Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coming Unstuck in Time: Elizabeth Freeman's Erotohistoriography Redux, Part I

Figure 1. Dr. Who jigsaw puzzle


Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his death and birth many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between. He says. Billy is spastic in time . . . .
--Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Either embarrassingly or not, medievalists do love their time-traveling sci-fi narratives, whether via The X-Files, Star Trek, Firefly, Dr. Who, Primeval, Torchwood, Heroes, Roswell, Twilight Zone, and the like [and those are just the television shows]. My favorite novel on the subject has always been Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, where Billy Pilgrim, an Army chaplain's assistant held prisoner in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden during the fire-bombings of World War II, becomes "unstuck in time": he travels back and forth between 1940s Dresden [where he is a prisoner of war], 1950s and 1960s Illium, New York [where he is married, works as an optometrist, and has two children], the planet Tralfamadore, where he has been abducted by aliens who live in fourth-dimensional time, and the time of his death in 1976 when he is shot by a hired killer [there are also forays into his childhood and to the time when he is living with his daughter after his wife's accidental death]. Nothing is told in linear order and the continual refrain of the book is, "And so it goes." The Tralfamadorians have the ability to see every instant of their lives from beginning to end and don't believe anything set in this time can be changed [they are fatalists of a sort and don't believe in free will], although they do believe you can choose to concentrate on certain fixed moments more than others, and they especially encourage focusing on moments of pleasure. In this sense, and following my initial post on Elizabeth Freeman's erotohistoriograpy and time's binding, the Tralfamadorians see time as something we are irrevocably bound and stuck to, but in which, there is always a chance to go somewhere, again and again--to arrive at a certain place, from any direction, with a different or perhaps a lingering [never quite done with it] perspective [and thereby, perhaps, experiencing one's history as something best "captured" in an idiom of pleasure]--even while ultimately going nowhere.

There are two ways [well, there are certainly more than two ways, but humor me] to view Billy Pilgrim's story: either he is hallucinating most of it [there is ample evidence for this via the fact that he suffers shell shock after the war and is hospitalized in a veterans' mental ward, and later, suffers a brain injury after a plane crash] as a way to compensate for the trauma he likely experienced as a survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden, especially as one of the prisoners of war commanded to help clean up the bodies [the fire-bombing of Dresden is one of the most horrific events in world history--on this point see, especially, W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction], or everything happens exactly as the narrative claims it does, but there is not necessarily any meaning to be gained from this state of affairs, as evidenced especially by the jabbering bird whose nonsensical "Poo-tee-weet" reverberates in the smoking silence after the Dresden massacre and also outside the window next to Billy Pilgrim's bed when he is hospitalized for shell shock, and which also serves as the very last line of the novel. For although Billy Pilgrim's linear biography ends with his murder in 1976, the novel ends with Dresden, post-firebombing, and the cry of the bird. And this recalls me as well to one of my other favorite experimental novels, Kevin Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead, in which the last human on earth, Laura Byrd, lying in her tent in a penguin rookery on an Antarctic ice shelf, and fiercely hallucinating, freezes to death amidst the incessant, hectic chattering of the penguins--the idea being that, while human teleology and the world(s) it created vanishes in an instant with Laura Byrd [whose memory held the world intact while she was alive], the supposedly dumb and oblivious life of animals and the world(s) they supposedly simply inhabit goes on without us. For Laura Byrd, recalling the world [and her life in that world] through personal memory wasn't so much a matter, as with Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, of focusing on the most pleasurable moments, but rather, of remembering anything at all, no matter how minor or seemingly random and inconsequential (such as a stranger she once gave a match to) as a way to keep that world--quite literally--embodied, for in addition to the Antarctic, the other setting of Brockmeier's novel is The City, where everyone who has died but whom Laura remembers exists in three-dimensional, sequential, embodied time, and as one character there remarks, “Of course we’re bodies. Bodies and nothing but. Have you ever heard of a spirit that ate hamburgers and chili dogs for lunch, a spirit that got leg cramps in the middle of the night?”

Interestingly, there was a highly abbreviated, digital theater production of Slaughterhouse-Five in Belgrade, Serbia last year, which ended with a scene from the middle of the novel [Chap. 4] that takes place in 1967 on the night of Billy Pilgrim's daughter's wedding day. Unable to sleep, Billy watches a late-night television documentary on the fire-bombing of Dresden and all of a sudden history appears to be going backward. Bombs travel upwards into the open bellies of planes and shrapnel flies out of soldiers' bodies back into the barrels of guns which are then shipped back to factories and dis-assembled, and in Billy's mind, the soldiers become schoolboys and then babies [even Hitler becomes a baby] and all of these babies then devolve into two supposedly perfect persons: Adam and Eve. Culled from Chapter 4 and placed at the end of the narrative, not as a documentary that Billy is watching [conjoined with his facile hallucinations], but as the actual bending of what I might call historical Dresden-time [for in the Belgrade production, these scenes play out on a video screen behind the soldiers who are gathering the bodies in Dresden], the backward-running "tape" of history, as it were, plays out a utopic, yet terribly naive view of history that I feel pretty sure would not have pleased Vonnegut--as if somehow, if we could just start over, we would not repeat the same mistakes, or, that we were somehow better off as "innocents," sequestered from history.

