Volume VI, Number 2, Fall 2010

"Extended Mise-en-Abyme in Paul Auster's Moon Palace" by Pál Hegyi

Pál Hegyi is about to defend his doctoral theseis entitled White Spaces – The Critical Reception of Paul Auster’s Oeuvre in View of his Early Work. He is the author of numerous studies on narratology and contemporary American fiction. He is presently teaching at Dugonics András Piarist Secondary School. Email:

So vital is Blakelock’s work to this novel, and particularly Blakelock’s 1885 canvas Moonlight, that any reading of Auster will have to take account of the Blakelock image as a standard of aesthetic, moral, and ideological values.(Weisenburger, 76)

Introducing Mise-en-Abyme

Before starting to work with Paul Auster’s mise-en-abymes, one must read Moon Palace once again. And once again the reader will became vertiginous with the elaborate network of references and cross-references, once again he will feel the hunger for more and become nauseated when he gets it. Once again − succumbing to the lure of the lucid and lacunic lunar surface of Blakelock’s Moonlight – the beholder must delve into the abyss of overdetermined signifiers. And once again one is bound to have a whale of time in the belly of the Leviathan.

When interpreting any of Paul Auster’s work, his reader cannot but initially react to the categorizational paradoxes surrounding the author’s oeuvre. After the overwhelming success of The New York Trilogy (overwhelming in the sense that it dwarfed his preceding and the ensuing texts alike), Auster was both deemed and doomed to be enlisted among the exemplary postmodern authors of the period. This judgment was not solely based on grounds of the trilogy having ontological concerns of identity, logocentrism, signification, since after the success of City of Glass the composite unity of all three volumes was anticipated to highlight deconstructionalist dissemination, cancelling out and subversion. Let me quote some unequivocal critical statements: City of Glass "is deconstruction" (Levander, 220).

Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and Nabokov’s Pale Fire illustrate this postmodern mutation in their parodic forms and subversions of the end-dominated detective story. A more recent example of the anti-detective fiction is Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (…) amenable to the deconstructive principles of Jacques Derrida." (Russell, 71) The trilogy "is a meditation on the problematic of self-identity, in which a »textual« sense of the self undermines our commonsense, essentialist notions of selfhood. (emphasis added) (Alford, 615)

But it is also possible to cite scholars who seem to have a wholly different grasp on the crux of the matter:

Rather than postmodern, then, Auster is aesthetically philosophical; for all his sly winks at postmodernism, his heroes are on a moral, even a stoically religious quest, to which metafictional games are secondary." (Merivale, 695) "While The New York Trilogy has been analyzed according to Derrida’s deconstructive principles and perfectly fits the postmodern framework of signifier and sidnified, endless language games and mirror-images, The Music of Chance defies any postmodern, post-structuralist interpretation." (Moss, 695) "Auster’s antipostmodern project almost inadvertently writes back against the critical discourses written by his contemporaries, and he manages to negate postmodernism by way of a critique of its foundational moments (Dimovitz, 629).

No wonder if reading these persuasive, yet contradictory sentences, one jumps to the conclusion with Patricia Merivale that "Auster’s critics have lagged behind" (Merivale, 186).

Paradoxically, the very same Dennis Barone, who is at least partially responsible for the confusion by insisting that "Auster synthesized interrogations of postmodern subjectivities, explications of premodern moral causality, and a sufficent realism", is one of the few critics that offered an explanation well worth contemplating: "One example of a man − a seemingly drowning man − swimming against this hegemonic tide is Paul Auster" (Introduction 6).

Cited in the motto, Steven Weisenburger’s insistence on the seminal attributes of Moon Palace as a mise-en-abyme connected to the Austerean work seems to lure us with a possibility for ramifications of the aforementioned inconsistencies. Weisenburger’s statement, no matter how compelling it may be, has to be justified if one is to accept his view. The easy way out would be to rely on philological data. It is a fact of literary history that Paul Auster had started to write Moon Palace way before the first volume of The New York Trilogy was in manuscript, even before the first volume of his poetry (Unearth, 1974), his plays (Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven, Blackouts (a prefiguration of The Locked Room), Hide and Seek (1976)) or Squeeze Play (his experimental pulp fiction published in 1978 under a penname, Paul Benjamin) were out in the world. According to the manuscripts in the Berg Collection deposited in the New York Public Library, Auster composed the first version of the book as early as 1968 (see Chénatier, 37). Also, the ekphrasis in the center of the book was first published (almost in the same form) as an essay (Moonlight in the Brooklyn Musem) two years before it turned into a piece of fiction by simply being placed in a different context. But all this − although worth taking note of − is beside the point. The hard way to prove Weisenburger’s point is to travel through the labyrinth of Moon Palace, a more rewarding enterprise than establishing a solid (if ever reassuring) chronology.

At the time the book came out, the reception of Moon Palace (Auster’s second novel after The New York Trilogy, which made him an internationally acclaimed author) could be characterized with bafflement and puzzlement on the readers’ behalf. All of the protagonists in The New York Trilogy: Quinn, Blue, the unnamed narrator of The Locked Room disappear into thin air. However, the penultimate paragraph of the book ends with the following line: "This is where I start, this is where my life begins" (Moon Palace 306). While the finishing sentences read like this: "Then the moon came up from behind the hills. It was a full moon, as round and yellow as a burning stone" (Moon Palace 307).

It is based on a twofold understanding of the novel that Debra Shostak in her essay outlines the interpretative situation created by this latest of a series of unheimlich return to the mise-en-abyme of the moon:

The return to the moon motif provokes contradictory interpretations. According to the mode of psychological realism, one might argue that Fogg has found his own place in the world, perhaps specifically in relation to his vocation as an artist. A postmodern epistemology informs more compromised view of the novels’s closure: just as the Chinese restaurant to which the title refers – Moon Palace – exists in the novel largely »as gap or absence«, and just as Blakelock’s painting Moonlight focuses on »the gaps of a realistic representation«, so too is Fogg under the moon consigned to »[inhabit] this representational gap or error« (Weisenburger 78; emphasis in original). (Shostak, 163)

To be able to apprehend the difference and parallelism of these two modes of interpreting the closure inthe novel, this paper must rely on the instructive use of the mise-en-abyme as "representational gap or error" defined by Debra Shostak and Steven Weisenburger, and as opposed to the postmodernist understanding of the same iconic device as regressus ad infinitum. My interrogation will aim at unraveling the manifold aspects of the mise-en-abyme inherent in Moon Palace, such as its genealogical, representational, discoursive, iconic, and semiotic functions. Yet, first we must look into the history of the concept.

