Current Position :Home > News > Articels recommended > The Artist’s Hand: The Aesthetics of Loss in Paul Auster’s Sunset Park

The Artist’s Hand: The Aesthetics of Loss in Paul Auster’s Sunset Park

  Jørgen Veisland

  Ul Wita Stwosza 55, 80-952 Gdańsk, Poland

  Department of Scandinavian Studies, University of Gdańsk

  Email: finjv@univ.gda.pl

   Abstract Paul Auster's novel Sunset Park is an experiement in realism. Theexperiment consists in trying to dissolve and then reconstruct the relation betweenthing and sign, res and signum. In order to accomplish this reconstruction thenarrative focuses on characters, most of whom are artists and intellectuals, who inone way or another have become victims of the economic crisis that set in in theyear 2008. Four of these characters squat in an abandoned house in Sunset Park,Brooklyn, where they attempt to create an alternative life style and, in the case ofone of them, a young woman painter, Ellen, carry the experiment into a series ofnude sketches that combine realism and abstract form in an attempt to capture purethingness and the in-betweenness of things. Pain and loss, and the remembrancethereof, are transmuted into a new existence emanating from Ellen's unfinishedportraits.

  Key words Hand as object; creativity and negativity; the margin; fragment; fetish;res and signum; economic crisis

   Author Jorgen Veisland is professor of Scandinavian Literature and ComparativeLiterature at the University of Gdansk, Poland. Prior to his employment at thisinstitution he held appointments at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA,the University of California-Berkeley, USA, Fudan University, Shanghai, PRC,and the University of Caen, France. Major scholarly interests are the modernnovel, modern poetry and modern drama. The author has published books on SorenKierkegaard, Henrik Ibsen's drama, the 20`" and 21s` century American novel,fiction by John Steinbeck, the Victorian novel, and the philosophy of H.D. Thoreau.He is serving on the editorial committees of the journals Ibsen Studies and Forumfor World Literature Studies (FWLS). In his novel Sunset Park (2010) Paul Auster once again focuses on charactersthat are marginalized in society; the author, or rather the narrator's examinationof marginalization strikes me as being radical and unique in several ways. Thenarrator's voice, speaking consistently in the third person, is disseminated acrossthe field of narration, recording the experience of several characters one by one,mostly employing the present tense, alternating somewhat with the past tense,thus achieving the effect of direct, simultaneous reportage, getting close to thecharacters and at the same time being distanced from them. The result is a defacto approach to character and situation where the act of creation does not residein the narrator but in the character-artists of whom there are several. Subjectiveexperience, deepened by an acute sense of loss and marginality, is presented as aspecific mode of creativity in negativity, and the artist's hand is singled out as thesubjective and objective instrument that presses the button of the camera to take asnapshot, seizes the marker or brush to draw and paint, and holds the pen to write.As the mind sleeps, the hand "springs back and free", recalling pain (Faulkner115); the hand of the artist is liberated into a negativity not recorded by the brainbut existing in its own right as autonomous creative activity in a space where therelations between sign and thing are dissolved and where the hand is severed fromthe body, picturing, sketching, writing as the subject of art as well as the object ofart. Here the hand of the artist is imbued with knowledge of itself as moving withsome "shadow" that turns everything touched to "darkness" while also indicatingthe presence of a "light”一a presence in negativity (Glenday 8). Creating innegativity, the artist's hand attempts to name the unnamable, the discarded; and it also tries to name itself as an unnamable, discarded object, i.e. as an objectparticipating in the dissolution and (experimental, temporary) reconstitution of therelation between sign and thing.

