The role of chance and coincidence in Moon Palace
– „It’s a weird coincidence,“ the stranger continued, paying no attention to what I had said. „Kitty is going to love it. She loves things like that.“ (C42, D47)
– As chance would have it, I took the last ones up to Chandler on the same day the astronauts landed on the moon.“ (C38, D42)
– „In the morning I understood that chance had taken me in the right direction. Without stopping to think about it, I had been following the road to the west…“ (C298, D340)
– One clue after another leads him nowhere, but then, by pure chance „ everything in Barber’s book happens by chance „ he is put on the trail of Jack Moon…“ (C259, D299)
Auster’s biography shows us that in his own life chance and coincidence played a crucial role. In his autobiographic work he writes: „I learned the story of my grandfather’s death some time ago. If not for an extraordinary coincidence, it would never have become known.“ In an interview Auster said: „I believe the world is filled with strange events. Reality is a great deal more mysterious than we ever give it credit for.“ … „What I am talking about is the presence of the unpredictable, the utterly bewildering nature of human experience. From one moment to the next, anything can happen. Our lifelong certainties can be demolished in a single second. In philosophical terms, I’m talking about the power of contingency. Our lives don’t belong to us, they belong to the world.“
The attempt to cope with reality by making sense of one’s life is necessarily doomed to failure. It is interesting to know how the protagonists of MP deal with this existential uncertainty:
– Thomas Effing simply denies coincidence: „Just by coincidence, of course. Ha! As if there’s any such thing as coincidence.“ (C196, D228) He continued to believe that he was in control of his destiny.“ (C216, D251) This self-delusion, this blindness of a man whose life was to a large extent determined by chance and coincidence cannot serve as a wise conception of the world.
– Marco’s life is also largely determined by chance. This often bereaves him of his inner equilibrium and drives him into emotional outbursts. Only towards the end is he able to cope with blows of fate „ he has learned to bear them and cope with them. What made him lose his temper in the past gives him now the determination to follow his way. As Auster writes in „The invention of solitude“: „Like everyone else, he craves a meaning. Like everyone else, his life is so fragmented that each time he sees a connection between two fragments he is tempted to look for a meaning in that connection. The connection exists. But to give it a meaning […] would be to build an imaginary world inside the real world and he knows it would not stand.“ Marco has left behind the initial flight into an imaginary world (with uncle Victor for example), he has arrived in the real world, in a reality whose meaning is not obvious and whose main characteristic is chance and coincidence. Yet he doesn’t despair of it, he is ready to face up to it and to give it his own meaning: „I understood that chance had taken me in the right direction […] and knowing that I had a purpose, that I was not running away from something so much as going toward it, gave me the courage to admit to myself that I did not in fact want to be dead.“ (C298, D340)
Moon Palace and postmodernism
„Everything connects. … The correspondences are infinite“ : If this is true the law of cause and effect is suspended, and chance and coincidence determine our lives. This implies that „anything can happen“ „ a slogan that we can find in many of Paul Auster’s books. Modernism tried to find order, coherence, unity and meaning in works of art. Postmodernism plays with the loss of order and juggles instead with chance and coincidence. But who then reigns over all these coincidences“ Who writes all these plots in our lives“ Marco and Uncle Victor are convinced that „every man is the author of his own life“ . Marco is often lost and tells us that he is working without a plot, writing each sentence as it comes to him and refusing to think about the next. Yet in spite of all the situational, provisional and temporary narratives that Moon Palace is made up of, Marco’s life manoeuvers along many historical, mythological, artistic and literary ideals of his country „ we could also say along the „grand narratives“ of his country (democracy, freedom, individual self-fulfillment, the Frontier, the West, scientific progress, self-made-man) „ and creates a patchwork that finally allows him to reach the point where he can say: „This is where I start, … this is where my life begins.“
Postmodern literature deals with the individual in a society in which the relationship between social behavior and moral judgement is more and more difficult to conceptualize. Urban sprawl and growing professional specialization make people more isolated from others and more dependent on the media, so that their knowledge becomes more and more unreal and fragmented or just visualized. The risks of this situation are evident: Our insights have to be created by ourselves, we are not able to grasp sufficiently all the aspects of events, we are disoriented, we are not anchored in history, we stay superficial and we lack emotions and empathy. Self-reflection and a loss of universal value systems force the individual to radically (re)construct his own life.
At first sight Moon Palace seems to be a story of initiation, an approach to life via reading, painting and autobiography. But if we take a closer look we realize that there is no change of perspective „ like for example an inner monologue „ that allows us to follow the changes of the protagonist’s growing conscience of his inner self. Where there are symbols they are either interpreted in the text“ like Marco’s name „ or they constantly change their meaning „ like the moon „ so that their ultimate meaning remains perpetually concealed. Knowledge and creativity stay associative and changing instead of final and established. They form an opalescent semantic network, in which everything is of equal value: pulp fiction and symbolic painting, Cyrano de Bergerac, the West, scientific progress, politics etc.
