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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

THERE IS NO such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation. In the re-presenting of alienation the category is reversed and becomes something entirely different. There is a great deal of difference between an alienated commuter riding a train and this same commuter reading a book about an alienated commuter riding a train. (On the other hand, Huck Finn’s drifting down the river is somewhat the same as a reader’s reading about Huck Finn drifting down the river.) The nonreading commuter exists in true alienation, which is unspeakable; the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad: Yes! that is how it is! — which is an aesthetic reversal of alienation. It is related that when Kafka read his work aloud to his friends, they would all roar with laughter until tears came to their eyes. Neither Kafka nor his reader is alienated in the movement of art, for each achieves a reversal through its re-presenting. To picture a truly alienated man, picture a Kafka to whom it had never occurred to write a word. The only literature of alienation is an alienated literature, that is, a bad art, which is no art at all. An Erle Stanley Gardner novel is a true exercise in alienation. A man who finishes his twentieth Perry Mason is that much nearer total despair than when he started.

I hasten to define what I mean by alienation, which has become almost as loose an epithet as existentialism (if you do not agree with me, it is probably because you are alienated). I mean that whereas one commuter may sit on the train and feel himself quite at home, seeing the passing scene as a series of meaningful projects full of signs which he reads without difficulty, another commuter, although he has no empirical reason for being so, although he has satisfied the same empirical needs as commuter A, is alienated. To say the least, he is bored; to say the most, he is in pure anxiety; he is horrified at his surroundings — he might as well be passing through a lunar landscape and the signs he sees are absurd or at least ambiguous. (It will not be necessary at this point to consider the further possibility that commuter A’s tranquillity is no guarantee against alienation, that in fact he may be more desperately lost to himself than B in the sense of being anonymous, the “one” of “one says.”)

Alienation, in its turn, is itself a reversal of the objective-empirical. This is a purely existential reversal and has nothing to do with art. It is very simply illustrated in the case of the alienated commuter. This man — though he will have met every “need” which can be abstracted by the objective-empirical method — sexual needs, nutritional, emotional, in-group needs, needs for a productive orientation, creativity, community service — this man may nevertheless be alienated. Moreover he is apt to be alienated in proportion to his staking everything on the objective-empirical. By his alienation, the objective-empirical categories are reversed. What causes anxiety in the one is the refuge from anxiety in the other. For example, speaking objectively-empirically, it is often said that it is no wonder people are anxious nowadays, what with the possibility that the Bomb might fall any minute. The Bomb would seem to be sufficient reason for anxiety; yet as it happens the reverse is the truth. The contingency “what if the Bomb should fall?” is not only not a cause of anxiety in the alienated man but is one of his few remaining refuges from it. When everything else fails, we may always turn to our good friend just back from Washington or Moscow, who obliges us with his sober second thoughts—“I can tell you this much, I am profoundly disturbed…”—and each of us has what he came for, the old authentic thrill of the Bomb and the Coming of the Last Days. Like Ortega’s romantic, the heart’s desire of the alienated man is to see vines sprouting through the masonry. The real anxiety question, the question no one asks because no one wants to, is the reverse: What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?

The estrangement of the existing self is not capable of being grasped by the objective-empirical method simply because the former is specified by the latter as its reverse. I would like to avoid a polemical tone here. I do not wish to be understood as attacking the objective-empirical method and contemning its truth and beauty and fruitfulness — which the European existentialists do indiscriminately while at the same time living very well on its fruits — but as stating the fact of the reversal: It does happen that the Dasein or existing self characteristically reverses objective-empirical sociological categories and discovers in them not the principle of its health but the root source of its alienation.

To illustrate the specific character of the reversal: it is just when the Method tries to grasp and categorize the existential trait that it is itself reversed and becomes a powerful agent not of progress but of alienation. It is just when the alienated commuter reads books on mental hygiene which abstract immanent goals from existence that he comes closest to despair. One has only to let the mental-health savants set forth their own ideal of sane living, the composite reader who reads their books seriously and devotes every ounce of his strength to the pursuit of the goals erected: emotional maturity, inclusiveness, productivity, creativity, belongingness — there will emerge, far more faithfully than I could portray him, the candidate for suicide. Take these two sentences that I once read in a book on mental hygiene: “The most profound of all human needs, the prime requisite for successful living, is to be emotionally inclusive. Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis were emotionally inclusive.” These words tremble with anxiety and alienation, even though I would not deny that they are, in their own eerie way, true. The alienated commuter shook like a leaf when he read them.

To go back to the aesthetic reversal of alienation by art: Literature, like a polarizing crystal, makes a qualitative division among existential traits accordingly as it transmits some more or less intact, reverses some, and selectively polarizes others, transmitting certain elements and canceling others. Alienation is reversed: There can no more be a re-presenting of alienation than Kierkegaard’s category of trial, for it, like trial, absolutely transcends the objective-empirical; Job’s and Abraham’s trials are lost in the telling. The categories, rotation and repetition, on the other hand, not being purely existential but aesthetic-existential, are transmitted. Yet they are transmitted with a difference. Rotation is conveyed more or less intact, whereas repetition is accomplished only by a mediate act of identification. Thus, reading about Huck going down the river or Tenente Frederic Henry escaping from the carabinieri in A Farewell to Arms is somewhat like going down the river and escaping. It is by virtue of the fact that rotation is the quest for the new as the new, the reposing of all hope in what may lie around the bend, a mode of experience which is much the same in the reading as in the experiencing. But repetition, in order to occur, requires a more radical identification. Thus when Charles Gray in Marquand’s Point of No Return returns to Clyde, Massachusetts, or when Tom Wolfe’s hero returns to the shabby boardinghouse in St. Louis, the reader can experience repetition only if he imagines that he too is a native of Clyde or has lived in St. Louis. (He doesn’t have to imagine he is Huck — it is he, the reader, who is drifting down the river.)

The moments of rotation and repetition are of such peculiar interest to the contemporary alienated consciousness because they represent the two obvious alternatives or deliverances from alienation. The man riding a train — or his analogues, Huck on a raft, Philip Marlowe in a coupé—is of an extraordinary interest because this situation realizes in a concrete manner the existential placement of all three modes, alienation, rotation, and repetition. The train rider can, as in the case of the commuter on the eight-fifteen, actually incarnate, as we shall see in a moment, the elements of alienation. On the other hand, the fugitive in the English thriller who catches the next available train from Waterloo station and who finds himself going he knows not where, experiences true rotation; equally, the exile or amnesiac who, thinking himself on a routine journey, suddenly catches sight of a landmark which strikes to the heart and who with every turn of the wheel comes that much closer to the answer to who am I? — this one has stumbled into pure repetition (as when Captain Ryder alighted from his blacked-out train to find himself — back in Brideshead).

To begin with, the alienated commuter riding the eight-fifteen actually finds himself in a situation in which his existential placement in the world, the subject-object split, the pour soi-en soi, is physically realized. In an absolute partitioning of reality, he is both in the world he is traveling through and not in it. Beyond all doubt he is in Metuchen, New Jersey, during the few seconds the train stops there, yet in what a strange sense is he there — he passes through without so much as leaving his breath behind. Even if this is the one thousandth time he has stopped there, even if he knows a certain concrete pillar better than anything else in the world, yet he remains as total a stranger to Metuchen as if he had never been there. He passes through, the transient possible I through the static indefeasible It. The landscape through which he passes for the thousandth time has all the traits of the en soi; it is dense, sodden, impenetrable, and full of itself; it is exactly what it is, no more, no less, and as such it is boring in the original sense of the word. It is worse than riding a subway through blackness, because the familiar things one sees are not neutral or nugatory; they are aggressively assertive and thrust themselves upon one: they bore. Whereas beyond the subway window there is nothing at all. As is especially noticeable on the subway, the partition exists as well between oneself and one’s fellow commuters, a partition which is impenetrable by anything short of disaster. It is only in the event of a disaster, the wreck of the eight-fifteen, that one is enabled to discover his fellow commuter as a comrade; thus, the favorite scene of novels of good will in the city: the folks who discover each other and help each other when disaster strikes. (Do we have here a clue to the secret longing for the Bomb and the Last Days? Does the eschatological thrill conceal the inner prescience that it will take a major catastrophe to break the partition?)

Actually the partition is closer than this. It exists as well between me and my own body. One’s own hand participates in the everydayness of the en soi and is both dense and invisible; it is only on the rarest occasions that one may see his own hand, either by a deliberate effort of seeing, as in the case of Sartre’s Roquentin, or through the agency of disaster, as when the commuter on the New York Central had a heart attack and had to be taken off at Fordham station: Upon awakening, he gazed with astonishment at his own hand, turning it this way and that as though he had never seen it before.

To illustrate the zoning of the alienated train ride: Suppose the eight-fifteen breaks down between Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, breaks down beside a yellow cottage with a certain lobular stain on the wall which the commuter knows as well as he knows the face of his wife. Suppose he takes a stroll along the right-of-way while the crew is at work. To his astonishment he hears someone speak to him; it is a man standing on the porch of the yellow house. They talk and the man offers to take him the rest of the way in his car. The commuter steps into the man’s back yard and enters the house. This trivial event, which is of no significance objectively-empirically, is of considerable significance aesthetically-existentially. A zone crossing has taken place. It is of extraordinary interest to the commuter that he may step out of the New York Central right-of-way and into the yellow house. It is of extraordinary interest to stand in the kitchen and hear from the owner of the house who he is, how he came to build the house, etc. For he, the commuter, has done the impossible: he has stepped through the mirror into the en soi.

Zone crossing is of such great moment to the alienated I because the latter is thereby able to explore the It while at the same time retaining his option of noncommitment. The movie It Happened One Night stumbled into this fertile field when it showed Clark and Claudette crossing zones without a trace of involvement, from bus to hitchhiking to meadow to motel. It is a triumph of rotation to be able to wander into Farmer Jones’s barnyard, strike up an acquaintance, be taken for a human being, then pass on impassible as a ghost. The reason the formula ran into diminishing returns was that this particular zone crossing created its own zone, and its imitators, instead of zone crossing, were following a well-worn track. A more memorable zone crossing was Hemingway’s fisherman leaving the train in the middle of the Minnesota woods and striking out on his own. To leave the fixed right-of-way at a random point and enter the trackless woods is a superb rotation. Swedes know this better than anyone else. Travelers in Sweden report two national traits: boredom and love of the North country — alienation and rotation. This penchant for taking to the woods reverses the objective-empirical: when Swedish planners took note of this particular “recreational need” and provided wooded areas in the vicinity of Stockholm, the Swedes were not interested. And it is no coincidence that when the Swedish government did take measures to set aside the North country for hiking, there occurred a sudden increase of Swedish tourists in quaint out-of-the-way English villages.


The road is better than the inn, said Cervantes — and by this he meant that rotation is better than the alienation of everydayness. The best part of Huckleberry Finn begins when Huck escapes from his old man’s shack and ends when he leaves the river for good at Phelps farm. Mark Twain hit upon an admirable rotation, whether he knew it or not (and probably did not or he would not have written the last hundred pages). A man who sets out adrift down the Mississippi has thrice over insured the integrity of his possibility without the least surrender of access to actualization — there is always that which lies around the bend. He is, to begin with, on water, the mobile element; he is, moreover, adrift, the random on the mobile; but most important, he is on the Mississippi, which, during the entire journey, flows between states: he is in neither Illinois nor Missouri but in a privileged zone between the two. To appreciate the nicety of this placement, consider the extremes. A less radical possibility would be his floating down the Hudson River; one sees at once how rotation is hindered here: One remains entirely within New York State; there is no zoning; there is no sense of pushing free of land into a privileged zone of the mobile. No one ever had the ambition of floating down the Hudson on a raft. On the other hand, the more radical possibility, his finding himself adrift on the ocean, is too rarified a possibility for rotation. The absolutely new, the exotic landfall, is too foreign to the pour soi to exhibit by contrast the freedom of the self. Compare, for example, the fantastic rotation of Tom Sawyer floating in his balloon over the Sahara in his latter-day adventures; compare this with Huck and Jim slipping by Cairo at night. The former is the standard comic-book rotation; the latter is a remarkable coup, the snatching of freedom from under the very nose of the en soi. A Cairo businessman sits reading his paper, immured in everydayness, while not two hundred yards away Huck slips by in the darkness. Huck has his cake and eats it: he wins pure possibility without losing access to actualization. The en soi is never farther away than the nearest towhead; the sweetest foray into the actual is a landing in the willows and a striking out across the fields to the nearest town. It is noteworthy that the success of his sojourns ashore has as its condition the keeping open of a line of retreat to the beachhead where the raft lies hidden — and in fact the times ashore do most characteristically and happily end disastrously with a headlong flight from some insuperable difficulty and a casting off into the mainstream, leaving the pursuers shaking their fists on the bank. What does happen when the beachhead is lost for good and Huck and Jim are stranded ashore? Rotation and possibility are both lost and in their stead we have dreary Tom and his eternal play-acting.

The role of Jim should not be overlooked. The chance encounter with Jim on Jackson’s Island is a prepuberty version of la solitude à deux. When the Bomb falls and the commuter picks his way through the rubble of Fifth Avenue to Central Park, there to take up his abode in an abandoned tool shed à la Robert Nathan, everything depends upon his meeting her and meeting her accidentally (or, as they say in Hollywood, meeting cute: note here the indispensability of chance as an ingredient of rotation; he may not seek an introduction to her but must become entangled in her wirehaired’s leash). To be sure, a certain narrow range of solitary rotation is possible: Huck’s life on Jackson’s Island before meeting Jim is very fine, but after catching the fish, eating it, taking a nap, that’s about the end of it. He meets Jim none too soon. Crusoe, it is true, achieved a memorable rotation, but it is only on the condition of the abiding possibility of the encounter; at any moment and around the next curve of the beach, he may meet…

Rotation may occur by a trafficking in zones, the privileged zone of possibility, which is the river in Huck Finn; the vagrancy zones of Steinbeck: ditches, vacant lots, whorehouses, weed-grown boilers, packing cases; the parabourgeois zone of You Can’t Take It with You with Jean Arthur and her jolly eccentric family (an exceedingly short-lived rotation: what could be drearier than the madcap adventures of these jolly folks experienced a second time?). Or it may occur simply by getting clean away. Huck’s escape is complete because he is thought actually dead. The getting clean away requires a moral as well as a physical freedom. Rotation is eminently attractive to Pepper Young in the soap opera, living out his life with Linda in Elmwood — yet he may not simply walk out one fine day. If, however, on his annual trip to Chicago for Father Young the train should be wrecked and he should develop amnesia — that is another matter. A notable escape is managed by Frederic Henry in his getting clean away from the carabinieri at Caporetto by diving into the river. Later he boards a freight car carrying guns packed in grease. A very fine rotation occurs here: “—it was very fine under the canvas and pleasant with the guns.” What is notable about Henry’s escape is that it is rotation raised to the third power. First, there is the American in Bohemia, in Paris, in Pamplona: he has gotten clean away from the everydayness of Virginia; next, there is el inglés lying on a needle-covered forest floor in the Spanish Civil War, or Tenente Henry in the Italian infantry: he has gotten clean away from the everydayness of Bohemia; next, there is Tenente Henry escaping the everydayness of the Italian army. (And later even to the fourth power: Catherine and the baby die and he gets clean away from them and walks back to the hotel in the rain. This last is a concealed reversal, for although it is offered as an undesired turn of events, a tragedy, it clearly would not have done for Catherine and Henry to have settled down and raised a family. Although Hemingway sets forth the end as tragic, it was also very fine walking away in the rain.)

Hemingway’s literature of rotation, escape within escape, approaches asymptotically the term of all rotation: amnesia. Amnesia is the perfect device of rotation and is available to anyone and everyone, in the same way that double suicide is available to any and all tragedians. Whether it is Smitty in Random Harvest on his way to Liverpool or Pepper on his way to Chicago, amnesia is the supreme rotation. Who can blame the soap-opera writer if he returns to it again and again, even after he has been kidded about it? Life in Elmwood with Linda and Father and Mother Young achieves a degree of alienation such as was never dreamed of by Joseph K. in Mitteleuropa; the difference between them is nothing less than the difference between the despair that knows itself and the despair that does not know itself. Since Bohemia is despised by Pepper, since also the zone-sanctuaries of the Mississippi, Steinbeck’s friendly whorehouse, Nathan’s tool shed, and the Bomb are closed to him; and since the obvious alternative to life in Elmwood, suicide, is also unacceptable — only amnesia remains. From the literal everydayness of the soap opera, amnesia is the one, the only, the perfect rotation. Yet medically speaking, amnesia, attractive though it is as a rotative device, is not its final asymptotic term. For, though it is very gratifying for Pepper to come to himself while walking in Grant Park, with no recollection of Linda, and though it is all very well for him to meet her, the stranger, to conceal her from the police after she, in an act of desperation, snatches a purse — it is only a question of time before everydayness overtakes them. Whether it is Elmwood or the tool shed in the park, Linda or the fugitive girl, Pepper being Pepper, hardly a week passes before he is again in the full grip of everydayness and once more a candidate for suicide. Perfect rotation could only be achieved by a progressive amnesia in which the forgetting kept pace with time so that every corner turned, every face seen, is a rotation. Every night with Linda is a night with a stranger, the lustful rotative moment of the double plot in which one man is mistaken for another and is called upon to be husband to the beautiful neglected wife of the other. One man’s everydayness is another man’s rotation.

The modern literature of alienation is in reality the triumphant reversal of alienation through its re-presenting. It is not an existential solution such as Hölderlin’s Homecoming or Heidegger’s openness to being, but is an aesthetic victory of comradeliness, a recognition of plight in common. Its motto is not “I despair and do not know that I despair” but “At least we know that we are lost to ourselves”—which is very great knowledge indeed. A literature of rotation, however, does not effect the reversal of its category, for it is nothing more nor less than one mode of escape from alienation. Its literary re-presenting does not change its character in the least, for it is, to begin with, the category of the New. Both Kierkegaard and Marcel mention rotation but as an experiential, a travel category, rather than an aesthetic. One tires of one’s native land, says Victor Eremita, and moves abroad; or one becomes Europamüde and goes to America. Marcel sees it both as a true metaphysical concern to discover the intimate at the heart of the remote and as an absurd optical illusion—“for Hohenschwangau represents to the Munich shopkeeper just what Chambord means to a tripper from Paris.” But what is notable about it for our purposes, this quest for the remote, is that it is peculiarly suited to re-presenting; it transmits through art without the loss of a trait. As a mode of deliverance from alienation, experiencing it directly is no different from experiencing it through art.

The Western movie is an exercise in rotation stripped of every irrelevant trait. The stranger dropping off the stagecoach into a ritual adventure before moving on is the Western equivalent of Huck’s foray ashore, with the difference that where Huck loses the stranger wins — but win or lose it is all the same: One must in any case be on the move. The shift from East to West accomplishes a rotation from the organic to the inorganic, from the green shade of Huck’s willow towhead (or Novalis’s leafy bower) to the Southwestern desert. But both the chlorophyll rotation (Hudson’s Riolama) and John Ford’s desert are themselves rotations from the human nest, the family familiar, Sartre’s category of the viscous. The true smell of everydayness is the smell of Sunday dinner in the living room. Rotation from the human organic may occur to the animal organic (Mowgli in the wolf den), to the vegetable organic (Hudson in Riolama), to the inorganic (John Wayne in the desert), or back again. To the alienated man of the East who has rotated to Santa Fe, the green shade of home becomes a true rotation; to his blood brother in Provence, it is the mesa and the cobalt sky. The I–It dichotomy is translated intact in the Western movie. Who is he, this Gary Cooper person who manages so well to betray nothing of himself whatsoever, who is he but I myself, the locus of pure possibility? He is qualitatively different from everyone else in the movie. Whereas they are what they are — the loyal but inept friend, the town comic, the greedy rancher, the craven barber — the stranger exists as pure possibility in the axis of nought-infinity. He is either nothing, that is, the unrisked possibility who walks through the town as a stranger and keeps his own counsel — above all he is silent — or he is perfectly realized actuality, the conscious en soi, that is to say, the Godhead, who, when at last he does act, acts with a ritual and gestural perfection. Let it be noted that it is all or nothing: Everything depends on his gestural perfection — an aesthetic standard which is appropriated by the moviegoer at a terrific cost in anxiety. In the stately dance of rotation, Destry when challenged borrows a gun and shoots all the knobs off the saloon sign. But what if he did not? What if he missed? The stranger in the movie walks the tightrope over the abyss of anxiety and he will not fail. But what of the moviegoer? The stranger removes his hat in the ritual rhythm and wipes his brow with his sleeve, but the moviegoer’s brow is dry when he emerges and he has a headache, and if he tried the same gesture he might bump into his nose. Both Gary Cooper and the moviegoer walk the tightrope of anxiety, but Gary Cooper only seems to: his rope is only a foot above the ground. The moviegoer is over the abyss. The young man in a Robert Nathan novel or in a Huxleyan novel of the Days after the Bomb may rest assured that if he lies under his bush in Central Park, sooner or later she will trip over him. But what of the reader? He falls prey to his desperately unauthentic art by transposing the perfect aesthetic rotation to the existential: He will lie in his green shade until doomsday and no fugitive Pier Angeli will ever trip over him. He must seek an introduction; his speech will be halting, his gestures will not come off, and having once committed himself to the ritual criterion of his art and falling short of it, he can only be — nothing. In no event can he become a person; not even Cooper can do that, for the choice lies between the perfected actual and nothing at all. His alienated art of rotation instead of healing him catches him up in a spiral of despair whose only term is suicide or total self-loss.



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