:: Article

begin with the scars at the bottom

By K. Thomas Kahn.

Jason Schwartz, John the Posthumous, OR Books

[The image] becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression, and a becoming of our being.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

What might a deconstructive history of the marriage bed look like from the marginalized perspective of the cuckold, a figure whose terrain is inverted from one of traditional mockery to one of horror and riddling apocrypha? What might blood say if it could speak—not only the blood as it pulses through one’s veins, but also the blood that is let in the act of a murder, the stains it leaves behind on furniture old enough to have supported monarchical bodies? What, then, might an exegesis of blood, lineage, promise, and betrayal entail? What do inhabited and uninhabited spaces have to offer one keen on tracing images back to their origins: what might these interiors and both their real and imagined occupants say to bear witness to a wound laid bare, as raw as history and as ripe as a knife?

And what might a series of these meditations look like as they are continued laterally alongside one another? It would look very well like Jason Schwartz’s John the Posthumous (OR Books, 2013), a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification, not to mention what painstaking effort it would take to summarize the “plot,” an effort that would be for naught as the narrative threads remain elusive, even as they are dangled right in front of the reader’s face.

Schwartz’s fascination with images is a profoundly rich obsession in this book—even more so than in his first story collection A German Picturesque (Knopf, 1998)—and as a book about scholarship, writing, cuckoldry, adultery, murder, and the search for enlightenment by way of unearthing the subjective meanings of images, it is a project that is deceitful: while Schwartz, or his narrator, if a distinction is to be made, relays information by way of images to his reader, the content of these images is never made explicit in terms of how they signify. Near the start of the book, the narrator wonders what “[t]he parable of the bed” might constitute; later on, he remarks that “parables are not always the same as lies,” often implying there is some relationship between pedagogic fables and outright falsehood, one that links the bed as site of intimacy to violence:

In the history of adultery, women cross all morning, east to west, as in the parable of the gown; a murderer left—in the parlance—for dead… [W]omen cross from this corner to that, in gowns, as in the parable of the copse, where a body is found—broken, in one description; dead, in another… In the history of adultery, men fall on the lawn, and at the gate, one by one, or they kneel, merely, among a woman’s things, as in the parable of the house, where the room faces south, and where the husband finds the wife.

In effect, Schwartz’s text becomes a deceitful act of confession and erasure, a plea for intimacy and audience, and, at the same time, a causal distancing in terms of “truth” as well as the eventual arrival at subjective meaning. As I will explore in some depth later, what John the Posthumous presents the reader with is an open circuit of signification rather than a closed circuit as in more conventional narratives; as such, we are in the realm of endless free-for-all signifiers, images with meanings that are unclear to us (although they appear to be clear to Schwartz’s narrator) even though we are in effect asked to bear witness to a confession that has trauma at its core—indeed, one that has trauma even structuring its utterance. It is also a study in intellectual and emotional paradox: as the narrator leafs through Corinthians after his wife has cheated on him, he finds the following mandate in chapter seven: “It is better to marry than to burn.”

It is fitting that Schwartz titled his book after John I (whom he states is “usually rendered in red”), the first French king to be born into his reign upon his arrival in the world, after which he lived for a mere five days; rumors of the boy’s survival or possible poisoning by his uncle inform the haphazard documents that are extant from this period, such that our knowledge rests firmly on speculative grounds even when faced with all existing facts. The same could be said for John the Posthumous: there is nothing that is concealed from us, apart from the correlative meaning each image-as-signifier signifies, a maddening suppression indeed. “If the morning is cold: begin with the scars at the bottom” is one of many quizzical statements found in the text; and yet, this statement, like all the others, carries with it an internal logic that works for the narrator even if it cannot work for the reader.

In a sense, we are witnessing trauma, its repetition, and its working-through without knowing either the trauma or how it has been laid to rest: “The heart recalls a needle, crooked at one end.” While this can frustrate many readers, that the narrator here starts at the bottom, at the dregs where the most unadulterated meaning exists if he can only unearth it, is crucial to the way this iterative struggle with images, meaning, and how they relate to trauma is what we as readers are called to witness in John the Posthumous.