Such a sampling of stories indicates a certain loss of orientation and in a symbolic sense a loss of authority and a form of fatherlessness. This implies at the same time a loss of causality and determination. In which way is our life determined by history“ In how far is Marco influenced by the Vietnam War or by Woodstock“ Is Moon Palace a historical novel“
The questioning of history leads to reflections on the stories in the novel. Does Effing tell the truth or does he invent his trip to the West“ Are we really the authors of our lives“ If yes, do we invent it or do we only smooth it in our reminiscences“ Is Marco’s identity equivalent to the books he has read“ Are we just products of what we have read or what we have been told“ Is human behavior nothing else than the recursive interpretation of what parents, friends, books or films have told us, so that peoples“ identities spins around in circles“
And yet, the end of the novel is rather optimistic, everything is open, Marco has reached the point, where his life begins, when he accepts the basic uncertainty, the role of chance and coincidence.
1 Paul Auster, Moon Palace, Diesterweg, Frankfurt 2001
2 Paul Auster, Moon Palace, op.cit.
3 Paul Auster, Moon Palace, op.cit., p. 344
4 Many ideas are taken from Martin Klepper, Moon Palace im
Kontext der Postmoderne
Landscape painting in Moon Palace
The following thoughts are based on an essay by Dr. Helga Korff (see http://www.oberschulamt-freiburg.de/gym/faecher/english/engl_jae/auster/art.htm)
The painters who play a major role in MP, are Blakelock and Th. Moran, two landscape painters of the second half of the 19th century. Blakelock is the painter of lyrical poetic landscapes, Arcadian gardens, whereas Moran painted dramatically majestic summit landscapes and sought geological accuracy.
Blakelock“s genre painting of the simple life at the Frontier and Moran’s presentation of the sublime features and the wilderness of the West oscillate between nature (Marco calls Blakelock“s painting a „death song for a vanished world“) and civilization (the conquest of the West). They typically make us look into infinite spaces that are still to be discovered and in which man plays only a minor role.
Both painters represent different sides of the American Dream: Moran, the successful and renowned painter, whose paintings were exhibited in Washington, and Blakelock, who showed the wounds and victims of this conquest and who ended in mental derangement.
Marco“s visit to the Brooklyn museum, his intense preoccupation with Blakelock’s painting and his later description to Effing make him, too, discover new spaces and contribute to his penetrating the world.
Auf einer Linkliste des OSA Freiburg gibt es einen hervorragenden Artikel zu autobiographischen Aspekten in Moon Palace:
Ein weiterer Link zu Moon Palace im Kontext der Postmoderne:
Außerdem gibt es noch weitere sehr empfehlenswerte Links unter:
Außerdem könnt ihr euch noch weitere Informationen holen, wenn ihr bei Google unter dem Stichwort „Landesbildungsserver Baden-Württemberg“ recherchiert.
Marco all alone
After Barber´s death Marco realizes the fragility of his own life.
In his desperation he turns to Kitty for consolation.
Kitty is full of empathy, but Marco’s confession of his love for her and of his deep feeling of guilt can’t bring Kitty to consent to his desire to come back to her.
„It’s too late, I can’t open myself up to that anymore. You nearly killed me, you know, and I can’t risk anything like that again.“ (C 295, D 337)
So Marco suffers from two losses: – the loss of his father (whose
death was caused by
– and the loss of Kitty (for
which he himself is
In a fit he destroys his hotel room and drives away in the red Pontiac.
He keeps going for the next twelve hours and chance takes him into „the right direction“. (C 298, D 340) and: „…to the west, and now that I was on my way, I suddenly felt calmer, more in control of myself. I would do what I and Barber had set out to do in the first place, I decided, and knowing that I had a purpose, that I was not running away from something as going toward it, gave me the courage to admit to myself that I did not in fact want to be dead.“ (C 298, D 340)
So Marco’s focus is the future, not the past, in contrast to Effing he is not handicapped and obsessed by his biography.
Now he starts to experience the West himself: Now experience is not represented in language any more (Effing’s stories, Barber’s stories and their biography), it is substituted by real empiric experience: „I had not imagined that anything in America could be so old, and by the time I crossed into Utah, I felt that I was beginning to understand some of the things that Effing had talked about.“ (C 298, D 340/1)
What Marco now experiences is the insignificance of man, of himself in relation to the immeasurable nature and the incredible historic dimension of the culture of his country:
„Minutes and hours were too small to be measured, and once you opened your eyes to the things around you, you were forced (…) to understand that a thousand years is no more than a tick of the clock. For the first time in my life, I felt the earth as a planet whirling through the heavens. It wasn’t big, I discovered, it was small „ it was almost microscopic. Of all the objects in the universe, nothing is smaller than the earth.“ (C 298/9, D 341)
Here Marco learns „humility“.