The iconic notion of the mise-en-abyme has been that of incessant semiotic inquiry since its first introduction in literary discourse by André Gide’s Journal for 1893.

(…) what would explain better what I’d wanted to do (…) would be a comparison with the device from heraldry that involves putting a second representation of the original shield »en abyme« within it (Gide, 30).

This heraldic concept, originally put into print in Claude-Edmonde Magny’s Histoire du roman français depuis 1918, was chosen as an emblem and instrument of interpretation owing to the fact that its characteristics represent, mirror a certain visual or textual structure both intensively and extensively. Its evolution into the Peircean counterpart of the Saussurean unicorn may explain its popularity and controversial nature. Twenty-seven years after the book by Claude-Edmonde Magny was issued, Lucien Dällenbach published his own book, which now focused on the mise-en-abyme as a narrative figure of literary critical thought: a figurative text embedded in the main body of its context reflecting on, yet modifying the intertextual relationship between the both of them, or rather, within the multiplicity of their interplay. The first attribute of the mise-en-abyme prompted Mieke Bal to offer an English translation for the term, which would further clarify its original nature:

This phenomenon (the embedded text presenting a story that resembles the primary fabula) is comparable to infinite regress. In French the term is »mise-en-abyme«. This term derives from heraldry, where the phenomenon occurs in pictorial representation. In literature, however, we have to do with infinite regress in the medium of language. It would be wrong, therefore, to overstress the analogy to graphic representation, since in language mise-en-abyme occurs in a less "ideal" form. What is put into the perspective of infinitive regress is not the totality of an image, but only a part of the text, or a certain aspect. To avoid needless complications, I suggest we use the term »mirror-text« for »mise-en-abyme« (Bal, 57-58).

However, Bal’s translation does away with the latter attribute, namely the modifying effect, the innate disjunctivity associated with fracture and loss always already innate in the concept, to which Dällenbach himself had formerly drawn attention:

The diagram reproduced above shows:
That A’s acceptance of the ability to be reproduced produces a lacuna within the identity of A which is partially lost (in the abyss) through the shield that is added to it – in other words, the addition of B to A in fact subtracts from it; from then on the only way B can adequately represent A (which by its presence it has spoiled) is itself to include in its centre a shield © which in turn… An infinite illusion, as one sees, or an unlimited interplay of substitutions, since each term in the series […] can only take on the form the previous shield prescribes for it by incorporating a new shield, which, in turn, makes a hole in it (emphasis added) (Dällenbach 111).

This hole, this white space of emptiness will be the focus of my interrogations into the mise-en-abyme at different levels of consciousness within the book. In turns, I make attempts at examining 1) the ontology of the self disseminated through metonymic projection en abyme, 2) mise-en-abyme as a semiotic lacuna, a differential slippage in the chain of signification, and in shifting subjectivities 3) mise-en-abyme as the sublime experience of limits (the ekphrasis of Blakelock’s Moonlight), 4) the genealogical mise-en-abyme in Moon Palace, 5) Moon Palace as a mise-en-abyme in the oeuvre.

All of the above will lead to providing this examination with the means to return to the original problems of interpreting the closure in Moon Palace raised by Shostak. I will conclude that the competing epistemologies, which serve as presuppositions of the seemingly exclusive interpretations, are inevitably drawn into dialogue with each other. I argue that the question is not which account is the sufficient one, but how are both interpretations dependent on its counterpart. In other words, I hope to lead the reader to arrive at the conclusion that the question is the question itself, that Moon Palace is above all a book of questions.

The expression itself is an allusion to a volume of poetry by Edmond Jabès (The Book of Questions), a study ( The Book of the Dead) on which was published by Paul Auster in his compilation of essays, The Art of Hunger. Here the last sentences read as follows:

If language is to be pushed to the limit, then the writer must condemn himself to an exile of doubt, to a desert of uncertainty. What he must do, in effect, is create a poetics of absence. The dead cannot be brought back to life. But they can be heard, and their voices live in the Book (emphasis added) (The Book of the Dead, 81).

I. The Ontological Mise-en-Abyme


A poetics of absence is what we find at the heart of Auster’s poetry, and indeed, in all his books. So as to be able to see the mise-en-abyme in Auster’s poetic not simply as a means to an (evasive) end, a regressus ad infinitum, one must start out by reading his poems with peculiar emphasis put on such heavily utilized concepts as body, mouth, eyes.


Wall Writing


Nothing less than nothing.


In the night that comes

From nothing,

For no one in the night

That does not come.


And what stands at the edge of whiteness,


In the eye of the one who speaks,




Or a word.


Come from nowhere

In the night

Of the one who does not come.


Or the whiteness of a word,


Into a wall.


In the stanzas "no one" is utterly ambiguous in the sense that it both signifies presence and absence ("For no one in the night / That does not come.") Darkness, the night itself seems nonexistent as emerging from nothing, yet, in a paradoxical way it is an actant. At the limit of language, negating the action of the nonexistent still retains presence, which effect operates as the thrust of the poem directing the focus of the listener/reader (who secures this absence/presence overtly by being there for reading) toward the eye indistinguishable from the mouth that speaks. The whiteness of the disembodied word offers itself to presence by way of making a movement on the atopian surface of the wall. ("Or the whiteness of a word, / Scratched / Into a wall.") Scratching (signifying) is also connected to a violent intrusion into the surface of corporeality (cf. "Your ink has learned / the violence of the wall. (…) Each syllable / is the work of sabotage." (Disappearances 19) The aggression is intensified by the fact, that the trauma of violence as movement is repetitive per se ("For no one in the night / That does not come."; "Come from nowhere / In the night / Of the one who does not come.") The double negation in the two utterances secures presence by carrying out the nominalization of the aporetic act of nonexisting (the pronoun "no one" as a grammatical agent (even if not acting) presupposes the existence of a noun it cathaforically refers to). As in the case of the twofold closure of Moon Palace, this effect results in both problematizing and cancelling out modes of representation.

