Phantasmagorically Noh: The Blindness and Rage of Brian Castro Deconstructed

By | 1 November 2019


A sesquipedalianism for ghost story? Chambers says ‘phantasmagoria’ was a name given to a show of optical illusions in 1802. Littré supports Chambers, describing fantasmagorie – with an F – as the art of making ghosts appear, involving a magic lantern throwing shadows rather like a wayang performance, and becoming popular by the end of the eighteenth century. Or a Noh performance, populated by ghosts. A kind of reverie or dream life. Littré goes on to say that phantasmagoria is a form of trompe l’oeil from the literary point of view. It is necessarily posthumous. Castro is telling us to (t)read carefully. There are ghosts in terms of love or love in terms of ghosts. Castro points out that ‘Love is ghostly in the first instance’ (170) and that ‘[T]his non-arrival of a message [love-letter] might indicate how words are swallowed up by ghosts’ (178). A conflation of ghost-writer and plagiarism: ‘What is an author but a ghost-writer / and general plagiarist who speaks in voices’ (41)? Plagiarism is a scandal – publishers often settle to avoid scandal, shame, ignominy, or they have to pulp an edition when there is a public outcry after a prize and exposure, for example. Plagiarism sounds so judgemental, so ‘purloining’ is used, a postmodernist device. So close to fakery and hoaxes is plagiarism. Australia, ghostly country that it has become over the past couple of centuries, is the home of the literary hoax. This nation is founded on theft; it is the overarching theme of Greer’s On Rage. The so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’ is not cutting people down to size, but robbing them of recognition, dignity, glory. Some justify plagiarism by dividing between ‘unconscious’ plagiarism, where authors innocently repeated what they had heard (James said as much when writing about Jean Cocteau in Cultural Amnesia [CJ 130]), sometimes in a slightly different, blurred or ‘corrected’ form, and criminal plagiarism, where authors knowingly lift portions from other authors’ works, except it is not a crime. McKenzie Wark quotes the Marquis de Vauvenargues: ‘[O]ld discoveries belong less to their original inventors than to those who put them to use’ (MW 33). An imprimatur of sorts. Castro himself points out that ‘[t]he habit of Chinese writers / […] has been to incorporate into their writings / the work of others along with their refusal / to give the names of either the authors / or their books’ (163; italics in original but ellipsis added). Originality is hard to produce, so authors are apt to ‘borrow’, especially those under pressure, according to James (he is discussing wit; CJ 239).

The optical illusion as a reification of mirror: the mirror of blindness and rage. The Mirror Room (kagami-no-ma) of Noh theatres, where actors examine themselves (self-reflection) before going on stage to the faint accompaniment of flute and drum.

Castro as protagonist ‘shall leave no trace, a ghost-writer / who will die at the forge without / a ‘discovery’ by the literary world’ (50). Sigmund Freud is a postmodernist hero – he is referred to no less than half a dozen times by Castro, but readers must wait until halfway through the book for the first mention: ‘Suicide, as Sigmund said, isn’t a lone act’ [102]. The use of first names as familiarisation, rather than defamiliarisation.) The protagonist as doppelgänger for a French surrealist prose poet who named himself after a Roman statesman, imprisoned during the Second World War and dead in 2007.

As ‘trace’ is a key word for postmodernists, so too is ‘spectacle’, as when Wark titled his later book on the Situationists, The Spectacle of Disintegration. ‘Rhizome’ (65) belongs to Deleuze and Guattari; other key words – or jargon – are ‘ekphrasis’ (resuscitated from an obsolete medical term), a lot of de- words (defamiliarisation, deterritorialisation, etc.), and the four ‘ologies’ (epistemology, eschatology, ontology and typology).

Argumentative and rebarbative, but gently so, and pseudonymous. The work lives on independently of the author. The protagonist (often the author) visits a Francis Bacon exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, where the paintings speak to him more of ‘lives half-lived, / abused, awaking inside walls and cages’ (125) than either impersonal history or personal sexuality. Greer concurs by saying a ‘caged animal will reject its young and even kill them’ (GG 72). Suicide, at seven mentions, direct and indirect, is a leitmotiv (‘suspicions were aroused again / when the word suicide was fed / into their computers’ [145]; italics in original). Greer goes on to say that ‘[m]ost people think that people commit suicide because they are very sad; suicide is more often an act of terminal rage’ (ibid.). The ‘ ‘love’ and blind aggression’ (30) of Castro, his protagonist’s love of the pun and (dis)play: ‘Huizinga tells us the language of polite speech / is full of play. / It’s why Gracq prefers the eighteenth century / with its calembours and figures, / rough-housing with metaphor’ (74; italics in original). He goes on to say that ‘play was also contestation, / agonistic and suicidal’ (ibid.) and that suicide, as Castro has Freud saying, as I pointed out above, ‘isn’t a lone act, / though avoiding it makes solitude a fact’ (102). Play as education (‘Caillois called in paidia, the Greek for play, / the rounded education of an ancient elite’ [10; italics in original – the protagonist’s unfinished manuscript is called Paidia]); suicide as (f)act, as effacement (‘erasure’ [134]).

This book does not aspire to the realism of modernism but the antics of postmodernism. Although, as with most realist works, its plot is simple. This simplicity, however, allows for ludicism, divagations and desultoriness on Castro’s part. While the principal tenet of postmodernism (’s dogma) is the death of the author (the death of truth, of certainty) and the superabundance of choice, the protagonist manages to survive here (his terminal cancer miraculously disappears in Paris). For starters, I put Castro in the postmodern canon for I doubt a verse novel like his would fit in anywhere else. I disagree with writers like Tariq Ali and Helen Pluckrose who blame postmodernism per se, for I believe the fault lies in its practitioners’ use of it to excess, such as the more extreme examples that have people throwing up their arms and exclaiming that it is ‘political correctness gone mad’. Critics overlook how capitalism has turned universities, which they call hotbeds of postmodernism, into factories. This is entirely appropriate, for there is a subtle difference between modernism and modernity. However, they do not mention modernity/modernism’s many excesses, such as commodification; pollution after the Industrial Revolution; dubious medical practices (phrenology, eugenics, etc.) and experiments (lobotomies, blacks exposed to syphilis without their knowledge, etc.); the First and Second World Wars; Nazism; white supremacy; the British, who tested their nuclear bombs at Maralinga, north of Adelaide, with their terra nullius views and scant regard for civilians and soldiers alike; the dropping of atom bombs on whole cities … I could go on, but you cannot blame modernism – or modernity, which is slightly different – for these excesses, just as postmodernism, which is essentially an art or literary movement, should not be blamed for the excesses committed in its name. Nor can you blame individual failings, such as Michel Foucault’s support of Ayatollah Khomeini, on postmodernism. The fact that campuses have become centres of postmodernist excess is not due to postmodernism itself but to those guilty of excess.

Illness as metaphor (Castro might not have mentioned Sontag by name, but has Gracq writing a paper titled ‘Illness Must Remain A Metaphor’ [81]): ‘He skipped his usual local / margarita to read Modiano / and the Dictionnaire Médical, / boned up on the liver / […] and gathered his diagnosis / indicat[ed] ‘a certain cirrhosis’ ‘ (80–1; italics in original but ellipsis added). Cancer may have been the reason for Gracq’s leaving Adelaide for Paris, but let us not forget the hypochondriacal anxiety that pervades the book, such as syphilis, a disease that ends in blindness and madness, if not rage. (And let us not forget the ‘upside’: ‘syphilitic genius’ [10], no doubt said by someone who has never had syphilis.)

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