In contrast to the overestimation of man after the moon landing or as shown by Effing, Marco learns modesty.
Marco doesn’t see himself as the center of the universe any more, but he sees that he is connected „with something that was more than just (him)self.“ (C 276, D 317)
This has two aspects: First of all it refers to the history of his family that he now knows now
And in a more general sense to his country and its history.
„For the next month I spent my days exploring the surrounding countryside. (…) I was happy during those weeks, almost buoyant in my solitude.“ (C 299, D 341)
He is happy, and he also enjoys the solitude he was so much afraid of.
He doesn’t find the cave, ironically it is flooded by Lake Powell, but there are rumors of its existence and even of the Gresham brothers, „the last of the Wild West train robbers“ (C 299, D 342)
Accidentally his car is stolen and all the money he possessed: „It was a prank of the gods, an act of divine malice whose only object was to crush me. That was when I started walking.“ (C 301, D 343)
Task: Discuss the metaphoric meaning of this statement.
„I thundered inside myself, I wept, I howled like a madman, but then, little by little, the anger seemed to burn itself out, and I settled into the rhythm of my steps.“ (C 301, D 344)
„I walked without interruption, heading toward the Pacific, borne along by a growing sense of happiness. Once I reached the end of the continent I felt some important question would be resolved for me. I had no idea what that question was, but the answer had already been formed in my steps, and I had only to keep walking to know that I had left myself behind, that I was no longer the person I had once been.“ (C 301, D 344)
Indeed Marco is not the same person any more. He is not with Kitty any more, he is an orphan, but he knows his history and he is facing a future that is absolutely open.
But Marco is able to make his own experiences
he is able to love and to mourn
he is ready to accept his deficiencies and his guilt
he can turn towards others, he is not self-centered any
he is trained in humility, discipline and patience
So he is more grown up and independent, the accidental tosses and turns in life don“t cause a loss in balance, the loss of his car and his money doesn’t push him off the path of life he has decided to take.
At the end of „Moon Palace“ he has only reached the beginning of his own story whose author and central character he wants to be:
„This is where I start, I said to myself, this is where my life begins.“ (C 302, D 344)
Marco is not yet a person that has reached a final state of development.
In Auster’s notion development is not a purposeful development towards a finished state, but it is a lifelong process full of coincidence in which the individual attributes meaning to itself, thus running through a permanent process („multiple being“).
Auster himself comments on the Marco’s state of being at the end of the novel:
„By the end of the book I think he manages to get somewhere. But he only reaches the beginning, the brink of his adult life. And that´s where we leave him „ getting ready to begin.“
Marco is definitely alone at the end of the book, thus representing a frequent situation in the modern world and mirroring a typical model of socialization in our time.
Solomon Barber 2
Solomon Barber also suffers from the monstrous quality of his huge body:
„He had reached his full adult height by the time he was fifteen, somewhere between six-two and six-three, and from then on his weight kept mounting. He struggled through his adolescence to keep it below 250, but his late-night binges did not help nor did diets seem to have any effect. (…) The world was an obstacle course of staring eyes and pointing fingers, and he was an ambulatory freak show.“ (C 237, D 274)
He finds refuge in books: „Books became a refuge for him early on, a place where he could keep himself hidden „ not only from others, but from his own thoughts as well.“ (C 237, D 274)
He becomes a successful teacher at universities. His academic focus is on the early history of the USA: „It was no accident, I think, that Barber’s later scholarship was devoted to exploring many of the same issues that appeared in `Kepler’s Blood´ „. (C 260, D 300)
In Solomon Barber the American history and his personal history are closely interwoven.
Barber is not interested in material things. After his mother’s death in 1939 he gives his Aunt Clara a lifelong right of residence in his house and claims to pass it over to Hattie, the colored maid: „There’s nothing more important in this world than being good to our friends,…“ (C 264, D 304)
In contrast to Effing he is characterized by empathy just like Zimmer and Kitty.
At the same time he, the emphatic intellectual, is an anachronism in a materialistic capitalist America. His body is a caricature of the typical American, his tender soul and his intellectualism form a strong contrast to this physical monstrosity.
Marco is impressed by the quality of Solomon Barber’s books: „I found them admirable, well written, tightly argued, and filled with information that was entirely new to me (…) For example, I had never known of Berkeley’s plan to educate the Indians in Bermuda (…) I tend to agree with him that the lost settlers survived by joining forces with the Croatan Indians.“ (C 194, D 225)
Barber looks at history in an unprejudiced way and he tries to do justice to the Native Americans. So he does what Effing demands but in fact ignores: „Everyone has a right to know about his past.“ (C 197, D 229)
So Barber helps to pass on the truth about the history of settlement to later generations. Auster himself says in an interview: (sorry, I only know the German text of the interview)
„Eine der Formen amerikanischer Heuchelei besteht darin, zu vergessen, dass dieses große Land der Freiheiten (…) auf der Ausrottung eines Volkes und der Versklavung eines anderen gegründet und erbaut worden ist. Diese traurige Geschichte der Beziehungen zwischen den Weißen und den Indianern ist ein Kreuz, das jeder Amerikaner auf seinen Schultern trägt. Man darf dieses Drama niemals vergessen.“ (Gespräch mit Gerard de Cortanze)
Task: Compare Barber’s and Effing’s attitude towards history.