  Presence means existence at the level of the unnamable, and the line"everything I could not touch was light" undergoes subtle changes in meaningaccording to where the emphasis is put: "I could not touch" would mean "the `I'could not touch"; "I could not touch" would probably mean "unable to touch"as well as "beyond touch"; and finally, "I could not touch”most likely theintended meaningemphasizes the impalpability of light. But does "impalpable"signify unknowable or may the "light" be approached in the artwork by applyinga different method, aesthetically and epistemologically? In what follows I willsuggest that the senses一sight, hearing, feeling (touch)provide a more directform of access to "light" than do mind and thought, at least as they persist, stilltoday, in customary, common psychology and epistemology. The artwork emerges,then, as a form of sensual refinement and as an object-ification of subjectivity,combining realistic technique and abstract form. Abstraction involves a radicalseparation of sign, signum, from thing, res. Sunset Park is a bold attempt to conveythe artwork as pure, yet not absolute thing, and so the novel manifests itself as anon-Platonic as well as a non-semiotic approach to art in Modernity. Auster's textreverses the history of semiotics in trying to capture existence prior to the sign.

  The narrative process itself, the reportage, emulates Faulkner's "sleepingoutflung hand" that remembers pain; but recollection is turned into "some trashymyth of reality's escape" by the sleeping mind. In the post-Civil War South ofFaulkner's novel real pain is the loss and the disintegration of an entire civilization,a culture perished in a universal conflagration remembered by the multiple narratorswhose hands and voices constantly weave their own individual "trashy" myths of"reality's escape," and, while doing so, transform the narrative, or narratives into"figment-stuff warped out of all experience"; thus the narrative assumes a tenuousand experimental quality. Still, in Faulkner the dual negativity, trashy myth asfatefully conditioned escape; and figment-stuff, elevated, perhaps, to an imaginative,poetic reconstruction, the artistic reconstruction of the South one might say,posits a constructive, supplementary and sublimating creativity in response toloss. The poetic image springs to life in a modern and Modernist creative process,remembering pain and inserting it into the textual fabric, thereby absolving it from"the sleeping brain and mind". History is sublimated as recollection dispenseswith knowledge of the absolute and the ideal and discards the "remembrance ofthings past." Likewise, in Auster's novel the artist's hand "remembers pain," a pain caused by its own destructive actions一numerous incidents record punching handsand fists一and disseminates that pain throughout the narrative, turning it into anexperimental text in the mode of realism that blends subjective experience, thevoices of the character-artists, with the narrator's recording voice. The result is aweaving of "trashy myths" and "figment-stuff," both of which participate in a dualnegativity as in Faulkner. This dual negativity is the effect of a social condition:economic crisis and cultural disintegration in contemporary America. We maytrace signs of and parallels to the loss of the South in the contemporary loss. Asin Absalom, Absalom! loss and dissolution have produced a narrative, SunsetPark, that is a simulation of realism; however, simulation undergoes a dialecticaltransformation whereby it turns into a negativity positing a new creativity and anew subjective experience forged by the artist's hand severed from the bo办and themind. The hand of the artist may create figment-stuff warped out of all experience,but it is precisely this warping that signifies the dialectics of negativity forminginnovative creative activities in Auster's artists. The narrative voice in itself is notpoetic as are the voices in Absalom, Absalom!. However, the narrative voice inSunset Park indicates, in a subdued manner, the radical supplementariness of theartwork, suspended in time and space as the negative, or rather, negating pole of areality where everything is lost. The negativity of shadow and darkness becomeslight as the artist's hand touches and does not touch at the same time.