Trauma inherently challenges both the possibility of representation (the mimetic charge, to speak the unspeakable) and the postmodern premise of nonreferentiality. Whether manifested in loss, injury, or abjection, trauma insists on a presence, an "out there" that must be narrated so as to free the subject from repetition. Trauma requires history, a story of the body in time (Shostak 152).

As it has already been emphasized, the central symbols in Auster’s poetry hovering above the ontological dilemma of the self, representation, and reality, are the mouth (voice, eating/fasting, nausea) and the eyes (disappearance in seeing). There is a primordial match between the two. "Martin Heidegger maintains that the hand is the first tool humans have for connecting with the world. Levinas, however, in Time and the Other, suggests that the world is foremost given to the mouth before it is objectified by sight or hands; in contrast to Heidegger, Levinas believes that "prior to being a system of tools, the world is an ensemble of nourishments« (Uchiyama, 118). In Moon Palace the intertwining concepts of the eye and mouth go through a detectable progression from ontological considerations (binge eating/fasting, nausea), through the problems of representation (verbal mimesis of the visual world to the blind, the repetitive babbling of the automaton) towards straightforward ethical issues (a loving kiss to the Levinasian alterity).



Hunger as some guerilla act of dismembering the body of all systematic beliefs in unity is a topic extensively discussed in readings of Paul Auster. As opposed to City of Glass, in Moon Palace the art of hunger leads to inevitable failure to disappear. However, passivity is retained (in intention, not in movement, nor in the intake of nourishments) as a possibility of breaking the cycle of repetitions. The protagonist, Fogg confesses to the representative of military power, how he failed in his fasting.

Our lives are determined by manifold contingencies (…) I decided to give up the struggle. (…) I thought that by abandoning myself to the chaos of the world, the world might ultimately reveal some secret harmony to me, some form or pattern that would help me to penetrate myself. The point was to accept things as they were, to drift along with the flow of the universe. I’m not saying that I managed to do this very well. I failed miserably, in fact (Moon Palace 80).

Fogg’s passivity is an allusion to the Biblical story of Jonah. At a certain stage in the novel Fogg (just like his absent grandfather, Effing) winds up in a dark, empty cave, a metaphor signifying the possibilities for shifting subjectivities. In the Bible Jonah is an utterly passive subject, whose shifting would not be possible if not for his relation with the Other (here it is the ideal Other: God).

Fasting in Moon Palace is associated not so much with failure as an ontological means of breaking loose from the cycle created by fixed, thus repetitive chains of signification, as with failure as an opportunity to return to this the effort. In view of this effect, the "mouth" − already an Ur-symbol in Auster’s poetry (see White Nights as a prime example) – have different connotations in this book, and so, come with different narrative consequences. "I was trying to separate myself from my body (…): the mind cannot win over matter, for once the mind is asked to do too much, it quickly shows itself to be matter as well" (Moon Palace 29-30). It seems that dismemberment serves a different purpose here than it does in The New york Trilogy. No disappearing this time.

Body as an inevitable fact of corporeality is thematized not just in the skeletal figure of an anorexic Fogg, or Effing’s disfunctional legs and eyes, but also in the extremely obese corpus of Solomon Barber (Fogg’s absent father). "Not only did he occupy more space than [other men] did, but he seemed to over flow it, to ooze out from the edges of himself and inhabit areas where he was not" (Moon Palace 235). With his self disappearing within a bulbous mass, Barber manages to carry out the very same act of shifting his subjectivity like his fasting son did in a reverse way. "Barber’s goal was (…) to make himself invisible in the massiveness of his own flash" (Moon Palace 242). But while Fogg "loses it" in a cave and is saved (cherished/nourished) by friends, Barber "hits rock bottom" in a grave, and as a result of his injuries, starts losing weight up to a point, when the son sees his own self emerging from under the camouflage. "Barber had the same eyes as I did" (emphasis added) (Moon Palace 296). This repeated return to corporeality is thus marked by fissure as a mirroring surface, which –while cancelling out any possibility for a unity of selves (Barber soon "gives up the ghost"( Moon Palace 154, 254) – presupposes an a priori (genealogical) presence they (did not) share.

Fogg experiences nausea twice in the novel. The first time he is revolted by the possibilities for selves offered to him by the systematic disciplining systems of society: "All kinds of options were available to people in my situation – scholarships, loans, work-study programs – but (…) I found myself stricken with disgust. It was a sudden, involuntary response, a jolting attack of nausea" (Moon Palace 20). The other instance is an outbreak of violence. At his mother’s grave Fogg realizes that the acquaintance of his standing next to him is no one else but his own begetting father. It is at this moment of selves clashing into each other that Fogg pushes Barber into the belly of the Leviathan, into a grave, a place which makes it possible for the both of them to shift their subjectivities. "I knew who he was, all of a sudden I knew everything. For the first few moments, I felt nothing but anger, a demonic surge of nausea and disgust" (Moon Palace 292). In On Escape Levinas offers the following explanation for the concept of nausea: "In nausea − which amounts to an impossibility of being what one is − we are at the same time riveted to ourselves, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers. We are there, and there is nothing more to be done, or anything to add to this fact that we have been entirely delivered up, that everything is consumed" (Levinas, 67). Although this passage seems to evoke the Levinasian il y a, as the previous examples have shown, Auster substitutes the insomniac consciousness of the self with the inevitable presence of the body, and connects it to the collisions of shifting selves. When Fogg meets his double ("It’s Kitty’s twin brother" (Moon Palace 35)) and future love, after talking like a lunatic about Cyrano’s voyage to the moon, he suddenly stops. He seems to disappear both outside and inside of the limits of his body: "my head shrank, then grew enormously large; I saw peculiar lights and comets darting behind my eyes; my stomach began to rumble, to bulge with dagger-thrusts of pain, and suddenly I felt I was going to be sick" (Moon Palace 40). Fogg will have to abandon himself entirely in the belly of the Leviathan (a cave in Central Park), be spared by love, and emerge as a totally different inflection of his previous subjectivity until he can look Kitty in the eye once again.