As mentioned above, Barber is also successful as a university teacher, but he changes universities frequently.
As a person, Barber hides in himself, retreats shamefully into his massive body and into isolation: „The larger his body grew, the more deeply he buried himself inside it. Barber’s goal was to shut himself off from the world, to make himself invisible in the massiveness of his own flesh.“ (C 240, D 277/8)
Slowly he learns to „immunize himself against the pain of being seen“. (C 240, D 277,8)
His growing baldness inspires him to give himself a stylish look thus giving his appearance a certain dignity: „ He was no longer just the obese Solomon barber, he was the Man Who Wore Hats.“ (C 240, D 278)
Female students are impressed by his stately appearance and the dedicated work he does for them and he becomes the „best-liked teacher on campus“ ( C 241, D 279)
So young Emily Fogg falls in love with him and is seduced by him. When the cleaner discovers them in the morning the scandal that follows leads to his relegation. But he is more deeply wounded by Emily´s refusal of his proposal. „His career never rebounded from this setback, but even worse was the torment of losing Emily. It clung to him for the rest of his life, and not a month went by (…) when he did not relive the cruelty of her rejection, the look of absolute horror on her face when he asked her to marry him. „You’ve destroyed me,“ she said, „and I’ll be damned if I ever let you see me again.“ (C 236, D 273)
Emily, who suffers from the loss of her reputation in that way, prefers to bring her son up all alone thus being a representative of a rigid moral and a victim at the same time. This rigidity overshadows the life of her son and the life of Solomon who loves her all his life blaming himself for the loss: „Hard as it was to accept, he could not help feeling that this was exactly what he deserved.“ ( C 237, D 274)
The puritan ethics of a hypocritical America makes him a tragic figure in many respects: he is despised by his beloved woman and his son is kept away from him, a situation from which he had suffered so much all his life.
This is what Marco means when he describes the impression he gets of Solomon in their first meeting: „…there was a legendary quality about him, a thing that struck me as both obscene and tragic.“ ( C 233, D 270)
Task: Compare the relationship between Marco and Thomas Effing to the relationship between Marco and Solomon Barber. (C 247, D 286) (C 269, D 310)
Barber embodies Marco’s ideals: humility, patience, rigor: The strict discipline of the scientist who does his research work in a very patient and thorough way is connected with the virtue of humility as a human being that shows a high portion of devotion for others. What a father Solomon could have been for Marco and what an offspring Marco could have been for his father! Kitty, too, is taken into the circle of patrimonial friendship and sympathy. They all have a good time: „(The) man was so filled with good humor and affection, we could not resist him. (…) Barber took us under his wing as though he meant do adopt us. Since Kitty and I were both orphans, everyone seemed to benefit from the arrangement.“ (C 270, D 311)
To everybody’s surprise the heritage for Solomon and Mrs Hume is only a little over 40 000$, far less than everybody expected. Again we see that his wealth like so many other things are part of Effing’s tendency to exaggerate things. Solomon remarks: „Yes, I do think he was prone to exaggeration. But far be it for me to hold it against him.“ ( C 271, D 312)
At least he can live without teaching for two or three years just doing his research work.
So Solomon suggests to Marco and Kitty to try and find Effing’s cave but the crisis between Marco and Kitty prevents the immediate realization of the plan.
Barber puts Marco up in his apartment and tries to solve the problems between the two but he fails completely because of Marco’s stubbornness: „Barber hat failed in his role as Cupid, but he continued to do everything he could to save me.“ ( C 282, D 322) Later Marco realizes: „If anyone had suffered, it was Kitty, and yet she was the one who shouldered the responsibility for what had happened. If I had possessed even the smallest fraction of her goodness, I would have run to her on the spot, prostrated myself before her, and begged her to forgive me. But I did nothing. (C 281, D 322).
For Solomon the search for the cave seems to be a distraction from Marco’s self-destructive inactivity: „You’re stuck, M.S., you’re eating yourself alive. The only cure is to get away from it.“ (C 282, D 323)
Marco agrees but he is not convinced that the quest makes sense: „ If I had thought there was the slightest possibility of finding the cave, I doubt that I would have gone, but the idea of a useless quest (…) appealed to my sense of things at that moment. We would search, but we would not find. Only the going itself would matter (…) This was a metaphor I could live with, the leap into emptiness I had always dreamed of.“ (C 283/4, D 324)
For Solomon Barber this quest has a meaning: It is a therapy for Marco and a search for the artistic heritage of his father.