  Sunset Park presents a number of marginal persons, male and female, whofor one reason or another have decided or been forced to drop out of society. MilesHeller is a 28 year old college drop-out, presently working in Florida as memberof a crew of four that go through abandoned houses, i.e. houses people have lostdue to the economic crisis, gathering up discarded objects, cleaning the houses andthen turning them over to the bank; Miles is the son of Morris Heller, owner andmanager of an alternative publishing firm in New York City, himself out on themargins since he belongs to a small and decreasing number of literary publishersstill printing and selling fiction that is different, mostly literary works that are noton the popular hitlist. Miles' mother, the actress Mary-Lee Swann, divorced herhusband a few months after giving birth to Miles in order to pursue a career inacting, on stage and in film. Morris remarried, to Willa Parks, English Professor,who had a son, Bobby, from a previous marriage. He is Miles' stepbrother, then,and the two of them are so different that they appear as opposites in the narrative,and the opposition never develops into a productive complementarity but remainsa stark opposition一Miles being studious, introverted yet physically strong andactive, and Bobby being lazy in school, extroverted, temperamental. The difference in character culminates into a physical confrontation one day they are out walkingon a serpentine country road after the car has broken down. They argue, Milesshoves Bobby into the middle of the road, a car aprroaches unseen from arounda bend, runs Bobby over and kills him on the spot. Miles does not tell his parentsabout his pushing Bobby into the road; he is guiltridden, of course, and this guiltfinally leads to his leaving home, dropping out of college and embarking upon thelife of the eternal drifter, so abundantly present in American fiction. In Florida hefalls in love with a young girl, 17 years old, that is, 11 years his junior, a girl not ofage yet with whom he nevertheless shares an apartment. Pilar Sanchez is her name,her parents were killed in a car accident but she has three older sisters the oldest ofwhom, Angela, "looks after her," or rather, attempts to control her. Pilar's sexualrelationship to the older man is accepted by Angela but she exploits the fact thather sister is a minor by law, pressuring Miles into giving her discarded objects fromthe abandoned houses, expensive electronic equipment that has been left behind.He finally refuses and is forced by Angela's bullies, two thugs, to hand over theobjects required or get out. Miles gets out, takes the bus to New York where hemoves into another abandoned house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, occupied by foursquatters, including himself: His friend Bing Nathan, drummer in a band calledMob Rule and owner of The Hospital for Broken Things where he repairs broken oroutdated electronic equipment, restoring it to life, so to speak; Ellen Brice, painterand sketcher; and Alice Bergstrom, a PhD student working on a thesis about male-female relations as portrayed in post World War ll film and fiction. None of themhave any money, barely enough for groceries and utilities. They live in the houseillegally and are finally evicted forcefully after four eviction notices have beenserved. During the eviction一which is fairly violent一Miles punches a policeofficer in the jaw thus breaking the law in a serious way and losing his chance ofgetting married to Pilar who is waiting for him in Florida.

  Miles, Bing, Ellen and Alice have something in common: an interest in, perhapseven an obsession with broken things, or fragments of things, and, particularly inthe case of Ellen, the painter, individual body parts, internal and external, that arealmost fetichized.Miles takes photos of abandoned objects in the houses he "trashes out," as it isc aped:Then, always, there are the objects, the fogotten possessions, the abandonedthings. By now, his photographs number in the thousands, and among his burgeoning archive canbe found pictures of books, shoes, and oil paintings,pianos and toasters, dolls, tea sets, and dirty socks, televisions and boargames, party dresses and tennis racquets, sofas, silk lingerie…(Auster 4).After moving from Florida to New York Miles starts taking pictures in Green-WooCemetery, a seemingly useless project:He has embarked on another useless project, employing his camera as ainstrument to record his stray, useless thoughts, but at least it is somethinbuto do, a way to pass the time until his life starts again, and where elsein Green-Wood Cemetery could he have learned that the real name of FranMorgan, the actor who played the Wizard of Oz, was Wuppermann? (102)Thus the nameless gain names in his photography; a photo-graphic刀a lm e.c z.ctemporarily discloses thereal identity of "Frank Morgan." Dissimulation and thmimetic function merge in an uncanny assembly of shadow and light, death anlife, or death reconstructed.Miles has noidea why he feels compelled to take these photos. The objectspossess a curious fascination一an aura emanates from them; it is the uncannyof the fetish which Julia Kristeva explores in Revolution in Poetic Language:our In order to keep the process signifying, to avoid foundering in an "unsayable"without limits, and thus posit the subject of a practice, the subject ofpoetic language clings to the help fetichism offers. And so, according topsychoanalysis, poets as individuals fall under the category of fetishism; thevery practice of art necessitates the reinvesting the maternal chora so thatit transgresses the symbolic order; and, as a result, this practice easily lendsitself to so-called perverse subjective structures. (65)