Schwartz’s style is singular, stark, and uncannily disturbing all at once. As a writer whose voice is so distinct, it feels almost sacrilegious to call another writer to mind; however, Schwartz’s debt to Gordon Lish—with whom he studied, along with Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Sam Michel, Noy Holland, Christine Schutt, and others—is important to consider. While all of the names mentioned above have become sophisticated stylists in their own right, Schwartz appears to have taken more from Lish on both stylistic and theoretical levels. In addition to workshopping their work, Lish’s seminar students were fed heavy doses of poststructuralist thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Julia Kristeva. That John the Posthumous gives us the manifest rather than the latent content, the signifier minus a signified, is reminiscent of psychoanalytic paradigms; indeed, Schwartz seems to be textualizing an eventual analytic epiphany in the text from which his readers are excluded just as much as they are asked to witness the spectacle.

As a student of Lish, Schwartz would likely have received some exposure to the thought of Julia Kristeva. Kristeva expands upon Jacques Lacan’s seminal work on the relationship between the signifier and the signified as a relationship that is far from fixed. Instead, the signifier is in a constant state of signification, an endless chain that causes “meaning” to be continuously deferred. Kristeva famously reworked this theoretical concept in her envisioning of a semiotic chora, a prelinguistic realm that functions like the unconscious in Freud’s work and the imaginary in Lacan’s, in that these states exist prior to symbolization and the individual’s introduction to the world of signs; because of this, these realms are all realms of open signification, where signifiers are in constant flux and where the more conscious act of a signifier connoting a sign is irrelevant. What is relevant here is only what the signifier means by itself, but also in a very subjective sense: to the fantasmatic pleasure (or masochistic scene of trauma, via its very repetition) of the subject in a purely subjective manner. And this is exactly the register at which Schwartz’s writing exists, and where the reader must meet him despite this signifying field being one that holds logic only for the “I” of Schwartz’s text.

Moze Halperin’s otherwise very astute reading of John the Posthumous in Full Stop ends by calling the book “a horrifying little MadLib.” In fact, it couldn’t be farther from this, as my attempts to read Schwartz’s project as one of trauma and also one enacted within an open circuit of signification. To be sure, Schwartz’s seemingly illogical flights and diversions contain a logic all their own—even, as maddening as this can be, if this logic is apparent only to the narrator alone. To propose that there is a formulaic, preexisting narrative here, as would be the case with MadLibs, with crucial words and qualifiers removed (e.g., nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on), also suggests that there is a degree of randomness at work in Schwartz’s prose—i.e., random words chosen to fill in the blanks—and this could not be farther from the truth. By contrast, there is an overarching logic, and that it escapes the reader’s attempt to fathom it does not mean that it isn’t there; rather, each sentence can be read—as David Winters has commented—in terms of Lishian “consecution,” an example of which can be found in Christine Schutt’s anecdote: “Gordon [Lish] pointed out that if you had one good sentence, and you looked at it long and hard and took from it what term was most charged for the next sentence, this was a legitimate way to proceed.”

The seemingly arbitrary movement from interior to exterior scenes (“Now fold back the bedsheet, this way, and you have a handsome old scene”), from piqued emotions to their rather textile connotations (“‘shame’—even if we prefer the simpler notion of folds or creases in a coat” and “[t]he heart decays on a polite white plate”), from canonical to apocryphal books, and from suppression (whether by intellectualization or other means) to eventual breakthrough (“Were she to return”; “the foyer window, from which I once saw my wife embrace a rival of mine”) follows the chaotic structure of trauma, a structure related to unconscious rather than conscious temporality, thereby making it closer to poetic meditations than a more linear narrative with concrete signification.

In his review of John the Posthumous for Electric Literature, Winters has compiled a useful collection of words in the text that are forced to suffer repetition:

the words “wife” and “wives” arise thirty-five times. Also, “adultery” and associated words (“adulterer,” “adulteress,” the Latin “adultera” and, “to use the legal term… adulterium”) make twenty appearances. Correspondingly, “cuckold” and “cuckoldry” (which the narrator notably calls “my proper topic”) occur on ten occasions. “Bed,” “bedsheets,” “bedclothes,” and “bedroom” combine to a total of ninety. So, it’s striking that “knife,” “knives,” and “blade” add up to sixty-seven. “Blood” appears twenty times, “throat” nineteen, and “murder” and “kill” total twenty again. Forty-four instances of “burn,” “burnt,” “burning,” “fire,” and “flame” fan out across the text. Finally, tellingly, there are twenty-one uses of “body,, always appearing alongside such phrases as “in agony,” “oddly marked,” “in distress,” “broken,” and, of course, “burnt.”

Interestingly enough, the word “you”—including “yours”—occurs ninety-five times in the text, making it the word most often repeated: in many of these instances, the narrator is referring to an unspecified other, a times an amalgam of his wife and at other times directly addressing the reader as witness to crime, trauma, and aftermath. Viewing these repeated words and images as “breadcrumbs,” Winters infers that through the compulsion to repeat, Schwartz’s narrator is perpetually revealing while at the same time occluding; while Winters refers to trauma, he mentions it only in passing insofar as these images and the narrator’s obsession with them relate to “the narrative’s aftermath” which is never revealed in the text.

Trauma requires repetition so that the individual can gain mastery over the traumatic material, as in Freud’s famous case of the child playing the game of fort/da in order to deal with the trauma of his mother’s departure and her unknown return; as such, there is also an underlying element of masochism in the working-through of trauma in that it requires the individual to relive the experience over and over again. The images Winters isolates above are Lacanian points de capiton, or anchoring points where a signifier resolves itself in subjective signification; in other words, the meanings of the images are important in terms of how they resolve the trauma for the narrator, something that we observe closely as readers and yet from which we are also distanced or barred, as Lacan would have it, since these are the narrator’s images, his cathexes, and not ours.

Indeed, there is a great deal of trauma in John the Posthumous, but these are scenarios that are relayed by images rather than exegetical or narrative details; the trauma is therefore buried even though its presence is a known factor, it is eclipsed just as it is emphasized. As Schwartz writes: “The object discovered beneath the floorboards … is a separate affair, a ghastlier matter for later on.” And this could be said for whatever catharsis occurs for the narrator as he discovers—without sharing with his readers—what lies beneath the trauma. Schwartz’s repetition begs to be read in terms of trauma: in a book focusing on adultery, murder (real or imagined), and how previously canny domestic scenes can become uncanny once the marriage bed is stained with literal and figurative blood, it is worth recalling that Freud cites the uncanny as a return of the repressed.

So what has been repressed here in the text and by its narrator? Is the trauma of his wife’s infidelity what drives him to pursue vengeance in Biblical and apocryphal source materials, all of which he appears to have on hand beside his writing desk, cuckoldry as “my proper topic”? To be sure, in these more calculated acts of study, even the personal breaks through unexpectedly, only to quickly be occluded: “I am troubled by Susanna, as this was my mother’s name. In my childhood Bible, I now recall, I scratched out the name in three places.” And the narrator goes further in his biblical studies of the consequences of adultery, juxtaposing past sanctioned rituals to his own traumatic experience:

It was once customary to remove—with a table knife or a razor blade—the pages displaying the names of the wives. And for the forsaken—or the bereaved—to spell out the beloved’s name on a white bedsheet, set the bedsheet afire, and then swallow the ashes.

Is this about living through interior and exterior spaces, perhaps ones that were once canny and are now rendered uncanny due to the destruction of intimacy and the fantasmatic lure of violence and bloodshed—rooms whose objects are “emblems of betrayal” and rooms in which “[t]he knife recurs as a figure”? And, above all, is this a book about coming to terms with trauma by repeatedly invoking, with a kind of masochistic persistence, images that are the pivotal points de capiton for the narrator to begin to make sense of his experience and begin to lay it to rest?

Whatever John the Posthumous is, it is a brilliant example of a text with formal and unconscious boundaries between narrator and reader. We leave the book feeling as if we have been made witness to a profound, albeit harrowing, enlightenment of some inexplicable sort. After closing its pages, we can’t help but recall the nightmarishly sublime world from which the narrator has in effect prematurely expelled us: “Pause here, at the door. Present yourself at the window, as she had, and now remove yourself from view.” Remaining with us are phantom traces of images and half-remembered rhythmic phrases as incomplete signifiers, threads that may lead back to memories or scenes we realize we have already forgotten because we have never truly come to know them in the first place.

K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, Music & Literature Magazine, The Millions, and other venues. He tweets at @proustitute.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 8th, 2013.