For Marco the sense of the quest lies in itself, the search is an end in itself. So he thinks of it in the form of a metaphor, a rhetorical device. Instead of dealing with the existential quality of the situation in the sense of an attempt to find a solution it is enough for him to find words for it. His inability to communicate with Kitty has its manifestation in a lack of words, in the inability to abstract from himself and to develop empathy for others.
So Marco’s restriction to a life „via language“ is a road to nowhere: „I was twenty-four years old, and I felt that my life had come to a dead end.“ (C 285, D 326)
The journey is also a flight from a life without Kitty and from a considerable amount of alcohol that cannot solve his problems.
Marco’s wish to visit his mother’s grave leads both, Marco and Solomon, to the revelation of their family ties.
„Barber had loved my mother. From this single, incontestable fact, everything else began to
move, to totter, to fall apart „ the whole world began to rearrange itself before my eyes. He hadn’t come out and said it, but all of a sudden I knew. I knew who he was, all of a sudden I knew everything.“ (C 288, D 329)
Marco reacts with aggression which has been interpreted in different ways, e.g. Oedipus (Marco kills his own father) but it can also be understood from the fact that Marco has built his identity completely on being fatherless and now the whole structure of his identity tumbles down in one moment: „ For twenty-four years I had lived with an unanswerable question, and little by little I had come to embrace that enigma as the central fact about myself. My origins were a mystery and I would never know where I had come from. This was what defined me, and by now I was used to my own darkness, clinging to it as a source of knowledge and self-respect (…) No matter how hard I might have dreamed of finding my father, I had never thought it would be possible. Now that I had found him the disruption was so great that my first impulse was to deny it. Barber was not the cause of the denial, it was the situation itself. He was the best friend I had, and I loved him. If there was any man in the world I would have chosen to be my father, he was the one. But still, I couldn’t do it. A shock had been sent through my entire system, and I didn’t know how to absorb the blow“ (C 290, D 332/3)
Ironically Solomon falls into an open grave and is badly injured. An injury from which he doesn’t recover. More and more Marco comes to accept him as his father: „Barber had the same eyes I did. I was Barber’s son, and I knew it now beyond the shadow of a doubt.“ (C 292, D 334)
First Solomon believes in a new life but then an infection weakens him: „It was as though his body simply couldn’t take it anymore. I t had been through too much, and now the machinery was breaking down. His defences had been weakened by the enormous weight loss, and there was nothing left for him to fight with …“ (C 293, D 335)
Here Marco shows an enormous development. It is not self-pity that overwhelms him but pity for Barber, for somebody else: „Even now I cannot think of Barber without being overwhelmed by pity.“ ( C 235, D 272)
Now Marco is able to feel for and with others. In a sense he acquires Solomon’s empathy.
Task: Can Solomon Barber be called a self-made man“
Task: The shrinking of Barber. Interpret this phenomenon!
Solomon Barber 1
In his father’s inheritance Auster found a family photo without his grandfather. He was cut out. This happened to cover the fact that his grandmother had murdered the grandfather. He, like Effing, left his wife and children.
Effing eliminates himself, when he disappears from the family photo forever.
In the „Invention of Solitude“ Auster writes about his father: „Earliest memory: his absence.“
The name Solomon reminds us of the ancient wise king of the Hebrews Salomo with his sense of justice, on the other hand it also refers to the sun (sol) to and the earth (French: sol).
Indeed Solomon tries to do justice to everyone.
The association with earth and sun corresponds to Tesla’s prophecies and the aphorism of the „fortune cookie“ according to which the sun is the past and the earth is the present.
As his father, Solomon is Marco’s past and present but there is no common future because of the death of the father.
The absence of Solomon’s father is explained with the early death of Julian: „His father, they told him, had died out West a few months before he was born (…)and everyone had always said his father was a painter, a specialist in landscapes who had gone on many travels for his art.“ (C 248, D 287)
There are various stories concerning the way how Julian died: falling from a cliff, being caught by Indians up to the idea that it was the Devil himself who killed him.
Being fatherless, his mother too is of little use for him: „He didn’t see his mother very often, and even on her good days she had trouble remembering his name.“ (C 248, D 287)
Elizabeth Barber is permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown and she lives her life in isolation in a disturbed state of mind: „…nerves flying off in all directions, a woman forever on the verge of collapse.“ (C 249/50, D 289).
The birth of Solomon is traumatic because the mother doesn’t want to give him birth. Aunt Clara calls him „…the biggest, strongest baby anyone had ever seen.(…) A gigantus. I do believe that you hadn’t been so large, Sol, you never would have made it.“ (C 267, D 307/8)
And indeed his monstrous body will become his destiny.