   While employed in trashing-out in Florida Miles had noticed signs indicativeof how the former owners一who during the last few months of their residenceoccupied their houses like ghosts一abandoned their houses in haste but often notwithout breaking the furniture, smearing the walls with paint, dumping garbageon the floors in a fit of rage, reacting to bankruptcy and default. These abandonedhouses and Miles' photos of the objects in them recall his own autobiographicalwork Portrait of an Invisible Man, a portrait of his father who after the death ofhis wife lived in his house like a ghost, never really present, piling up dirty dishes in the kitchen and leaving used razor blades in the bathroom and worn shirts in thebedroom; and Miles' pictures recall the professor, or ex-professor in Part One ofThe New York Trilogy, City of Glass, who picks up broken objects in the streets ofNew York City and proceeds to re-name them, dissolving and recreating the relationbetween sign and thing. The photos taken by Miles participate in a renaming, orrather, in a process leading to the unnamable, the pre-verbal, analyzed by Kristevain Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection:

  In that anteriority to language, the outside is elaborated by means of aprojection from within, of which the only experience we have is one ofpleasure and pain. An outside in the image of the inside, made of pleasure andpain. The non-distinctiveness of inside and outside would thus be unnamable,a border passable in both directions by pleasure and pain. (61)In the same work Kristeva talks about "the drive-quality attached to archaicobjects" and how that "drive-quality" must be introjected in the individualconsciousness; without that introjection,Kristeva says, "pre-objects and abjectsthreaten from without as impurity, defilement, abomination, and eventually theytrigger the persecutive apparatus" (116).

  Kristeva's analysis is a complex, Freudian interpretation focusing onanthropology and on certain "primitive" practices and rituals resembling poeticpractice. Miles is a kind of poet, practising the kind of photography that recordsobjects as the signs of the abject, of abjection, at this point in history a collectiveabjection. The 21s` century economics and history have determined abjection in theNew World; economic collapse has become conducive to a fatal prevention of theusual introjection Kristeva talks about; therefore we have abomination and, in theend the unleashing of the "persecutive powers" in Auster's text一the fist punchingthe officer and the police forcefully evicting the squatters.

  Moreover, the narrator's presentation of the decaying urban environmentis reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's interpretation of Baroque allegory and itsresemblance to modern fragmentation in the Passagen-Werk, the Arcades Project.In her work on Benjamin, The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss notes:The allegorists heaped emblematic images one on top of another, as if thesheer quantity of meanings could compensate for their arbitrariness and lackof coherence. The result is that nature, far from an organic whole, appears in Not only in view of the proclivity in Auster's text towards the fragmentary andthe emblematic but also in view of his well-known interest in French poetry andhis year-long residence in Paris it is tempting to see an influence, or parallel to thepoetry of Charles Baudelaire, particularly Les Fleurs du Mal, The Flowers of Evil.Baudelaire's poem "The Swan" is especially interesting in this respect; in it thepoet traverses the newly rebuilt Place du Carrousel when, as Buck-Morss writes, "hismemory is suddenly flooded with the image of Andromache, wife of Hector, whowas left a widow with the destruction of Troy"(178一179). In Baudelaire's poem thefigure ofAndromache is superimposed on images of modern Paris:Recalling that Miles Heller's mother is Mary-Lee Swann it becomes temptingto view her as a contemporary Andromache; however, in this case it is a "swan"reconciled to the loss of her first husband through divorce; an Andromache whohas built an impressive career in the theater, integrating heaps of broken imagesin her role as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days. Of course, it isironic but also profoundly meaningful that art, theater and literature become away out in Sunset Park. Auster's "swan" does not evoke melancholy reflectionas does Andromache in Baudelaire's poem. However, it is important to note thatthe arts, theater and literature as expressive vehicles focus exactly on decay andfragmentation, Beckett's play being one of the primary examples in modern drama.F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gats妙is another. The supreme and subtleirony is, naturally, that artistic careers may be planned and carried out aroundfragmentation, in the midst of the ruins of history. The modern artist一and "artist"includes, here, not only Mary-Lee Swann and a number of novelists appearing in the text; it also includes the main characters, Miles, Bing, Ellen and Alice一is his own impressario, displaying herself or himself in various identities likeBaudelaire: the flaneur is one of them, the ragpicker is another. Miles and the otheryoung people occupying the abandoned house in Brooklyn are the contemporaryversions of this character, and Miles' father, Morris, is a version of Baudelaire'sragpicker, appearing as what he himself calls the Can Man, disguising himself, asdo numerous other characters in Auster's works, in order to secretly follow his sonaround, observing him from a distance, worried but at the same time fascinated byhis son's vagrancy, by the adventure of it.