As it is indicated in the aforementioned example, mechanical, repetitive, or senseless talk is an index of the emptying out of selves. We find ostentatious parallels in the New York Trilogy, where it is Peter Stillman junior who behaves like an automaton in the metonymic dispersion of his identity. Uncle Victor’s metonymic naming game with Fogg’s identity is described by his nephew as "bluster" and "hot air" (Moon Palace 7). Although the name is an instrument of nominalization, a process in which the ever-flowing flux of subjectivation is halted in its phase, and transformed into a reassuring state, the contiguity of associations in both cases surmount to an absurd result. (Quinn becomes "inn", and Marco’s name through stages of Marco Polo and polo shirt is turned into "shit face". Barber nominalizes the grand narrative of his self in his book, Kepler’s Blood). In Fogg’s case the dissemination of his name can only be stopped by acknowledging the paradoxical nature of nominalization: "M.S. Fogg (…) the initials stood for manuscript" (Moon Palace 7). Subjectivation as an expression of the process of being under construction helps Fogg to come to terms with the shifting nature of his self. However, if a nominalized self is unable to face its own fictiousness when meeting a doppelgänger or, when slipping into mise-en-abyme-like situations, the rigid mask of the name functions as the mechanical voice of an automaton. When Fogg has his missed encounter with his double/love for the second time, they are separated by not only a locked door but also Fogg’s total failure to intentionally free himself of systematic beliefs. His intentions of denominalization prevents him to open up his cave because of his desire to give a name to his efforts. "She heard me talking to myself in there (the words were too muffled for her to make them out), and then, very abruptly, it seems that I started to sing – crazy, tuneless kind of singing, she said (…) She knocked again, but again I stayed where I was. Not wanting to make a nuisance of herself, she finally gave up and left" (Moon Palace 49). Fogg’s absent grandfather, Thomas Effing is dictating his own obituary as if his monotonous intonation, the repetition of his phrases paved the way towards a lethal end of his own fabrication (he dies on the day he predicted he would): "Then, in a more subdued tone, he started in again. »I’m getting on with it boy,« he said. »Don’t worry abou that. Just keep the pen moving and we’ll be alright. (…) Just keep writing down the words. There won’t be any obituary unless you write down the words" (Moon Palace 148). Also, when Effing is dictating Fogg his biography (which at one point turns into a collection of deliberate lies), nominalization closes in on the young man: "Those words filled every inch of the air, and in the end there was nothing else for me to breathe" (Moon Palace 184).

As opposed to intentional attempts at denominalization, in Moon Palace there are several instances where imaginary perception of outer realities is made possible by unintentional denominalization. The ekphrasis of Blakelock’s Moonlight is one obvious example of a mise-en-abyme for such operations, and will be interpreted accordingly. But first let us examine how Fogg ends up in front of the painting in the first place. The reason why Effing sends Fogg to the Brooklyn Museum to behold the painting is most probably his dissatisfaction with the young scholar’s ability to verbally describe visual objects. Yet, at the time of the old man’s agony, it is Fogg’s newly found talent to dissolve the endless inventories of realities into an intermittent flux of descriptions that offers him some comfort. Here prelapsarian language does not formulate itself in the unity of signifiers and signifieds inherent in names given by Adam, but rather in the language games necessary to solve an unsolvable problem, that is, to make the infinite seem finite (and the other way round).

With so much falling away from him now, the immediate physical presence of things stood at the edge of his consciousness as a kind of paradise, an unobtainable realm of ordinary miracles: the tactile, the visible, the perceptual field that surrounds all life. (…) I doubt that he heard a word I said (Moon Palace 219).

Effing painted his masterpieces in his cave in the same manner – he created pictures never to be seen by anyone. In a similar vein, Fogg reaches its original goal of utmost passivity when striding across the continent without any destination in mind, without any intention to arrive at any place whatsoever.


So far my chapters covered two major functions associated with the figure of mouth (as an aporetic counterpart of the eye/s): first, the existential import and export of traumatic materiality, and then, the epistemological inputs and outputs of the speaking subject. As I already indicated, there is a third aspect made problematic by its carrying the burden of such humanistic concepts as responsibility, giving oneself up to the Other, the morality of good and bad, in one word: love.

“You are a very strange brother”, she said. “You look like a man, but then you turn yourself into a wolf. After that the wolf becomes a talking machine. It’s all mouths for you, isn’t it? First the food, then the words – into the mouth, out of it. But you’re forgetting the best thing mouths are made for. I’m your sister, after all, and I’m not going to let you leave without kissing me good-bye” (Moon Palace 40).

I have already cited Dennis Barone, whose implication (that "Auster synthesized interrogations of postmodern subjectivities, explications of premodern moral causality, and a sufficent realism") was brought up as an illustration for the convoluted concepts trying to pinpoint Auster’s texts. Auster readily justifies Barone’s mentioning of his "sufficient reality" by claiming:

In the strictest sense of the word, I consider myself a realist. Chance is a part of our reality: we are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence, the unexpected occurs with numbing regularity in our lives… To put it in another way: truth is stranger than fiction. What I am after, I suppose, is to write fiction as strange as the world I live in (The art of Hunger 269).

Here Auster’s realism parallels with the Foucauldian premise that the true aim of contemporary philosophy is giving account for phenomena that are so close to us that we take them for granted as things needing no further explications whatsoever. As for the "premodern moral causality" immanent in the Austerean text, the dialogue between Derridean and Levinasian concepts of ethics must enter the discussion.