But Solomon sees his childhood not only as a period of suffering: „It was a lugubrious childhood, but not without its pleasures, and far less lonely than it might have been. His mother’s parents lived there most of the time (…) Later on, his Uncle Binkey and Aunt Clara also moved in, and for several years they all lived together in a kind of cantankerous harmony.“„(C 250, D 289)
At the age of 17 Solomon tries to deal with his father’s absence in the form of a novel. „Kepler’s Blood“ is a psychological document „written in the sensational style of thirties pulp novels. Part Western and part science fiction, the story lurched from one improbability to the next. (C 251, D 291)
„For all its shortcomings and excesses (…) it demonstrates how Barber played out the inner dramas of his early life. He doesn’t want to accept that his father is dead (…) but if his father is not dead, then there is no excuse for his not having returned to his family (…) But the thought of that murder is too horrible not to inspire revulsion. (…) The whole story is a complex dance of guilt and desire.“ (C 251, D 291)
In „Kepler’s Blood“ the experience of being fatherless is dealt with in a complex pattern of accusations, atonement, revenge and retaliation. The absent father has heroic qualities and is condemned at the same time, he threatens his son’s life but is killed through the hand of a child. But the figure of the son is punished most severely in the story.
In the end it turns out that the story does not solve Solomon’s problems. As such it is a failure. But it is a documentation of the deep suffering of Solomon from his situation.
At the same time the sequence of stories within the story is continued and „Kepler’s Blood“ also contains the early history and settlement of America. So history, literature and developmental psychology are closely interwoven.
The Effing Episode brought to its end
Task: Discuss Effing’s relationsship to Elizabeth Wheeler and try a moral evaluation of Effing’s behaviour towards her.
Task: Is Effing the American „self-made man“„
Task: Why doesn’t Effing go back to Long Island“
(Overwhelmed by guilt, by the terrible thing he had done to his life, he indulged in reckless fantasies of returning to Long Island with some colossal lie to account for what had happened.“ (186)
Feeling that guilt, Effing interprets the assault on him that cripples him as an act of divine revenge for what he has done.
„His crime had been paid for, and suddenly he was empty again: no more guilt, no more fears of being caught, no more dread.(…) he could not help interpreting it as a form of cosmic retribution.“ (188)
The idea of having paid for his sins is not connected with any reference to those that are affected by what he did. No attempt of getting into contact with his wife e.g. or the parents of Edward Byrne; he escapes to Europe instead.
So if we say that Effing’s life is a failure, the reason is his blindness towards reality, the egotism, the hybris till the end and so the lack of knowledge who he is.
As a consequence of that Marco has to write different versions of his biography, one of which is even given the title: The Mysterious Life of Julian Barber“ (192).
Even at the end of his life he keeps to the illusion that he is in control of his destiny:
„In spite of his failing strength, he continued to believe that he was in control of his destiny, and this illusion persisted right up to the end.“ (216)
The final act is the absurd attempt to pay for his sins by handing out 50 $ bills to anonymous people, calling it „the greatest thing I’ve ever done, the crowning achievement of my life.“ (204)
Effing wants to leave this world with a white vest.
Also refer to his similarly absurd statement: „We’ve cracked the secret of the universe!“ (212)
He never accepts his responsibility for Elizabeth: „By refusing to find out about Elizabeth
I kept myself strong“ (196)
He also refuses to see his son. He is supposed to get a little fortune after Effing’s death but apart from that Effing considers him a „fat, childless, unmarried, broken-down wreck, a walking dirigible disaster“ (197) H
He is even suspicious of him having homoerotic inclinations.
(also represented in the monstrous body of Solomon Barber)®A father can hardly fail more thoroughly.
We must also have a closer look at Marco’s attitude towards Effing:
First of all, Marco works for Effing and he needs the job.
Second, as we have seen, he sees it as a challenge, an opportunity to learn and get educated as an artist (to describe properly, to see and finally to understand).
Marco says: „I listened, I recorded what he said, I did not interrupt him.“ (183)
Marco sees similarities in his and Effing’s life, he sees him as a „kindred spirit“. (183)
His attitude towards Effing is changing corresponding to the insecurity whether Effing’s stories are true or just fictional:
„In spite of the disgust I felt for him at that moment I couldn’t help admiring his courage.“ (212)
Both characters definitely have something in common: the dedication to the world of imagination as shown in the Orlando-episode:
Our host’s name was Orlando and he was a gifted comedian. This was imagination in its purest form, the act of bringing nonexistent things to life, of persuading others to accept a world that was not really there.“ (208)
Apart from that they both remain isolated from each other:
„He was alone with the story in his head and I was alone with the words that poured from his mouth.“ (184)
This situation resembles the reality that separates the writer of fiction and the reader. I think for Effing it is still, like in the cave, a way of dealing with reality, a way of creating his own (artificial) reality, a reality that is of course very much centred on himself. So, ironically, Effing can only feel love for someone when he, Marco in this case, enters his fictional reality by refusing to feel the rain pouring down on them: „It wasn’t simply that I had given in to his grotesque ploy, had made the ultimate gesture of validating his freedom, and in that sense I had proven myself to him at last. The old man was going to die, but for as long as he lived, he would love me.“ (212)
But this is not an acceptance of Effing, but a game that makes him believe to be accepted (gesture). So illusion follows Effing to his end.