  In the Passagen-Werk Benjamin comments that the debasement and decay ofnature and the city in the 19`" century find their source in the production processitself: "The devaluation of the world of objects within allegory is outdone withinthe world of objects itself by the commodity" (660). And so in Sunset Park: thedevaluation of objects in modern 20`" century literature, e.g. Beckett and Fitzgerald,is "outdone" by the decay and fragmentation, the mass of broken things collectednot only by Miles in his photos but also by Bing in his Hospital for Broken Things,by Alice in her PhD thesis on broken down male-female relationships in postWorld War II film, and by Ellen in her sketches of body parts, including the hand,that are intially fetishized then turned into abstract objects. If "fetishism" involvesan emotional or libidinal attachment then this attachment is glossed over andaesthetically sublimated in Ellen's sketches. Erasing attachment constitutes thebeginning of an artistic endeavor designed to reconstruct.

  Bing Nathan is characterized by the narrator as "the champion of discontent,the militant debunker of contemporary life who dreams of forging a new realityfrom the ruins of a failed world. Unlike most contrarians of his ilk, he does notbelieve in political action"(55). The ruins of a failed world, Benjamin's "ruins ofhistory," can only be reassembled or restored through focusing on "the local, theparticular, the nearly invisible details of quotidian affairs"(locus citatus: same page;loc.cit.).Bing is right in a sense, of course. But he invests too much emotionalenergy even in his particular and highly individualized approach, believing till theend that it is safe to ignore the eviction notices served by US marshalls, and theresult is disastrous: forceful eviction.

  In her work on William Wyler's film The Best Years of Our Lives AliceBergstrom notes how: Thehavemen no longer know how to act with their wives and girlfriends. Theylost their appetite for domesticity, their feel for home. After years of living apart from women, years of combat and slaughter, years of grapplingto survive the horrors and dangers of war, they have been cut off from theircivilian pasts, crippled, trapped in nightmare repetitions of their experiences,and the women they left behind have become strangers to them. (75)In his work The Philosopof Literary Form Kenneth Burke comments as followsin Proposition 11 (from "Twelve Propositions"):11 .Human relations should be an with respect to the leads discovereda study of drama.Men enact roles. They change roles. They participate. They develop modes ofsocial appeal. Even a "star" is but a function of the total cast. Politics aboveall is drama. Anyone who would turn from politics to some other emphasis,or vice versa, must undergo some change of identity, which is dramatic(involving "style" and "ritual"). People are neither animals nor machines (tobe analyzed by the migration of metaphors from biology or mechanics), butactors and acters. (310-311)Burke's comment applies directly to the "actors" appearing in the theater, film andliterature as well as to the "real life" actors in Sunset Park. The deepest plunge intoa dramatic change of identity involving "style" and "ritual" and, as I shall argue,tending towards abstraction, is Ellen Brice's sketches of the naked human body.Her sketches are inspired by walks on Seventh Avenue during which her mind isflooded一like Baudelaire's mind in the poem "The Swan”with images, hereimages of the genitals of both sexes, of young and old, and of…"luxuriant thighs,skinny thighs, vast, quivering buttocks, chest hair, recessed navels, inverted nipples,bellies scarred by appendix operations and cesarean births ..."(83). Using in parther imagination, in part Bing as model she proceeds to work on dozens of sketchesportraying parts, fascinated a she is by the body in its total form as well as byits separate parts:

  The human body can be apprehended, but it cannot be comprehended. Thehuman body has shoulders. The human bohas knees. The human body is anobject and a subject, the outside of an inside that cannot be seen. The humanbody grows from the small of infancy to the large of adulthood, and then itbegins to die. The human body has hips. The human body has elbows. Thehuman body lives in the mind of one who possesses a human body, and to live inside the human body possesed of the mind that perceives another humanbody is to live in a world of others. (163)Access to "the world of others" is through the work of art only. The drama ofSunset Park consists in the narrator's presenting the painful, crisis-ridden livesof the characters and then providing close-ups where inside and outside both aretransformed by the creative process. Naturally this approach inaugurates a shiftin realism. Ellen's decision to start drawing and to ask Bing to pose for her in thenude is logically prompted by a significant change in her mind as regards realism indrawing; the new realism emerging in the nude sketches parallels the realistic modeof the narrative, or narrative voice which becomes increasingly abstract while at thesame time assuming a fuller note, sometimes approximating a musical crescendo一a crescendo heard from a distance, though, and the distancing effect is that ofminimalization: a minimal intensity signifying the reduced function of the sign.Ellen's early paintings were photography-like pictures of buildings and urbanscenes that in her own words did not "speak to anyone". Now she embarks upon anentirely different project, inspired in part by Morandi:She thought the delicacy of her touch could lead her to the sublime andaustere realm that Morandi had once inhabited. She wanted to make picturesthat would evoke the mute wonder of pure thingness, the holy ether breathingin the spaces between things, a translation of human existence into a minuterendering of all that is out there beyond us, around us, in the same way sheknows the invisible graveyard is standing there in front of her, even if shecannot see it. (87)Ellen realizes that "all she has ever wanted is to draw and paint representationsof her own feelings"(88). Ellen's drawing hand that "remembers pain" refuses tomake a "trashy myth of reality's escape"; rather, she is bold enough to risk losingreality in an approach to representation that evokes Faulkner's "figment-stufF':representations of her own feelings. I see the toning down of the narrative voiceto a minimalistic recording of intensity as a prelude to and implicit anticipationof Ellen's drawings. These drawings fuse subject and object as much as this ispossible; it is possible because it is facilitated by the transformation, a genuinemetamorphosis, that occurs when the subject projects itself into an objectivizedimage that contains the subject immanently to a greater extent than the subject canbe said to contain itself. The figment of feelings and dreams leap into immediate, unmediated portraits of body parts, drawn in anatomic verisimilitude and yet,paradoxically, showing the artist's and the artwork's interest in "the spacesbetween things": the artwork as an inter-else and the human body as an abstractform. Indeed, abstraction in Sunset Park is as refined as the poetic voices inAbsalom, Absalom! From a dialectical perspective, abstraction as artistic method,here in drawing, is a response to the sociocultural condition determined by theeconomic crisis, as were the poetic voices in Absalom, Absalom!; the drawinghand of the artist sublimates the pain of crisis and loss, personal and collective,societal. Paradoxically, in the process of abstraction the drawing hand salvages thesubjective, disclosing its unique existence in the "spaces between things"; these"spaces" somehow emanate "pure thingness" as well as "all that is out there beyondus." The artwork as inter-else, then, becomes a refined coalescence of "thingness,"res divorced from signum, and a subjectivity that is almost erased through beingfused with a "beyond" that includes the cemetery.