A much more complex view of history, which I believe both Vonnegut and Freeman put forward, would seem to advance the idea that history is only really legible through bodily relations across time [however that "time" is ordered and dis-ordered]--bodily relations, moreover, that serve as points of attachment and dis-attachment, and without which, we can neither situate/bind ourselves, nor be going anywhere else. This reminds me as well of a recent episode of Lost [a TV series to which I am heartily addicted], "The Constant" [Season 4, Episode 5] in which the character Desmond jumps back and forth between 1996, when he is enlisted as a soldier somewhere in England, and 2004, when he is somewhere in the south Pacific [where all of the characters, to one extent or another, are "lost" in so-called present time, although even what is actually "present time" is always up for grabs, especially when the physicist Daniel Farraday shows up and informs everyone that the island they are stranded on has its own peculiar time]. Much like Billy Pilgrim, Desmond has no control over this time-jumping [apparently brought on by exposure to a high level of electromagnetism--never mind the silly science of all this], and the overall result is a kind of psychosis in which the 2004 Desmond suffers from an amnesia in which, all of a sudden, he no longer recognizes where he is or who his companions are, and the 1996 Desmond believes he is suffering from some kind of series of hallucinations brought on by random seizures. In the 2004 time frame, the physicist, trying to help Desmond, tells him that, when he is back in 1996, he should look Daniel up at Oxford University, where he is teaching, and ask for his help [apparently, Daniel has been undertaking time travel experiments there], so Desmond does that and the first thing he learns is that this spastic back-and-forth time-jumping will likely kill him, resulting in a brain aneurysm, but there might be one way to avoid that: Daniel instructs Desmond to locate a constant [like a mathematical constant caught up in a string of variables] that would connect the two Desmonds and, in a sense, rework them back into one Desmond, and for Desmond, that is his ex-fiancée Penny Widmore, whom he goes to see in 1996 and begs her to give him her phone number so that he can call her on December 24, 2004, thereby stitching the two Desmonds/times together. Granted, this is the corny love story variation on the frightening notion that history never makes any sense, with romantic love [or the desire of singular bodies for other, singular bodies] serving as the test of endurance for meaningfulness. In contrast to this, the one "constant" in Vonnegut's novel is the character of Paul Lazarro, a fellow soldier of Billy Pilgrim in Dresden who swears early on in the novel that he will avenge the death of another soldier, Roland Weary, by killing Billy one day [because he believes Billy is responsible for Roland's death], and he does, indeed, eventually bring this about by hiring Billy's killer in 1976. The one constant in history, then, according to Vonnegut, is violence [and more pointedly, the desire for revenge, which always wins out over love or affection: there is surprisingly little of either of these in Vonnegut's novel]. Violence, in this scenario [in the figural form of Paul Lazarro] is the teleological motor of history.

Intriguingly [I hope], I want to say that Freeman's erotohistoriography, especially with regard to sadomasochism as a sex practice that uses "physical sensation to break apart the present into fragments of time that may not be one's 'own'," would seem to argue for both love [or, certain physical "sensations" connected to certain "queer" desires and sex practices] and violence as important modes of "feeling historical" that expose "the limits of bourgeois-sentimental emotional reactions to historical events," yet also refuse "to eschew feelings altogether as a mode of knowledge" ["Turn the Beat Around: Sadomasochism, Temporality, History," pp. 38, 40]. And following Virginia Burrus, who [in her book The Sex Lives of Saints] asks if eroticism might be nearer to theology than to anything else, Freeman's thought in this article begs the question of whether sex can ever be thought, or felt, outside of violence. Is sex nearer, in other words, to violence than to anything else? Or to put it another way, is sex only really historical as such when it is understood [and even felt] within power relations? It is Freeman's argument, nevertheless, that sadomasochism has a more utopic potentiality than my questions here imply, since [in her opinion] it has the ability to re-wire the senses in such a way that it "re-organizes the relationships among emotion, sensation, and historical understanding" and thereby "ignites historical possibilities other than the ones frozen into the 'fate' of official histories." How it does this I leave for a subsequent post. More anon.


Karl Steel said...

Finally made the space to read this, and I'll be very interested to see where it goes.

On the question of violence. I wonder if you've ever seen Green for Danger, an utterly brilliant murder mystery set in an England being bombarded by German V2 rockets in the last days of the war. Towards the opening, someone is killed by a rocket, but that death is not, of course, the object of investigation for the mystery. We have, then, a split between the mindlessness of mass mechanical violence [since, iirc, the rockets could barely be targeted: they were far more random than bombing] and a deliberate, personal violence driven by economic and psychic needs. The former may understood as a symptom of civilization, but the latter, the game of the parlor mystery, is civilized. If you catch my drift. With that in mind, I propose a taxonomic split between the violence of Dresden and the personal violence of/against Billy. The former destroys all selves, but the latter maintains us, in the action and in the suffering, in our networks of individuality. It is fundamentally erotic in a way that Dresden, or the V2 rockets, are not.

(btw, on time travel, can I recommend a movie by a guy I know? Special: I have to admit I haven't yet seen it, but it does have some time travel stuff in it, and I understand it's supposed to be good)

Eileen Joy said...

Karl, thanks for the film recommendations, and also for the further food for thought regarding a taxonomy of violence [between the more mass- and more individually oriented types of violence: Freud, of course, referred to war as a type of nonsexual sadism].