I think it is important to keep that in mind, because it is a game that Auster plays with us when he makes us believe that Effing can influence the moment of his death. Don’t believe that, it’s just coincidence.
Marco’s reaction to Effing’s death is not sadness but an admiring laughter. A comedian has seemingly managed to make an impression on the universe, a comedian’s will has seemingly come true.
So Effing is a not a tragic figure but a lonely man who has not come to terms with his life and he doesn’t see that till his end. He claims: „Everyone has a right to know about his own past“, but he has never understood his own past.
His quest is to live according to his own individuality but he has left his wife, has not cared for his son, glorifies his life, indulges in excessive boastings and ends in a final self-made illusion.
According to many interpreters of Moon Palace Auster also describes the roots of the fatherless society. If we look at Marco, many of the problems in his biography are rooted in the insufficiencies of the generation of the grandfathers who refused to accept their responsibility for the initiation of their sons.
Charles Baxter in an essay: „Paul Auster’s popularity in Europe probably has to do with his refusal to share in the prideful and rather curious American faith in family as a source of identity. For him, family is more a source of loss of identity.“
The motif of blindness and Effing´s story
The motif of blindness and Effing´s story
Marco exercises blindness on his way to the Brooklyn Museum. (As Effing told him)
This blindness enables him to focus on the Moonlight painting in the museum.
It also develops other abilities: He concentrates much more on what people say and he sees things in a different light (136)
Marco then watches the picture very closely for over an hour and then he seems to have come to an understanding of the picture.
Whereas Marco has learned to describe things, he has also learned to get through to the essential quality of things.
In watching the picture intensely, thinking about it and immerging in it he finds its
meaning, in fact a whole world of assiciations and meanings opens up.
Without this process of intense focusing the work of art would remain mute, to say it the other way round, the spectator remains blind for it. As a result, Marco is very exhausted after the process.
Marco learns to speak (by describing objects for Effing) and to see.
Marco writes down the life of Thomas Effing.
Before he becomes the writer of his own life, he tells the life of somebody else.
Marco doubts whether the story Effing tells is true.
But even if it is not true, he thinks, the eccentric quality of it makes it interesting.
A closer look at the reasons why Effing moves out to the West:
– when he looks into Tesla´s eyes (at the age of 17) he realizes that he is nothing: „For the first time in my life realized that I was nothing.“„ I understood that I was not going to live forever“ (148) „Tesla gave me my death, and at that moment I knew that I was going to become a painter.“ (148)
– Moran, another painter, told him: „If you don´t go out there, (…) you will never understand what space is.“ (152)
– Another reason for going West is his unhappy marriage with Elizabeth Wheeler.
„When the situation presented itself to me, I had no regrets about vanishing.“ (152)
(Before he leaves, he makes her a child, Solomon Barber)
Having arrived in the West, Effing is unable to paint, because all his art seems to be nothing compared to reality. „It´s all too massive to be painted or drawn; even photographs can´t get the feel of it.“ (158)
Only in the cave he starts to paint.
Here, in the utmost loneliness, where he has „to maintain the most rigorous discipline“ the purpose of art for him „was not to create beautiful objects,(…). It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one´s place in it.“ (171)
There was now no urge to follow a certain style etc., these pictures had an absolutely unparalleled quality:
„He untaught himself the rules he had learned, trusting in the landscape as an equal partner, (…). He was no longer afraid of the emptiness around him. The act of trying to put it on canvas had somehow internalized it for him, and now he was able to feel its indifference as something that belonged to him, as much as he belonged to the the silent power of those gigantic spaces himself. (…) He had no idea if they were ugly or beautiful, but that was probably beside the point. They were his and they didn´t look like any other paintings he had seen before. „ (171)
After his material had run out, he starts to write: „…writing could serve as an adequate substitute for making pictures.“ (172)
After all his material has run out, he will never start painting or writing again, his time as an artist is over. It only continues in the tales of his past or probably in the invention of it.
After having given up his identity as a painter, Barber decided to take on the identity of the dead cavedweller Tom, the story of which he is told by an Indian.
So he is in the middle of the identity of somebody else, also acquiring the past of this dead person, which has a highly dangerous and criminal quality.
Here the story becomes a wild-west story. He waits for the Gresham brothers, shoots them in cold blood and takes the money from them (more than 30 000$).
„The question of right or wrong never entered into it. He had killed three men in cold blood, and now he had taken himself beyond the niceties of such considerations“ (182)
„His life suddenly veered in a new direction.“ (181)
This episode is in Werner Reinhart´s view to be understood like that:
Es handelt sich dabei um die „Identitätsfindung des weißen amerikanischen Mannes durch seine Initiation in die Kunst des Tötens (und) seine Geschichte reinszeniert (…) einen uramerikanischen Sündenfall und sie reproduziert uramerikanische Lebenskonzeptionen.“
In contrast to the American hero who fights bravely against the evil, defending women without being domesticated, Effing just kills, he has no moral justification for it and so creates a parody of this American motif, criticizing it that way.