   In Augustine's De doctrina christiana I we learn that "All instruction is eitherabout things or about signs; but things are learnt by means of signslOmnis doctrinavel rerum est vel signorum, sed res per signa discuntur"(9). However, Ellen'sdrawings illuminate res in its pure form, even discarding what Augustine callsverbum interius, mental concepts, the "internal word," in her "representations ofher own feelings." The Paradise Lost of the Sunset Park community in New YorkCity, bordering Green-Wood Cemetery, is a fallen world where signs have lost theirmeaning so that things are not learned "by means of signs," but in the process ofthis loss Sunset Park restores res. Restoration and reconstruction are enhanced byabstract form in drawing and painting, and abstraction absolves the subject fromitself through letting it merge with the world: inside is turned into an outside andthis outside is the artwork. This process is initiated at the moment when Ellen startsdrawing her own hand:She takes her drawing pad and a Faber-Castell pencil off the top of the bureau,then sits down on the bed and opens the pad to the first empty page. Holdingthe pencil in her right hand, she raises her left hand in the air, tilts it at a forty-five-degree angle, and keeps it suspended about twelve inches from her face,studying it until it no longer seems attached to her body. It is an alien handnow, a hand that belongs to someone else, to no one, a woman's hand withits slender fingers and rounded nails, the half-moons above the cuticles, thenarrow wrist with its small bump of bone sticking out on the left side. (88) As in Absalom, Absalom! the substance of remembering is:sense, sight,smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel一notmind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls .justwhat the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usuallyincorrect and. false and wort彻only of the name of dream. (115)For Ellen, getting it right as a painter means getting close to the world of objectsby letting her muscles "grope for" them; in this act there is an absence of personalinvolvement and "memory"; the world becomes alien as does the artist's own "alienhand." The alien-ness of the artist is the pre-condition for really seeing, feelingand hearing the world and without this pre-condition there can be no artwork.Therefore Ellen must begin by drawing her own hand, thus turning it into an "alienhand". The drawing hand is the method; the artistic method must participate in thevery alien-ness immanent in the world.

   The artwork follows as the form of everything the artist could not touch:everything is "light" when the artist's "mind and thought" are called by "the nameof dream." Paradoxically, the senses provide immediate access to the physical aswell as the metapysical, or: objects as the in-betweenness of things. When methodand medium merge with the alien, i.e. other world, the creative process erasesmimesis; the process of artistic creation is one with the process of the world itself.Res is presented without the mediation of signum. In the simple act of drawingher own hand Ellen abolishes the borderline between subject and object. This isaccomplished spontaneously, without theoretical or philosophical preparations.Spontaneity, intuition and sensation facilitate the coming into existence of theartwork as any other object in the world. In Comment 12 of 39 Comments on theCreative Process John Glenday says: "The creative process begins with the need toexist, not to express" (2014).