Jacques Derrida connects the problems of ethics in the postmodern episteme with undecidability. Several scholars made critical enquiries into his concept. Simon Critchley insists that Jacques Derrida’s understanding of justice forces one "to recognize one’s infinite responsibility before the singular other as something over which one cannot ultimately decide, as something that exceeds my cognitive powers" (Critchley, 100). Terry Eagleton expresses his concerns whether Derrida’s positioning ethics and politics within a deconstructionalist theoretical framework is answering to ethical and political demands. This statement is strengthened by the Derridean claim that no responsibility can be taken without taking that responsibility for something that is bound to prove itself to be ultimate undecidability. Before turning to Emmanuel Levinas for a concept satisfying demands of ethics and politics both, I have to quote one of Patricia Merivale’s instructive observations once again:

Clearly, the existentially heroic quests of the Auster protagonists (…) constitute a moral quest, although this is an inconvenience for those critics who think that a moral purpose disqualifies an author from being postmodern (Merivale, 190-191).

In the Levinasian concept of philosophy the ethics of responsibility comes before its imperative drive to seek truth and knowledge through theoretical interrogations. In the subject’s exposed and irreducible relation to a defining Other never to be possessed, according to Levinas, humanism has to do away with the notion of a free subject. Not arising from free will, the demand of alterity presented as the Other precedes any knowledge or affirmation/denial of free will. In other words, the subject has its origins in alterity. Thus, alterity as a force of subjectivation is always a priori in its relation to the subject. Before coming face to face with the Other and its demands, the subject could have any claims for accepting/negating free will, only if it arose from itself. In this case (a Heideggerian concept heavily debated by Levinas), it would be the ego that determined the Other, which would, in turn, constitute the ontological subject based on its freedom, intelligibility (knowing), and representation. Levinas attacks such a concept, hence his insistence on the "primordial phenomenon of gentleness" (Levinas, 150) in the face-to-face encounter with the Other, which creates the revelation of alterity. The transcendental Other preceding subjectivation is precisely what is described by Auster in the following passage relating the revelation of "love at first sight":

I had resigned myself to a certain kind of life, and then, for reasons totally obscure, this beautiful Chinese girl had dropped in front of me, descending like an angel from another world. It would have been impossible not to fall in love with her, impossible not to be swept away by the simple fact that she was there (Moon Palace, 95).

However, Auster seems to confirm that this presence is marked by a corporeality, which is prior to representing the world. The subject is forced to continually return to the trauma of the body, and so, Auster’s poetics of absence incorporates loss as a possibility for presence.

With his words, Uncle Victor transforms absence into presence for the fatherless Fogg:

At one point, a foolish woman acquaintance of Victor’s ran into us on the street and started crying when she was introduced to me, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and blubbering on about how I must be poor Emmie’s lovechild. I had not heard the term before, but I could tell that it hinted at gruesome and unfortunate things. When I asked Uncle Victor to explain to me, he invented an answer I have always remembered. "All children are love children," he said, "but only the best ones are called that (Moon Palace 5).

But then again, love has its paradoxical implications in Moon Palace. The dynamics of the novel’s most important love story (the power of which could even be characterized as incest between twins, doppelgängers) whirls outside the empty space forming around an absent child: a loss both a priori (preceding alterity) and a posteriori (in this case, loss of the unborn child) to their existence.


II. The Mise-en-Abyme as Semiotic Lacuna


Eyes and mouth, body and loss, the de/nominalization of shifting subjectivities − in Moon Palace these concepts are all revolving around the consciousness of the mise-en-abyme, which is present at different stages of signification.

Before this paper could zero in on the ekphrasis of Blakelock’s Moonlight, first it has to deal with the neon glitter of the "Moon Palace", a prefigurative sign for the painting, which is the only sight to behold from Fogg’s room of confinement. My interrogation into the topic relies on Lacanian concepts applied to interpret subjective becoming in an instructing essay written about Moon Palace by Salah el Moncef. In his study, el Moncef concludes that Auster manages to transform the process of metonymic drift into a "fuzzy" (el Moncef, 75) conceptual model for the symbolic and imaginary articulations of the subjectivity. This metonymic contiguity, at the level of the individual sign, appears in the form of a differential movement in the chain of signification, which transforms the unit into a rich signifying event: a semiologically condensed signifier with its "spiraling masses of connectedness" and its "immanent differences" (el Moncef, 81). Thus, a book of questions, the idea of a book that remains exposed to its own openness is connected to a locus of representation, "a blank page of death" (Moon Palace 154).

Every now and then, I would plant myself between the two windows and watch the Moon Palace sign. Even that was enjoyable, and it always seemed to generate a series of interesting thoughts. Those thoughts are somewhat obscure to me now – clusters of wild associations, a rambling circuit of reveries – but at the time I felt they were terribly significant (Moon Palace 32).

Salah el Moncef defines three different modes of consciousness inherent in the concept of mise-en-abyme. 1) Cognitive apprehension of material reality (body: eye/mouth); 2) effective acts of self-realization (meeting death face to face in the cave/belly of the Leviathan); 3) conception of selfhood as an imaginary construct projected in the virtual space of consciousness (mise-en-abyme) (el Moncef, 79). At this latter phase of self-realization, Fogg’s intentionality (to separate himself from the moon in a room of his own) cannot but result in nominalization.

Once, I remember, I saw the Moon Palace sign in front of me, more vivid than it had ever been in life. The pink and blue neon letters were so large that the whole sky was filled with their brightness. Then, suddenly, the letters disappeared, and only the two os from the word Moon were left. I saw myself dangling from one of them, struggling to hang on like an acrobat who had botched a dangerous stunt. Then, I was slithering around it like a worm, and then I wasn’t there anymore. The two os had turned into eyes, gigantic human eyes that were looking at me with scorn and impatience. They kept on staring at me, and after a while I became convinced that they were the eyes of God (Moon Palace 70).

The mise-en-abyme of the moon viewed from a room associated with Fogg’s total failure to intentionally deprive himself of systematic beliefs results in a nominalization of the sublime (ideological anchoring with the ideal Other: "God"). Instead of effective self-realization through a passive opening of the subject to the world (see the closure of the novel), here what we find is Fogg’s virtual self-definition (expressed in terms of seriate otherness). Fogg’s imaginary selves disseminate through a condensed signifier (the sign "Moon Palace"), that is, through a vertiginous space reflected back to his room (back to the metonymic associations in his name). As Maurice Blanchot states:

The dead present in the impossibility of making any presence real – an impossibility which is present, which is there as a present’s double, the shadow of the present which the present bears and hides in itself. When I am alone, I am not alone, but, in this present, I am already returning to myself in the form of someone (Blanchot, 30).