The Effing Episode
The Effing episode
„Everything about him was (…) sphinxlike in its impenetrability.“ (102)
Important aspects: Effing is Marco´s teacher („He was……acting as a self-appointed mentor to my inner process“) (110)
Effing is a very strict teacher, but Marco accepts the rigor of his commands:
„In order to do what Effing asked, I had to learn to keep myself separate from him. The essential thing was not to feel burdened by his commands but to transform them into something I wanted to do for myself. There was nothing inherently wrong with the activity, after all. If regarded in the proper way, the effort to describe things accurately was precisely the kind of discipline that could teach me what I most wanted to learn: humility,patience, rigor. (….) I began to consider it as a spiritual exercise, (…)“
„(…) and Effing was my hair shirt, the whip I flayed myself with.“ (125)
„I no longer saw it as an aesthetic activity but as a moral one.“ (125)
Marco is not even allowed to suggest a book for reading:“Keep your ideas to yourself, boy, (…) if I wanted your opinion, I´d ask for it.“ (113)
Only like this a „travel into the unknown“ (112) is possible for Marco.
Marco´s room is compared to a monk´s cell. (110)
Effing represents many aspects of American history and culture:
The Wild West, Adventure Stories, The American Dream with many facets:
Making money/ opening new spaces/ Manifest Destiny(Moran)(150)/ new frontiers in science (revolutionary scientific developments (Edison, Tesla))
Effing as a person remains sphinxlike:
„Effing took pleasure in pulling little surprises.“ (111)
„ He would cast out intentionally ambiguous signals and then revel in the
uncertainty they caused“
„…to keep one in a constant state of disequilibrium“ (119)
„ He was a monster, but at the same time he had it in him to be a good man…“ (120)
Effing´s eyes and the question whether he is blind or not plays an
important part in this:
„For all the hundreds of hours I spent gazing into them, Effing´s eyes never told me a thing.“ (112)
That means that the relationship is very much based on and even restricted to language.
(Effing even opens up the sphere of sounds when he is described eating soup, and this also adds to the manyfold ways in which he behaves)
At the same time there is a sense of detachment from the world. (114)
(There is a strong contrast to Mrs. Hume, but she seems to be able to follow him into the sphere of imagination, if only to handle him ironically (117/18))
„Mrs. Hume was a rock“ (119)
„Mrs. Hume took on the role of attentive
mother …“ (117)
„She had a large soul to go along with
her large body,…“ (116)
„She was the one who taught me how to
act with Effing,…“ (117)
How must we understand Marco´s remark that „It was hardly what you could call a real life“ (118) and at the same time: „…no one had ever taught me as much as she did.“ (119)“
Compare Mrs. Hume to Kitty Wu.
Discuss the importance of the term „individualism“ in the context of the characters in MP
Effing introduces Marco into understanding and regarding art.
Marco has to accept the very strict rules of this exercise. (135ff)
Comment the painting.
Blakelock´s painting Moonlight
Death song for a vanished world.
Moon as an eye looking into a bygone period of time.
Art as a possibility of dealing with cultural heritage and making it available for the present.
The story of Thomas Effing:
Nicola Tesla becomes his idol (when he looks into his eyes he realized that he was nothing.) (147)
He was the richest painter (148)
He was the most important artist of his time (131) (can´t be verified)
His idol was Ralph Albert Blakelock (133), he inspires Barber´s travel to the West.
Thomas Moran also motivates him to go West. (If you don´t go out there you will never understand what space is.“ (151, 152)
Out West he is unable to paint. (158, 159)
He is broken after Byrne´s death, refuses to go back. (166)
Finds the cave (a pocket of life), suffers from the almost unbearable loneliness (168)
Finds a new identity. (168)
Necessity of self-discipline „ one meal a day (170)
Artistic faculty comes back.
Absolute freedom of the artist: He untaught himself the rules he had learned. (171)
After he runs out of material: „…Writing could serve an adequate substitute for making pictures.“ (172)
He leaves back his paintings and doesn´t paint anymore. (182)
The Gresham brothers (177)
He kills three people in cold blood
He is looking for the identity of the white American male:
Initiation into the art of killing.
He boasts with his potency: (152, 153, 154, 185 (self-irony)
He becomes a businessman (Here a persiflage of the American Dream: just coincidence and unscrupulousness make him successful)
After the accident he flees to Europe: „A blow had descended from the sky…“ (188)
Effing is blind towards reality.
The opinion to be in control of his destiny remains to his end, up to the illusion of doing the „greatest thing“ he has ever done. (204):
It´s mind over matter…We´ve cracked the secret of the universe!“ (212)
„No one heard him, of course, since the streets were entirely empty.“ (213)