  This is precisely the meaning of Ellen's new method as it is described in thefollowing passage:For the first hour after setting to work, she warms up by concentrating ondetails, isolated areas of a body culled from her collection of images or foundin one of the two mirrors. A page of hands. A page of eyes. A page of buttocks.A page of arms. Then she moves on to whole bodies, portraits of single figuresin various poses: a naked woman standing with her back to the viewer, anaked man sitting on the floor, a naked man stretched out on a bed, a naked girl squatting on the ground and urinating, a naked woman sitting in a chairwith her head thrown back as she cups her right breast in her right hand andsqueezes the nipple of her left breast with her left hand. These are intimateportraits, she tells herself, not erotic drawings, human bodies doing whathuman bodies do when no one is watching them. (164)The drawings evoke stimulating, arousing "pictures bubbling in her head", butshe concludes that sexual arousal is only a "minor bi-product of the effort"; whatshe really wants is to get it right.The drawings are usually left unfinished becauseshe wants "her human bodies to convey the miraculous strangeness of being alive一no more than that, as much as all that"(165). It is precisely the unfinishedimage that points to the in-betweenness of the artwork; the drawings are as realas representations can be and yet they are endowed with a strangeness, anotherreality, a submerged world of human bodies surfacing in a disintegrating cultureand coming to life only in the work of art. The biography of Ellen, her privatelife, is a record of pain and loss; but it is this experience that precipitates the act ofcreativity on the canvas where she attempts to attain the sublime. This endeavormust go on, must be infinitely prolonged since, as John Glenday puts it: "Becauseeach poem ultimately is a failure, we write on"(38). The attainment of the sublimecannot be finished; for it it were to be finished it would cease to be sublime. Itwould also cease to exist as a real image of the in-betweenness of things. Existingin this reality is Ellen's interest as an artist, her inter-else. In addition, Ellen's artwork represents the culmination of what we maycall a displacement of identity involving all the other characters as well. Thisdisplacement occurs as part of an artistic endeavor; it is compelled by what SlavojZizek in The Ticklish Subject refers to as "the threat of nonexistence"; under thisthreat subjects are "emotionally blackmailed into identifying with the imposedsymbolic identity (`nigger', `bitch', etc.)" but it is, nevertheless, possible for them"to displace this identity, to recontextualize it, to make it work for other purposes,to turn it against its hegemonic mode of functioning…”(265-266)

  The "symbolic identity" in Auster's novel is that of the contemporaryrebel, drifter, vagabond and artist, the marginalized individual who has given upbelonging to a center because that center does not exist. Sunset Park moves themargin into the center, or rather, turns everything and everyone into a margin. Howand where do you represent a margin while simultaneously displacing oneselffrom it and, ultimately, also displacing the margin and, with it, representation?In carrying out a work of art; and in the work of art, subject and object become "figment-stuff warped out of all experience" since the artwork engages whatJohn Glenday calls "averted vision" so that it "looks to one side of its subject matter". Like stars, "abstractions are so dim they are all but unknown to us" (34).一Even the group of four's modest existence as squatters does not work as analternative social experiment since they are evicted; and their resistance does notwork since they themselves, at least the two men, Miles in particular, use forcewhen confronted with force. Miles' fist hitting the police officer is a powerful andsubtle reminder of the fact that fragmentation as applied to the human body mayhave tragic results. And yet, Miles' punching fist stands in a subtle dialecticalrelationship to Ellen's drawn and drawing hand; the hand as an aggressive toolis at the negative pole of an opposition whose positive pole is the creative hand.But the opposition is not binary: the punching fist and the drawing hand constitutesupplementary positions of exchange whereby one metamorphoses into the other.The punching fist is a primal force whose manifestation as violence is an inherentrebellion against "hegemony"; thus the hand as an instrument of physical revoltcontains the drawing hand immanently within itself. The drawing hand becomesthe fist transformed into a creative instrument but "fist" and "hand" are akin in theirbeing poised to "strike at" existence as inter-else.

  The closing incident of the novel makes Miles think of "the missing buildings,the collapsed and burning buildings that no longer exist, the missing buildings andthe missing hands", and the incident makes him wonder "if it is worth hoping fora future when there is no future"; he tells himself that from now on "he will stophoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, thenow that is here and then not here, the now that is gone forever" (227-228).

  The final passage is reminiscent of Baudelaire. It is, in a way, Baudelaire ina new vein. The new mode, the 21s` century mode of existing, experiencing andcreating, takes place in a passing moment. Since time itself is unfinished howcan the artwork ever be finished? The very structure, or unstructuredness of timeis "figment-stuff warped out of all experience," and the artist's hand, when bestapplied, moves along an axis propelled by "averted vision."

   In another one of his 39 Comments John Glenday says: "The self must beexpunged from the poem" (9). Expanding the statement to cover the work of artin general and Sunset Park in particular, the expunging of the self is the ultimateloss generating a (skewed) artistic vision. Auster's novel and his character-artistspractice an aesthetics of loss. But the loss of self and the collapse of the social ordermake for existence, make for "the strangeness of being alive."

Recommended article: