

What was so special about this dance performance that it inspired Auster to write White Spaces and thus enabled him to overcome his writer's block? Auster himself mentions two (closely related) things: first “the absolute fluidity of what I was seeing, the continual motion of the dancers” and second “[t]he simple fact of watching men and women moving through space”. In short: absolute fluidity and momevement through space. As we will see in the final section of this essay, the theme of fluidity is of particular importance in relation to the problem of Auster's poetry and the "solution" he found by switching to prose (compare, for example, Auster's claim that “poetry is like taking still photograps, whereas prose is like filming with a movie camarea” Auster 1997a: 303). In relation to Heidegger's problematic of the Seinslichtung, however, we should rather focus on the movement through space mentioned by Auster. Here, in the thematic of space, we find the connection with the emptiness (clearing, Lichtung) which according to Heidegger conditions phenomenal appearance. This connection becomes apparent in the following passage from White Spaces:

In the beginning, I wanted to speak of arms and legs, of jumping up and down, of bodies tumbling and spinning, of enormous journeys through space, of cities, of deserts, of mountain ranges stretching farther than the eye can see. Little by little, however, as these words began to impose themselves on me, the things I wanted to do seemed finally to be of no importance. Reluctantly, I abandoned all my witty stories, all my adventures of far-away places, and began, slowly and painfully, to empty my mind. Now emptiness is all that remains: a space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen.(WS: 160)

Emptiness as background
The
moving bodies from the first line refer no doubt to the dancers from the performance that so inspired Auster (see also the moving body in the second paragraph of White Spaces). Yet what  becomes apparent in this passage is that what mattered to Auster was not primarily the moving bodies themselves but rather the empty space in which they moved: “a space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen”. Here, of course, we recognize the Heideggerian theme of the clearing as the place where Being happens. This connection between the Heideggerian clearing and the space of the dance performance is not surprising. The theater stage is after all one of the textbook examples of the receding background in Gestalt psychology and phenomenology. As the actors (or as in Auster's case: the dancers) move in the forefront, the stage recedes from attention, forming the withdrawing background against which they appear. Without this receding background, no-thing could appear in the foreground and present itself in the 'spotlight' of conscious attention.

Heidegger's innovation here was to draw the ontological consequence from this Gestalt psychological and phenomenological insight, the conclusion that beings can only appear as beings against a receding background of non-being, a background which is ultimately 'given' in our own death. The ontological 'peak experience'where the wonderfully brute fact of existence is momentarily experienced with exceptional lucidity and intensityis therefore also an ecstatic experience of self-loss, of oneself as dying, as beingheld out in the Nothing(Heidegger) in contrast to which beings first appear as beings. In the same sense Lacan speaks of the disintegration of the ego in jouissance, where a traumatic glimpse of the Real erupts into consciousness.

We have seen how the Lacanian theme of death drive resounds in White Spaces, linked to the experience of the blank page as awhite spacewhere the blocked writer 'dies'. Thus we have seen how the igloo, where Freuchen/Austerbreathes(speaks, writes) himself into acoffin of ice, functions as a metaphor for the experience of the blank page in writer's block. Now the mental click experienced by Auster during that dance performance, which enabled him to overcome his writer's block, must have been the association of that blank page with the empty space in which the dancers were moving, as a prime example of the receding background that conditions all phenomenal appearance. This was the click, then, that allowed Auster to see the 'deadly' blank page as a clearing in the Heideggerian sense, asa space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen”. Immediately preceding this clause, therefore, Auster writes: “Reluctantly, I […] began, slowly and painfully, to empty my mind. Now emptiness is all that remains [].(WS: 160)  The emptying of the mind of which Auster speaks here is the gradual disintegration of his authorial ego in writer's block (hence “reluctantly”, “slowly and painfully”), as metaphorized by the suffering of Freuchen in his “coffin of ice”. The blocked writer 'dies' in the emptiness of the blank page. But this emptiness is – precisely through this imaginary death – reproduced in the writer's mind as the empty place where his ego used to be and which is now the space where “whatever is happening can be allowed to happen”. This correlation between the author's death in the blank page and the opening up of empty space in his mind returns in the following passage, where the author is “swallowed up by the whiteness”:

A man sets out on a journey to a place he has never been before. Another man comes back. A man comes to a place that has no name, that has no landmarks to tell him where he is. Another man decides to come back. A man writes letters from nowhere, from the white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent. Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man, until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness.(WS: 158)

Letters from a journey to nowhere
These sentences might as well be the opening lines of a typical Auster novel, followed by a mysterious story about a detective looking for a lost writer whose only signs of life are letters which have never been sent, and so on (one thinks of the plot of The Locked Room in The New York Trilogy). The key to this passage, however, seems to me the insight that these men are not different characters at all but so many "incarnations" of the writer himself: Auster as he goes down in writer's block only to be resurrected as a new man, transformed by the experience of self-loss. The "white space that has opened up in his mind" is of course the inner emptiness of the blocked writer, as reflected in the emptiness of the white page (of the 'letters' he writes), which then becomes the place where “whatever is happening can be allowed to happen”. The journey undertaken in this passage – again like a Heideggerian Holzweg – to “a place that has no name” and “no landmarks” is the process of writing in which Auter loses himself, gradually getting stuck in writer's block, trapped in the emptiness of the blank page, “swallowed up by the whiteness”. He returns from this journey as “another man”, transformed by “the white space that has opened up in his mind”. This “another man” then “sets out on a journey in search of the first man”. One way to interpret this is that Auster in White Spaces is trying to fathom or relive the original experience of the dance performance, the "revelation" that allowed him to overcome his writer's block (Auster 1997a: 302). He has already been transformed by that experience, but wants to understand what exactly has happened. Hence he travels back in search of his former self (like an impossible time traveler) to recreate the experience of going down writer's block and being resurrected. White Spaces is his travelogue so to speak, the collection of letters he wrote on the road.

The desire of the writing body
So how does Auster's death in the blank page relate to the jouissance which according to Lacan is connected to death drive as the desire of the unconscious? Taking our lead from the dance performance that inspired Auster, we find this relation to desire in the bodies of the dancers, as these represent the bodily source of desire which is repressed by the ego into the unconscious. In Auster this bodily desire takes on the form of a desire to 'speak', that is, to write: Sounds emerge from the voice [...] and in this gesture can be read the entire alphabet of desire, the body's need to be taken beyond itself [...].(WS: 156) Hence Auster's proposal “to think of speech not as an extension of the mind but as a function of the body.(WS: 156) The desire of the (writing) body is thus “to be taken beyond itself”. On the one hand we recognize here the Lacanian theme of jouissance, the extreme pleasure of the desintegrating ego who isbeside himselfin ecstasy (Greek: "ek-stasis" = to stand outside).

On the other hand, however, we also recognize the desire that motived Auster  from the start, the desire to make contactthrough writingwith whatever happens outside of language, the flux of phenomenal appearance, what Auster calledthe realm of the naked eye. Here too there is a going beyond oneself, an ekstasis, albeit primarily in the phenomenological sense of ekstasis as intentionality, the intrinsic directedness of consciousness to something other than itself. What Auster desires, then, is an ekstasis of language, a writing that reaches beyond itself, making contact with the extra-linguistic flow of phenomenal happening. The point, however, is that this intentional ekstasis cannot be fully separated from the ecstasy of self-loss. This is precisely what Heidegger and Lacan mean when they say that phenomena can only appear against a background of nothingness which is ultimately 'given' in our own death and which as such  comes to appearance in the ontological experiences of anxiety and jouissance as an eruption of the Real. In that sense the ecstatic anticipation of one's own death is a condition of the possibility of intentionality as such.

A dialectical reversal
This link between deadly ecstasy and intentional ekstasis is one of the insights underlying White Spaces. This is why Auster's desire to write – the desire of the writing body “to be taken beyond itself” – takes on the form of a literary death drive. Only by losing himself in writer's block, by falling in the blank page as abyss of meaninglessness, is Auster able to experience how “each thing in my life were connected to every other thing, which in turn connected me to the world at large, the endless world that looms up in the mind, as lethal and unknowable as desire itself.” (WS: 157) Note that the final clause is a clear reference to the Lacanian death drive. The “endless world that looms up in the mind" is therefore an instance of the Real as vanishing mediator in the phenomenal encounter of self and other. This “endless world” is the receding background in contrast to which phenomena can come to appearance and which – as receding into nothingness – is ultimately 'given' in death. Thus this “endless world” can only “loom up” in Auster's “mind” because of his orientation towards death through the experience of the blank page.

Thus the mental click experienced by Auster under the influence of the dance performance – the connection between his writer's block and the ideas of Heidegger and Lacan – has the character of a dialectical reversal: from writer's block as a distressing problem to writer's block as the liberating solution of that problem. It was, in other words, the reversal from the purely negative suffering of writer's block to the joyous and productive suffering of jouissance, where the ego disintegrates in a momentary experience of the Real. By way of analogy we can compare this reversal to the dialectical shift from quantity to quality (like water cooling down until it suddenly crystallizes into ice) or the reversal – staged by Hegel at the beginning of his Logic – from “Being” as the most general determination to the “Nothing” of indeterminacy. In a sense Auster accomplishes the reverse shift in White Spaces, that is, from Nothing to Being: the inner emptiness of writer's block, in which he sank deeper and deeper, suddenly turns into a clearing of Being, the illuminating emptiness where phenomenal appearance takes place. A similar shift occurs in Heideggerian anxiety which is lived through to the end: one's anticipated death, experienced as the abyss of meaninglessness, turns out to be the very gateway to the wonder of Being.

“In other words, it says itself”
Auster's “revelation” during the dance performance was this crystallizing turning point. From then on he could embrace his inability to say (write) anything as an ability to say nothing, the Nothing that underlies any phenomenal appareance. Thus we can understand Auster's attempt "to find a way of filling the silence without breaking it" (third paragraph of White Spaces). That is to say: w
riter's block, as a falling silent of language, must be overcome by putting that silence itself into words, in order to make room in language for the phenomenal appearance of reality. In that way the silence of writer's block tilts dialectically into a flood of meaningless words, saying nothing but nevertheless expressing the event of Being. It is this event – the Event as such – which is evoked in the first sentence: “Something happens, and from the moment it begins to happen, nothing can ever be the same.” (WS: 155) And in the second to last paragraph: “Nothing happens. And still, it is not nothing.” (WS: 161) These are meaningless words, which however say the moreexpressing the event of Beinginsofar as the author himself is absent from them, insofar as he has lost himself in writer's block, thereby losing control over his language. The writing of White Spaces was therefore for Auster "a tremendous letting go" (Auster 1997a: 302), an opening up of the floodgates of language. But it was not primarily this rapturous flow of language in which Auster went down. More fundamental was the self-loss that preceded it, the disintegration of his ego in writer's block. It was this fall in the emptiness of the blank page which enabled his selfless and ecstatic writing,  coinciding with the event of Being: “I find these words falling from my mouth and vanishing into the silence they came from. In other words, it says itself, and our mouths are merely the instruments of the saying of it.(WS: 158)

References
-Auster, Paul (1997a), The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook. London: Faber and Faber.
-Auster, Paul (1997b), Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. London: Faber and Faber.
-Auster, Paul (2004), Collected Poems. Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press.
-Barone, Dennis (red.) (1995), Beyond the Red Notebook. Essays on Paul Auster, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
-Boothby, Richard (2001), Freud as philosopher: Metapsychology after Lacan. New York and London: Routledge.
-Finkelstein, Norman (2004), “Introduction”, in: Auster (2004: 9-17).

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