LIFE FROM THE OTHER SIDE: TIME IN THE SHADOW OF THE SIGN

Paul A. Harris, Loyola Marymount University

Like words, shadows display a peculiar doubleness: apparently mere traces of things, they also are a certain kind of thing in themselves. Shadows seem to lack inherent significance, being but the ghostly doubles, the incorporeal traces of the opaque objects that cast them. But in their very immateriality lies a peculiar signifying power: as in Plato’s Cave, shadows are things that double as signs of the insubstantial nature of signs; shadows are simulacra that exemplify the world of semblances in general.

But, again like words, the doubleness of shadows imbues them with a certain life of their own. If the light source or shadow-casting object is in motion, shadows follow delicately gradated paths, perhaps passing imperceptibly from one shade or shape to another with the changing light, or flitting about with sheer quickness as the wind plays through branches of a willow tree. Shadows open up depths in the play of light on surfaces, stretching out into the world an obscurely imbricated series of enfolded spaces.

In “The Opaque,” Italo Calvino sounds out the link between the elusive nature of shadows and the nature of signs and the practice of writing. Calvino dwells at length on the relation between the shadow and the object that casts it: the “tenuous and uncertain” shadow of a fig tree in the morning, he notes, “becomes as the sun climbs a black drawing of the green tree leaf by leaf” (143). To the degree that the sharpness of the shadow’s outline increases, so too does its power and precision as a sign: “that concentration of the black,” Calvino writes, serves “to signify the polished green the fig tree encloses leaf by leaf on the side turned toward the sun” (143). This sharpening of the shadow’s definition continues until a limit is reached when the sun is directly overhead and, at the peak of its power, the shadow suddenly disappears.

Of course, there are also places never touched by the sun. The realm of perpetual shadow is what Calvino calls “the opaque,” and writing, he attests proceeds “from the depths of the opaque.” For Calvino, writing is an act of “reconstructing the map of a sunniness that is only an unverifiable postulate for the computations of the memory.” Writing is essentially sciagraphy--from scia, meaning shadow, sciagraphy is a form of shadow-drawing. Words generate a play of shadows whose contours trace out a transposed image of the world. For Calvino, the shadow play of writing is an expression of the way in which “the sunny opaquely struggles to multiply itself while doing nothing more than to multiply the reverse of its own reverse”--in other words, the world of substance seeks to multiply itself in shadow images, but in doing so only perpetuates images of its own opacity. Writing then functions as a sort of opaque screen on which the world can record its own existence.

The double nature of shadows as both insubstantial traces and things in themselves, an analogy between shadows and signs, and an image of writing as sciagraphy: with these ideas in mind, I would like to offer a few reflections on chapter 99 of La Vie Mode d’Emploi . The somewhat elliptical orbit of my interpretation revolves around two foci: the chapter’s epigraph, “je cherche en meme temps l’eternel et l’ephemere”; and the juxtaposition of the W-shaped piece Bartlebooth holds at his death with the X-shaped blank in the puzzle he is solving. Examining these components sheds some light on the temporal and semiotic dimensions of Perec’s writing, respectively.

Two small details in chapter 99 help to construct an image of Perec’s writing as a practice of sciagraphy. First, one of Perec’s citations in the chapter is from a passage in “The Opaque” where Calvino is enumerating things that come into and out of sight as the sun’s movement throws them into and out of shadows. Perec uses the lines in describing the painting the puzzle depicts: between a shoreline and the labyrinthine ruins of an ancient city, splotches of color reveal “des vignes, des pepinieres, des jaunes champs de moutarde, de noirs jardins de magnolias, de rouge carrieres de pierre . . . “ (596-97).

The second detail hangs prominently in Bartlebooth’s study: “Au centre de la piece, un scialytique, suspendu par tout un jeu de filins et de poulies qui repartissent sa masse enorme sur toute la surface du plafond” (596). This lamp is an integral part of Bartlebooth’s puzzle-solving routine: he always spreads out the pieces “sous la lumiere sans ombre du scialytique” (412). A “scialytique” presents something of a paradox: while Scia means shadow, the lamp is designed to cast a shadowless light. At the same time, the scene illuminated by the lamp presents a reverse or shadow image of writing itself: the white puzzle pieces on the black background of the tablecloth invert the patterning of black letters on white paper.

Perec’s writing in La Vie Mode d’Emploi represents a practice in sciagraphy on several levels. Sciagraphy is a particularly appropriate way to approach Perec’s novel because it encompasses a range of graphic practices, and Perec’s writing consistently foregrounds and explores different relations between the pictorial and the written. Sciagraphy pertains to many forms of shadow-inscriptions: it refers to the art of shading in drawing, as well as the measurement of time by shadows, as with a sundial. In architecture, a sciagraphic drawing depicts a vertical section showing the interior of a house, just like the Saul Steinberg drawing “The Art of Life” that inspired Perec’s conception of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier.

A sciagram is a picture made up of shadows or outlines. The few marks on Valene’s canvas compose a sciagram: “quelques traits au fusain, signeusement traces, la divisaient en carres reguliers, esquisse d’un plan en coupe d’un immeuble” (602). For Valene, the sciagram perhaps captures the life of the building more accurately than a finished painting would have. A few passages from chapter 17, Dans l’escalier 2, demonstrate how for Valene the life of the building has passed into a realm of shadows:

Dans les escaliers passent les ombres furtives de tous ceux qui furent la un jour (88).

Il essayait de ressuciter ces details imperceptibles qui tout au long de ces cinquante-cinq ans avaient tisse la vie de cette maison et que les anneess avaient effaces un a un (90).

Les escaliers pour lui, c’etait, a chaque etage, un souvenir, une emotion, quelque chose de suranne et d’impalpable, quelque chose qui paplpait quelque part, a la flamme vacillante de sa memoire (91).

These passages underscore certain characteristics common to letters, shadows, and memories: they are all impalpable, murky, nebulous, vague. Searching out the memories of life, rendering them in a graphic form, becomes a journey through a shadow world. (Hence the need for Orpheus to traverse Hades.) One thinks of the Epigraph to W or the Memories of Childhood that Perec takes from Queneau: “That mindless mist where shadows swirl, how could I pierce it?” Memories are shadowy things present in but absent from the mind, hidden in the hiatuses and fissures of the brain.

Returning now to chapter 99 in La Vie Mode d’Emploi , we may view the last scene of the novel as a shadow play. The chapter depicts Bartlebooth’s passing over the threshold between life and death, the entry into the shadow-world. Bartlebooth is engaged in sciamachy, fighting with shadows--both the puzzle pieces and Winckler. Bartlebooth is Winckler’s shadow, in the sense that “chaque geste que fait le poseur de puzzle, le faiseur de puzzles l’a fait avant lui. . . chaque tatonnement, chaque intuition, chaque espoir, chaque decouragement, ont ete decides, calcules, etudies par l’autre” (18). Conversely though, Winckler has also lived in Bartlebooth’s shadow: his strange, melancoly life was consumed by Bartlebooth’s project. And since his death is announced in the opening chapter, Winckler inhabits the text only as a shadow, a spectre who haunts Bartlebooth to the end. Finally, a shadow can be a vestige or remnant of something, and the W-shaped piece Bartlebooth holds at his death is clearly the vestige of Winckler, the signature of his cunning revenge.

But even if signs are but shadows, the culminating lines of the novel endow them with a distinct presence. The W-shaped piece and the X-shaped blank hole together mark a turning point where shadows become substantial, where signs become material. Perec’s games with letters exemplify the Oulipian enterprise in general: namely, to imbue letters and the linguistic medium in general with substance by making turning language turn opaque. Marcel Benabou expresses the Oulipian premise succinctly: “One must first admit that language may be treated as an object in itself, considered in its materiality, and thus freed from its significatory obligation” (41). By writing texts that play rigorously defined games with language, Oulipians induce a self-reflexive turn where the signifying system itself creates what it comes to name as a signified, an object. Perec’s games with letters involve what Benabou terms the use of “literal constraints”: they turn the “pieces” of language into things, and an entirely new semantic horizon or world of meaning opens up. Letters like W and E take on multiple associations and rich thematic connotations in the context of Perec’s corpus.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene of Bartlebooth’s death, where the W and X motifs make possible many lines of association and interpretation. The W can naturally be read as the signature of Winckler--as Winckler’s revenge against Bartlebooth for seizing control of his life and engaging him in an obsessive game that could lead only to death. The death-drive inherent in the W is given full expression in Perec’s autobiography, where the imaginary land called W in W ou le Souvenir d’Enfance embodies his boyhood projection of the Nazis. W also resembles a Yiddish letter, the Shin, which appears in La Vie Mode d’Emploi in a chapter about Cinoc, the word-killer. Like Perec, Cinoc is of Polish heritage, and his name has been deformed by historical circumstances. So W, like the disappearance of the e in La Disparition, signifies Perec’s experience of the death of the Yiddish tongue, and the radical absence that composes the field in which letters and language lie. And of course, these letters, W and E, are easily transformed into each other--just turn the W on its side, and they become oblique repetitions of one another. (And by coincidence the book W is even dedicated “pour E”!)

The X motif in chapter 99 also contains multiple ramifications. It can be read as the mathematical signifier X, as the variable that Bartlebooth did not figure into the equation that added up the years and tasks of his project. Bartlebooth sought absolute command over both time and signs: like a mathematical manipulation of numbers, his project is predicated on a reversible operation in which signs cancel themselves out according to a plan that counts off years as incidental markers in an empty existence. According to the taxonomy of puzzle pieces in Perec’s preamble to the novel, the X would be classified as a “double cross,” a term which in English can be read as Winckler double crossing Bartlebooth in revenge for the way that the project consumed his life.

In the book W, Perec also notes that “by extending the branches of the X by perpendicular segments of equal length, you obtain a swastika” (W 77). The X thus marks out an eradicating void, a void into which so much gets swallowed up, an existential and historical void that cannot be overwritten, puzzled out, or simply and literally, that cannot be lived through--X marks the spot of Bartlebooth’s death and the novel’s end.

The letter X also is a crossing, an intersection, and in the scene it marks the blank space in which these transformations of letters into one another take place. The W and X are letters that are susceptible to many such transformations of their shape. In W, Perec tells us that “two V’s joined tip to tip make the shape of an X” (W, 77), and W is of course double-V, “double-vay.” At a semiotic level, the blank space where the piece won’t fit seems to point to the need for an external operation or transformation that would turn one piece into the other. The thematic implication of the semiotic here could be that there is no coherence or natural order to the site where death occurs, there is no way we fit to it. Death can persist only as a transformational event that must remain hovering, absent from our own irreducibly puzzling existence.

Yet the very situation in which the signifier materializes, where the W and X take on a life of their own as it were, also paradoxically points to the potential loss of the signifier’s significance. Its very materiality, while throwing out new meanings in one dimension, simultaneously suddenly raises the spectre that the pieces are nothing but material blocks. This sense of signifiers as meaningless material things is felt in one of Bartlebooth’s experience of the puzzle pieces, which for him become

les pions biscornus d’un jeu sans fin dont il avait fini par oublier les regles . . . petits bouts de bois dont les decoupes capricieuses devenaient objets de cauchemars, seules matieres d’un ressassement solitaire et bougon, composantes inertes, ineptes et sans pitie d’une quete sans objet . . . [un puzzle] c’etait seulement sept cent cinquante imperceptibles variations sur le gris, bribes incomprehensibles d’une enigme sans fond, seules images d’un vide qu’aucune memoire, aucune attente ne viendraient jamais combler, seuls supports de ses illusions piegees. (167)

The void that cannot be covered over, the blankness of the page, lies at the heart Bartlebooth’s enterprise and in a way haunts the precarious materiality of language central to the Oulipian enterprise. This void is embodied in the hole in the puzzle at the end of the novel. The hole in the puzzle marks a breach in the signifying system, for it breaks the rules of the intricate game Winckler has been playing with Bartlebooth all along. Whereas Winckler’s various deceptive tricks with pieces before have remained within the bounds of puzzle-solving, here it would require a new rule or operation to make the piece fit.

But the hole in the puzzle game, as it breaks one set of signifying rules, opens up a new game played in a zone of semiotic transformation, where letters are nothing more than the reverse image of other letters. Here Jacques Roubaud’s reading of the W is essential: Roubaud points out that the W Bartlebooth holds is a mirror image or “visual palindrome” of M, a letter prominent in the description of the painting. The river Meander flows into the sea, reaching its long-delayed termination. Roubaud interprets the W that won’t fit as the “figure of the impossibility” (Fire, 255) of writing under planned constraint; M, the “M of Meander and Mortality, the mirror-image of W, leaves the black hole of its signature in Bartlebooth’s puzzle, the signature which constraint. . . forever attempts to show and to hide by leaving a void” (Fire, 256). Perec culminates the body of the novel, then, with images of the void: Bartlebooth confronts the void of death, brought to his end by the void in the puzzle.

Roubaud’s insight points to the link between semiotics and time in Oulipian writing, and brings us to conclude with some brief reflections on Perec’s epigraph for chapter 99, “je cherche en meme temps l’eternel et l’ephemere.” The desire to create a passage or hinge between the eternal and the ephemeral, to generate a “meme temps” in which these two temporal orders cross, depends upon a double-relation to death. Both ephemerality and eternality are predicated upon death, but from opposite sides. The ephemeral is the absolute now, the limit of pure present; the eternal is unchanging, not static so much as frictionless. In a curious way, the ephemeral and eternal can themselves be seen as versions of one another: the ephemeral is an eternal now, a “now” that never ceases to be present, even if its present ceaselessly passes. Conversely, the eternal is an unending now, a now without an outside, a passing that never passes.

