Mark Hedborn's essay on 'Dreaming of Babylon'
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Lacan and Postmodernism in Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon

by Mark Hedborn?

As Linda Hutcheon? says, postmodernism "gives equal value ... to that which is inward-directed and belongs to the world of art (such as parody) and that which is outward-directed and belongs to the 'real life' (such as history)." Dreaming of Babylon is a postmodern novel. It is schizophrenic, a parody of itself, a pastiche tenuously glued together by an ironic treatment of the detective novel genre, and its pattern clearly reflects the tension of Hutcheon's definition. Questions raised by the text are the same ones running through the discourse on what postmodernism is and on postmodernism's effects on art and notions of history. Specifically, what are the consequences of postmodernism if we posit that such a thing as the postmodern self exists? A Lacanian reading of the postmodern elements of Dreaming of Babylon seems to confirm through the allegory of a painfully fragmented self that the postmodern self, although often schizophrenic in the way that Fredric Jameson? describes, is also potentially highly creative.

Two key concepts used by Jameson to define the postmodern are (1) "the transformation of reality into images," which, loosely translated, he equates with schizophrenia, and (2) "the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents," which he equates with pastiche (PC 28). Let me clarify now how far I am willing to use and agree with Jameson's definition of pastiche.

Unlike Hutcheon, Jameson excludes parody from his definition of postmodernism, replacing it with pastiche. Where parody distorts a norm to create a comic commentary, pastiche is "a neutral mimicry, without parody's ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic" (PC 16). He uses Star Wars (1977) as an example of pastiche, or what he also calls the nostalgia mode:

^One of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that grew up from the 1930s to the 1950s was the Saturday afternoon serial of the Buck Rogers-type alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliffhanger at the end whose miraculous resolution was to be witnessed next Saturday afternoon. (PC 19)^
I might parenthetically add that this tradition survives today in reruns. Star Wars is a nostalgia film in that it hearkens back to those serializations, bringing past into the present, and helping to fragment time, to take it from one place and put it into another. "We seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach" (PC 20).

Let me offer a more current example of this fragmentation and stereotyping of the past on Video Hits One, a rock video channel similar to Music Television (MTV). One very short segment called "Milestones" takes documentary news footage and inserts it between the music videos. Right after Madonna and right before Michael Jackson we see and hear John Kennedy exhorting us to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," or Richard Nixon claiming that he is not a crook, along with the film of him leaving the White House just after his resignation. These clichéd "Milestones" are not put into context historically, are not framed by narrative. Far from creating context, the images that surround the clips drag them into the now. In a way, the segment becomes just another music video in a schizophren1c progression. History comes to mimic postmodern video and becomes pastiche. It becomes, as Ann Kaplan? says of anything presented in the style of MTV, part of "the hypnotizing of the spectator into an exitless, schizophrenic stance by the unceasing image series."

Pastiche is a useful defining aspect of one strain of postmodernism. It illuminates the "Milestones" segments beautifully. Still, I would prefer to include parody and humor in a more optimistic, flexible definition; otherwise, for instance, one would have to exclude from the postmodern a Michelle Shocked video that parodies the objectification of the female body in music videos. The collage of images and camera angles presented, reflecting various video genres, is typically postmodern. The singer, in a tight outfit, dances in the foreground in a manner reminiscent of exercise videos. Behind her, in flashes, we see her class, men in bathing suits — shots of muscled flanks or close-ups of male buttocks. Throughout, it is a parody of music videos in general (though there are specific references to videos by Robert Palmer). The point being that although it is parody, it is also pastiche.

I am taking the time to map this out because Dreaming of Babylon fits the postmodern pattern so dramatically; furthermore, it can be read very compellingly in Lacanian terms. The two readings work together to illustrate the dichotomy of postmodernism — its simultaneous alienation and liberation of the artistic figure.

Clearly at one level the plot can be read as a simple parody of the detective novel or film of the 1940s. C. Card is the "traditional" down-on-his-luck private eye hired by a mysterious blonde and working in opposition to Sergeant Rink, a police detective. The story revolves around the mysterious killing of a nameless prostitute, and Card's immediate goal is to steal the prostitute's body from the city morgue at the behest of his new employer. He manages to bribe his morgue-attendant friend Peg-leg for the body, then he hides it in his refrigerator at home. However, quite mysteriously, the blonde hires two gangs to also steal the body. Consequently, Card spends his time trying to outwit his competitors and figure out the motives of his employer. When he finally makes it to the rendezvous with the blonde, where he expects to receive his money and discover her motives, something goes wrong. He sees that Rink has handcuffed the blonde and is trying to get her to confess. Rink fails and, uncuffing his prisoner, walks off to have a beer with her. The end. Card's final words are "I was right back where I started, the only difference being that when I woke up this morning, I didn't have a dead body in the refrigerator."

Obviously, this ending leaves many unanswered questions: Who is the dead prostitute? Who killed her? What was the motive? Why did the blonde want the body? Why hire three competing groups to steal it? Why did Rink suspect the blonde? What was his evidence? Why does the story have so many loose ends? Using the logic of parody, the ending might make sense. Most mystery readers expect the ends to be tied up. Doing just the opposite makes a humorous comment of the genre. Parody also seems to explain why C. Card wears only one sock, and why he spends half the novel just trying to acquire bullets for his gun. Parody can even offer an explanation, although a reductive one, for this text's oddity of oddities, Babylon — Card's powerful fantasy world, his realm of hallucinations — an ancient setting where he completely loses track of the real world, where he casts himself as hero in a conglomeration of pulp fiction roles. Babylon is the reason, simple parody would say, that C. Card is so unsuccessful and down on his luck; he simply daydreams too much.

What parody cannot explain is why Babylon is structured the way it is, something only postmodernism can explain. And parody cannot explain why the text dwells on the creative process used by Card to produce so many oddly interesting scenarios for Babylon. The book is as much about artistic creation as it is about the pathology of a psychotic character, something Lacanian reading offers as explanation for the excesses of the psychosis and its creativity.

Babylon and what goes on there are postmodern — a series of fragmentary pulp stories in which Card plays the hero, a world he scripts from films and comics, a world where he is always successful. C. Card dreams of Babylon, his imaginary world, at the most inopportune moments, but interestingly, Card's discourse on Babylon contains as much material on how he creates it as on how much he enjoys it. The chapter titles illustrate the various scenarios that run through Card's mind: "The 596 B.C. Baseball Season," "A Cowboy in Babylon," "Terry and the Pirates," "Ming the Merciless," "Drums of Fu Manchu," "Smith Smith versus the Shadow Robots," and "The Babylon-Orient Express." Card picks titles and bits of plot, villains and character names from the genre fiction he has seen, and then pastes them together in his imagination to create Babylon.

For example, the chapter called "Ming the Merciless" begins with Card, sitting on a park bench, as the postmodern artist:

^I decided to borrow Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon to be the villain... I had to change his name and alter his character slightly to fit my needs. That wouldn't be hard. Actually, it would be an immense amount of pleasure for me. I had spent a very pleasant part of eight years making up situations and characters in Babylon, unfortunately to the point of being a detriment to my real life, such as it was. (DB 62-63)

From "Terry and the Pirates":

Sometimes I played around with the form of my adventures in Babylon. They would be done as books that I could see in my mind as I was reading, but most often they were done as movies, though once I did them as a play with me being a Babylonian Hamlet and Nana-Dirat being both Gertrude and Ophelia... Someday I must return and pick it up where I left off... My Hamlet will have a happy ending. (DB 59)

In "Smith," Card brainstorms for his own character's name, eventually choosing Smith Smith:

I had used the name Ace Stag for my name in the detective novel about Babylon that I had just finished living, but I didn't like to use the same name for myself in my Babylonian adventures. I liked to change my name... Smith... I ran some variations of Smith through my mind.

Errol SmithCarter Smith
Cary Smith|Rex Smith
Humphrey SmithCody Smith
Wallace Smith|Flint Smith
Pancho SmithTerry Smith
Lee Smith|Major Smith (I liked that one a lot)
Morgan Smith
"Gunboat" Smith|"Oklahoma Jimmy" Smith
"Red" SmithFDR Smith

There certainly are a lot of possibilities when you use the name Smith. (DB 7)^
Babylon is also schizophrenically postmodern in that it pops up in fragments to suddenly immobilize Card, lifting him out of the real world. It is like Kaplan's hypnotic state. He will wake with a start to realize he has lost anywhere from a moment to hours of his life. He is trapped in his own progression of images, his private MTV.

Thus Babylon, or postmodernism, in this text exhibits excess as well as creative potential. This excessiveness is clearly explained by Lacanian psychology. Lacan maps the human psyche into three registers, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. Through the interaction of these registers, one's self identity is formed. The Imaginary can be seen as a "realm of images in which we make identifications," and it is closely related to Lacan's famous mirror stage. The child is initially only vaguely aware of itself, but in the mirror stage it becomes aware of itself through a Gestalt image. This could be its own reflection in a mirror, or an awareness of its mother as itself, or an identification with another infant. "The ego, first glimpsed at the mirror stage, is the reified product of successive imaginary identifications and is cherished as the stable... seat of personal 'identity.'" However, there is no stable self; it is imaginary, "no thing at all" that "can be grasped only as a set of tensions, or mutations, or dialectical upheavals within a continuous, intentional, future-directed process."

Clearly, Babylon, the postmodern, and Lacan's imagery register are similar. All three are fragmentary. All three are mutations, combinations of images. Babylon draws the other two together. Card uses postmodern art to create his illusory "stable... seat of personal identity" (SS 131). But why is he so extreme about it? Why does it act as a detriment to his life? Lacan would say that he has not been fully integrated into the Symbolic register.

Movement into the Symbolic register, that of language, law, culture, and familial relationships, occurs with the onset of the Oedipal conflict. The child's illusory, stable, unified self constructed in relation to its desire for the mother is interrupted by the father. The desire is repressed and displaced; there is a lack, and it is in trying to fill this void that the self is constituted in the Symbolic register. "According to a successful Oedipal resolution each child will choose as love object a member of the opposite sex and identify with one of the same."

A second type of initiation into the Symbolic, which helps create a "normal" personality, is the "Fort-Da" game that Sigmund Freud? describes, where a child throws a toy with a string attached and pulls the toy back. When the toy is out of sight, the child cries "Da" (there), and when the toy is pulled into sight again, the child says "Fort" (here). This symbolizes the acquisition of language and its power to make invisible or absent objects present. "The sounds... replace the action and are then substituted for unattainable objects of desire." "The symbol shows itself first of all as the killing of an object, and this death constitutes in the subject the externalization of his desire" (UL 512). This is the key to Card's psychosis. Just when he is being initiated into the symbolic register, something tragic, something he sometimes represses, happens. He is playing ball with his father, and as his father goes to retrieve the ball that Card has thrown (da), he is hit by a car and killed. What should be an event only in the Symbolic, the death of an object by its absence, becomes for Card an event in the Real. Jameson's rather oversimplified definition of the real is that "it is simply History itself." It can also be described as that which can only be described from within language, for instance death, but which exists outside the system of language (UL 517-18).

This episode in Card's life propels him into the creative/torturing psychosis that drives the whole novel. As Lacan says:

it is in an accident in this register [the Symbolic] and in what takes place in it, namely, the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father in the place of the Other, and in the failure of the paternal metaphor, that I designate the defect that gives psychosis its essential condition.

We can postulate that Card forecloses the Name-of-the-Father when his father dies. From that point on whenever he tries to enter fully into the Symbolic realm he cannot, because the Imaginary (Babylon) intrudes to ruin his opportunity. Here Bar expresses the pattern of the whole novel:

^What happens is that the subject, after his primal rejection of some important value, must thereafter constantly fight the symbolic or, as Lacan sometimes says, the Other and its intrusion. The subject continually has to make up for what he rejected, and he does this, since his three categories are disturbed, with a curious mixture of the three, namely, hallucinations. (UL 519)^
Clearly Babylon represents the intrusion of the Imaginary into the Symbolic via hallucinations. Card's narcissistic success in Babylon is a series of repeated attempts to regain the illusory stable self constituted by the infant in the mirror stage.

For Card the artist, this lack of continuity, this continual surfacing of fragmentary self images compels more creations and creativity; Card will go back and back to Babylon and keep tying to make up for the hole in the Symbolic. His lack, his desire, generates his creative material. As Lacan says of situations such as Card's, "For the novelist these situations are his true resource, namely, that which makes possible the emergence of 'depth psychology'..." (ES 217). Clearly the postmodern has a powerful role to play in Card's production. It has a less beneficent role in his personality, on the self presented in the text. Perhaps the more disturbing aspects of postmodernism are linked to pastiche in Jameson's more restrictive sense, in that they are more cut loose from a posited, stable, narrative history, more aware that the postmodern self is closer to the stream of unstable images that constitutes the Lacanian psychotic self. At the same time it is important to point out that Lacan would say that the search for a stable, unified self is always frustrated, even in people who are not psychotic. This potentially opens the "stable" postmodern self to the creative power of the images through which it constitutes itself.

Literature and Film in the Historical Dimension
Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1994

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