This kind of double-relation to death is embedded in the semiotic dynamics of Perec’s writing: as Roubaud asserts, writing under constraints both shows and hides the signature of death. We might say that the realm of memory and writing lies between the ephemeral and the eternal: a shadow world composed of insubstantial presences, flickering memories, and signs susceptible to incessant transformation. This shadow world is the “now” of writing, which is both ephemeral--because it always inscribes fleeting marks of absence--and eternal, because it leaves a material trace in its wake. Perec’s “meme temps,” a site where the ephemeral and eternal intersect, may be seen as inhering in the very act of inscription, the translation of the sunny world into its opaque double. Perec referred to the time proper to writing as “un temps pour rien, un temps mort,” in which “le temps retrouve se confond avec le temps perdu.” The dead time of writing generates a peculiar temporality proper to the virtual life of letters. In W Ou Le Souvenir d’Enfance, Perec writes: “I know that what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation” (42). The blank presence of the sign is both ephemeral--once--and eternal--for all--that inscribes its own ephemeral-eternal absence. The “apparition” of signs is predicated on their “disparition,” and that signs are in a double sense “apparitions” to begin with--mere appearances of mere ghosts.

But in this image of signs as shadows, of writing as proceeding from the opaque, there remains one final reversal. It is true on one level that the “presence” of signs and shadows only point to absence. But on another level, pure absence may itself be seen as the mark of radical presence. For how else do we experience “the real,” the raw encounter with the world or the isolated “fact,” except as a breach, a gap? Christopher Bollas, a psychoanalyst who also pursued a Ph.D. in literature, sees facts as “creators of momentary blankness” (111). Facts create a kind of dumb (both stupid and silent) insignificance, a caesura in time that opens an emptiness. Facts are structurally like trauma because they create a situation impossible to react to. Bollas argues that “when the real is presented--as a thing done to us, or as a narrated thing done--we do not as yet know how to think it” (112).

This insight immediately evokes for me the strange effect induced by Perec’s relentlessly precise descriptive style in La Vie Mode d’Emploi . The lists, catalogues, minute details that fill the pages of the novel present items that are difficult to assimilate. One of Bollas’s interesting observations is that “Facts bear the nature of the real, and as such seem to be forever elusive, saturated with the irony that they are less open to our validation of their significance than the purely invented” (114). Perec’s text etches out a weird middle ground, where the fictional is so “purely invented”--purely invented under immense constraints--that it takes on the nature of the real. Perec’s superb, strange realism is not opposed to the Oulipian gaming with letters, then, but an intergral dimension of it: the unfillable hole that yawns under the incessant metamorphosis of shadowy signs is also the “momentary blankness” that faces us when we apprehend the real most directly. The mediation of signs in all their shadowiness induces an im-mediacy, a blank stare into a void.

The ruses of the games with letters, then, do not unfold independently of the realm of the real. The game and the real are rather like orthogonal dimensions, with the opacity of the void as the origin where they intersect. From the void emerge light and shadow, subject and object, words and things. The site of nothingness becomes a fertile ground of metamorphosis. An appropriate philosophical response to Plato’s parable of the cave is provided by Chuang Tzu’s account of the conversation between Penumbra and Shadow:

Penumbra said to Shadow, “A little while ago you were walking and now you’re standing still; a little while ago you were sitting and now you’re standing up. Why this lack of independent action?”

Shadow said, “Do I have to wait for something before I can be like this? Does what I wait for also have to wait for something before it can be like this? Am I waiting for the scales of a snake or the wings of a cicada? How do I know why it is so? How do I know why it isn’t so?” (44).

 

 

Works Cited

Benabou, Marcel. “Rule and Constraint.” In Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature, ed. Warren Motte. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986: 40-47.

Bollas, Christopher. Cracking Up: The Work of Unconscious Experience. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Calvino, Italo. “The Opaque,” in The Road to San Giovanni. Trans. Tim Parks. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

Perec, Georges. La Vie Mode d’Emploi . Paris: Hachette, 1978.

__________. W or the Memory of Childhood Trans. David Bellos. London: Harvill, 1988.

Roubaud, Jacques. The Great Fire of London. Trans. Dominic Di Bernardi. Elmwood Park, IL.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.

Tzu, Chuang. Basic Writings. Trans. Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

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