Fogg furnishes his room with boxes of books passed on him by his Uncle Victor. The arrangement of books preserves the chronology of Victor’s buying them, so by devouring, exhausting these volumes with indifference, Fogg takes on his uncle’s atopian multiplicity. ("[A]n absolute chaos of print. It made no difference to me. I read each book to the end and refused to pass judgment on it" (Moon Palace 21)) To dissolve in a desert of uncertainty, "trip over" nothingness, he also nominalizes his subjectivity by wearing his uncle’s suit. "It functioned as a protective membrane, a second skin (…)" (Moon Palace 15) But his intentionality fails him once again. "Just because you wander in the destert, it does not mean that there is a promised land." (The Invention of Solitude 32)

However, the urban sign of Moon Palace (the name of a restaurant, the rooms of which are never described in the novel) as a prefiguration for Blakelock’s painting makes room for possibilities of self-realization. As a tautological index representing an object which operate as a signifier condensing a virtual infinity of associations, the mise-en-abyme is both a trap (having to make sense/unity/a monad out of the atopian desert) and a (feed-back) effect of self-realization through a passive opening of the subject to the world. It is undecidably a trap and at the same time an escape from all traps: the blank page of death, a "white page of uncertainty" (el Moncef, 77). Mise-en-abyme here does not so much offer room for infinite regress (a means to evade logocentric end) as it presents itself in the form of "light which is also the abyss, a light one sinks into, both terrifying and tantalizing." (Blanchot, 32) The referential complexities of the discourse is put in parallel with the multiplicity of surfaces (projected into a desert of uncertainty), just as Fogg’s paradoxical articulation of his corporeal subject (eye/mouth) is a metaphor for the differential dynamics of discourse:

Perhaps I was simply delirious with hunger, and the lights of the sign that transfixed me, I can’t be sure any of it, but the fact was that the word Moon Palace began to haunt my mind with all the mystery and fascination with an oracle. Everything was mixed up in it at once: Uncle Victor and China, rocket ships and music, Marco Polo and American West. (…) [O]ne thought kept giving way to another, spiraling into ever larger masses of connectedness. (…) I was going mad (…) (Moon Palace, 33).

Going lunatic Fogg’s grandfather is too, when being entrapped in the desert he perceives the unheimlich, moonlike shapes of stones and earth as a homogeneous surface. "Whiteness, and then more whiteness" (Moon Palace 155). "[H]e entered a period of unbearable loneliness. (…) One day, in a fit of madness, he took out the hermit’s rifle and shot his donkey, thinking that it had turned into (…) a spectre of wrath (…)" (Moon Palace 168). It is being unable to interpret a homogenous surface (el Moncef cites the scene of Hamlet and Polonius interpreting the random shapes of clouds (el Moncef, 75)) that drives Effing mad, who later on manages to create masterpieces depicting the very same scenery of ghosts. According to el Moncef, the manifestation of the infinite movement of metonymic slippage is simultaneous and inseparable from the symptomatic index of the “subject’s cognitive limits within the seriate bifurcations of discourse” (el Moncef, 80). This manifestation and symptomatic index of the differential dynamic of discourse is the point de capiton of signification, an overdetermined, "sheer drive" event of interconnecting a host of chance references sychronically with one another. This condensed discoursive locus is also the atopian field of inwardness, an intersection point, from where a metonymic drift of discourse is projected into "fuzzy" subjectivities fringing the limit of this white space, a white page of uncertainty.

We can find a parallel for the white space as a dead center of inward and outward projections creating an atopian locus for the fuzzy subjectivity in The Invention of Solitude. Here Auster offers four archives as loci for fluctuating subjectivities which create a core for the fuzzy subjectivity of the narrator. A. moves to Paris, and the chambre de bonne he rents is marked by four other rooms/archives, metonymical spaces occupied by Jonah, Anne Frank, P.A. (a New Yorker subjectivity of the narrator) and a S. as his substitute father. This central room is also an index for an absent father, since – as chance would have it – it is the very same room his father lived in several decades before.

The chambre de bonne serves as an empty place for meditation for the "fuzzy" subjectivity, which is always already in the process of being created by the cross references of the four archives. There is an infinite number of ways how the wandering mind can connect these archives, and the more footprints these movements leave around the white surface of the center, the more visible the fuzzy subjectivity becomes in the invisible space of the chambre de bonne. Mireille Rosello proposes the concept of the flâneur to describe the movement of the wandering/signifying body/mind (eye/mouth), a concept which cennect alea (chance events) with intertextuality, with absence, and with the "fuzzy" concept of subjectivity.

I propose randomness as a strategy here because it seems to promote a vision of the traveler that departs (if I may say so) from that of both the user of maps and the creator of maps, which I earlier equated with the reader and the writer. Travelers who do not go anywhere, apparently, do not need maps. They err – they subvert the idea of destination. Their wanderings are not trips, and we may feel that there is no meaning to their aimlessness. But this meaninglessness ceases as soon as the observer wants to make sense of the trajectory. Whoever observes the flâneur (and especially the urban flâneur, who is confronted with a tight network of streets) has to rethink the relationship between the traveler’s body and the map, but also the status of the map as a metaphorical rendition of space: the flâneur’s body, which does not follow a route or invent new paths toward an old destination, also subverts the vision of space as an empty vessel, a mere neutral receptacle of the network (Rosello, 134-135).

Roland Barthes must also be a referenced here. In his "autobiographical" essay from 1975, Barthes defines the literary work as a cabinet of mirrors or "la chambre d‘échos". The latter is a metaphor connecting the concept of literary works (as polyphonous dialogues among textual echoes) to the image of a room. These echoes, apparitions, ghosts make room for the traces of presence in el Moncef’s concept of a "fuzzy" subjectivity.


III. Mise-en-Abyme as the Sublime Experience of Limits



Ralph Albert Blakelock – Moonlight (1885)

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919) was an American romantic visionary tonalist landscape painter. The tonalist movement he belongs to is associated with transcendentalism and illusionistic pictorial representation arising from a metaphysical interest in the sublime.

First, I intend to interpret Blakelock’s paintig as a mise-en-abyme reflecting on the narrative functions of the mise-en-abyme inherent in Paul Auster’s novel. Then in the ensuing chapter, I will make an attempt to compare three differing perceptions of the same atopian desert of signification with regard to the genealogical mise-en-abyme inherent in the undecidable relationships of the three absent fathers/sons.

As indicated in the previous chapter, although Fogg and Effing creates differing interpretations of the atopian desert as a field of signification, both of them are losing sanity being baffled by the ungraspable magnitude of sense. However, when facing the sublime (both in Blakelock and in the desert/the Moon Palace sign) their ontologies result in differing ways/reasons for turning lunatic. By the time he was commanded by his grandfather to internalize the painting, Fogg had already put behind his intentional failure of subjectivization (mesmerized by gazing en abyme into the Moon Palace sign as a point de capiton). Fogg’s Bildung is in progress, but not so with Effing. In the desert he created his new subjetivity (from Julian Barber to Thomas Effing), and no matter to what extent he built irony in his new name (Thomas for being dubious, Effing for f***ing his life), the work is completed and entirely wrapped up in its nominalization. He sends Fogg to the Brooklyn Musem with the following advice: "See if you can’t begin to enter the mind of the artist, who painted the landscape before you. Imagine that you are Blakelock, painting the picture yourself" (Moon Palace 135). Making sense as a means to find fixed identity, finding one’s place in the world is what Effing is trying to preach here. However, Fogg does not find meaning, but creates a paradoxical multiplicity of meanings through his open-ended self autorship (cf. M.S. standing for "manuscript").

There were small trees with the same spidery branches as the large one, and then, toward the bottom, the tiniest hint of brightness, which looked to me as though it might have been another figure (lying on his back − possibly asleep, possibly dead, possibly staring up into the night) or else the remnant of another fire − I couldn’t tell which (emphasis added) (138).

The ekphrais here carries the weight of undecidabilities up to a point when it excludes finding a solid basis for concrete meaning, definite interpretation.

I got so involved in studying these obscure details in the lower part of the picture that when I finally looked up to study the sky again, I was shocked to see how bright everything was in the upper part. Even taking the full moon into consideration, the sky seemed too visible. The paint beneath the cracked glazes that covered the surface shone through with an unnatural intensity, and farther back I went toward the horizon, the brighter the glow became − as it were daylight back there, and the mountains were illuminated by the sun. Once I finally noticed this, I began to see other odd things in the painting as well. The sky, for example, had a largely greenish cast. Tinged with yellow borders of clouds, it swerled around the side of the large tree in a thickening flurry of brushstrokes, taking on a spiralling aspect, a vortex of celestial matter in deep space. (…) A sky the same color as the earth, a night that looks like day, and all human forms dwarfed by the bigness of the scene − illegible shadows, the merest ideograms of life (emphasis added) (138-139).

The transfixation on the moon creates an atopian surface, its vortiginous effect evades any possibility for fixed meanings or monadic subjectivities. Instead, it lures, draws the eye towards the anamorphic eye of the picture, which signifies lack of presence. This lacuna offers itself as a blank space of death, and forces the eye of the beholder to secure itself as a source of presence in the picture. For, in Foggs interpretation, the painting is utterly marked for absence. "Perhaps, I thought to myself, this picture was meant to stand for everything we had lost. It was not a landscape, it was a memorial, a death song for a vanished world" (139).

Interpreted as a negation for presence and signification, Blakelock’s Moonlight cannot affirm Effing’s idea of intentionality and presupposed unity of identity (cf. finding the author, finding onelself). And so, what remains is but a movement: transcendence in transfixation. "I wasn’t sure if I had discovered what Effing thought i would, but by the time I left the museum, I felt that I had discovered something, even if I didn’t know what it was. I was exhausted, absolutely drained of energy" (Moon Palace 139).

As this latter statement shows, the protagonsit here is overwhelmed, exhausted by an experience of the sublime. A central aesthetic quality in all painings by Ralph Blakelock, the sublime is theoretically divided into two subcategories in Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgement. Many of the most famous paintings by J.M. William Turner are illustrative of the dynamic sublime (an experience of overwhelming power). The mathematical sublime on the other hand is defined by Kant as a form of immeasurability. It incorporates an epistemological pattern pars pro toto in that it defines any movement as a movement pregnant with the possibilities for all other movements.

The experience of the sublime is generally charcterized as having two opposing aspects: a disturbance and the overcoming of the very same disturbance. One goes through the experience of being exposed to his own insignificance by something that is stronger or larger. This feeling of being small is followed by a more pleasurable experience of the sublime by overcoming the first feeling, which is made possible by the (safe) distance between the sight and the beholder. This cathartic transformation may result in an abstract experience of Otherness.

Based on the Kantian premise of the mathematical sublime, el Moncef determines a generalized practice of the sublime, which he interprets as the externalized drama of consciousness between 1) a supra-organic field of synchronicity fraught with significance (an overflowing signifying event) and 2) the reverse side of this field: the chaotic world of fragments out of which it (1) is synthesized (see el Moncef, 80).

Salah el Moncef’s generalized concept of the sublime is described as a constant oscillation between a symbolic totality (1), and its synchronic coexistance with the metonymic drift of fragments (2). This aporetic function of the moon inherent in Blakelock’s landscape connects the sublime to Jacques Lacan’s concept of anamorphosis and Maurice Blanchot’s "Orphic space". According to Lacan and Blanchot, this aporetic space is the surface where author as the absent Other lacking origin opens up to his counterpart, the one who percieves. Lacan in the confirms that "[t]here is something whose absence can always be observed in a picture (…). This is the central field, where the separating power of the eye is exercised to the maximum in vision" (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis 108).

Whereas anamorphosis as a lacuna in the work of art emphasises how drawing the observer into the act of perception depends on a signifying point of overflowing negation in the center, Blanchot’s concept underlines how both author and beholder disappear into the fissure of the openness deeply implemented within the core of the work.

This is the Orphic space to which the poet doubtless has no access, where he can penetrate only to disappear, which he attains only when he is united with the intimacy of the breach that makes him a mouth unheard, just as it makes him who hears into the weight of silence. The Open is the work, but the work as origin (Blanchot, 142).

Blanchot also lays particular emphasis on the experience of the Other in facing the sublime.

It leads me where I am no longer myself, where if I speak it is not I who speak, where I cannot speak. To encounter Orpheus is to encounter this voice which is not mine, this death which becomes song, but which is not my death, even though I must disappear in it more profoundly (Blanchot, 156).

The experience of the sublime in the ekphrasis of Moonlight is inseparable from an experience of the limits. This "ecstatic insight into the potential of virtually infinite modalities of expression and subjective becoming" (el Moncef, 80) serves as an emblem, a mise-en-abyme for the ontology of reception applicable not only for the subjectivational transactions of the implied reader(s) and writer(s) surrounding the empty space of the novel (entitled Moon Palace), but also for the subjectivities being created by its characters going through the same experience of limits. It is not difficult to see how this incorporation of a mise-eny-abyme within a mise-en-abyme creates a multiple mirroring effect incessantly expanding both progressively (outwardly to books, subjectivities and readers) and regressively (inwardly to books, subjectivities and readers), and how this effect finally results in "fuzziness" on both sides of the mirror.


IV. Genealogical Mise-en-Abyme




Representing three distinct stages of the same genealogy of three sons (and absent fathers), Effing, Fogg and Barber create dissimilar subjectivities in their relations to the "atopian field of signification" (el Moncef, 80) respectively. Both Blakelock’s Moonlight and the Great Salt Desert (a scenery present not only in Effing’s wandering and Fogg’s returning back to it, but also in Barber’s book: Kepler’s Blood) serve as an emblem for a white space (an image projected en abyme, where presence is confirmed by the beholder) and a chambre de bonne (a room for subjectivities under construction).

In the chambre de bonne we find that the three personae unite in one aspect only, in the disappearances, the invisibility of their work and their subjectivitites. One only has to bring the cover photo of The Invention of Solitude into mind to have a grasp on this aporetic situation. Once again, it is Blanchot who offers insight into invisible subjectivities and masterpieces (cf. Effing’s paintings) by way of interrogating the moment when Orpheus looks back to Eurydice.

Orpheus’s gaze is Orpheus’s ultimate gift to the work. It is a gift whereby he refuses, whereby he sacrifices the work, bearing himself toward the origin according to desire’s measureless movement − and whereby unknowingly he still moves toward the work, toward the origin of the work.
Then for Orpheus everything collapses into the certainty of failure where there remains only, as compensation, the work’s uncertainty, for is there ever a work? Before the most convincing masterpiece, where the brilliance and resolution of the beginning shine, it can also happen that we confront something extinguished: a work suddenly become invisible again, which is no longer there, has never been there. This sudden eclipse is the distant memory of Orpheus’s gaze; it is the nostalgic return to the uncertainty of the origin (emphasis added) (Blanchot, 174).

This effect of unceasing nostalgic return to the uncertainty of origin is reached by Auster creating a mise-en-abyme of metonymically shifting selves. Fogg’s de/nominalization through hunger and metonymic dispersation of his name has already been discussed, just as it has been in the case of his grandfather, Julian Barber, who magically transformed himself into Thomas Effing when disappearing in the atopian surface of a desert of signification.

With Solomon Barber (the absent Effing’s son, also Fogg’s absent father) the situation is somewhat different. As mentioned above, he disappears within the bulk of his obese body, but he also does so by constantly switching jobs moving from one small town college to the other. He also manages to make his oddball, egg-shaped appearance (only to be boosted by shaving his head bald) accaptable as a looney: "the Man Who Wore Hats"(Moon Palace 244).

The genealogical function of Solomon Barber (who stands in the middle of the chronological parental lineage and thus, seems to be a mirorring surface at first glance) is overdetermined as a mise-en-abyme, or at least, this is what an abundant number of textual indices seems to confirm. However, this chronological order is not only disrupted by the timeline of the narrative (Fogg > Effing > Barber > Fogg), but also by the different modes these shifting subjectivities synthesize a supra-organic field of synchronicity fraught with significance (an overflowing signifying event) out of the chaotic world of fragments. To put it in another way, the genealogical mirroring inherent in their parental interconnectedness is determined by how each of them interpret their own movements in the atopian desert of signification. To make the necessary distinctions between these dissimilar subjectivities, I will rely on el Moncef’s terminology of "monadic unfolding" and "nomadic self-containment" as two opposing ends of the same scale of shifting subjectivities (el Moncef, 84-85).

It has already been shown, how Effing’s subjectivities shift from the struggling painter, Julian Barber through a lunatic killer to Thomas Effing, who finds intentions, presupposed meaning and a priori presence in the desert (of his invisible masterpieces, and in his perception of Blakelock’s Moonlight.) In his first shift, his son, Solomon Barber is described in the novel as "a bulbous, egg-shaped monad plodding through the shambles of his consciuosness" (emphasis added) (Moon Palace 242). Barber’s book (as opposed to Fogg’s open-ended subjectivity of a manuscript) is not only driven by its closure (the solution of a mystery/thriller), but it is also mere pulp fiction, which abuses the reader’s most profound desire for reassuring origins. The story revolves around prelapsarian unity. Having acquired the magical powers of the Twelve transformation, Jocomin (Barber’s alterego in Kepler’s Blood) brings about the Thirteenth one, turns himslef into a woman, seduces his own son (unknowingly, of course) and from the twins they begot, the agonizing tribe will have a chance to regain life and prosperity. This restored unity is destroyed, when Kepler (Effing’s alterego) unwittingly kills his own son. Kepler’s blood as a mise-en-abyme for Solomon Barber’s text does not only represent his monadic self, but at the same time replays the drama of its constant breaking up.

Solomon Barber is always on the run, his monadic unity is kept in the state of spacial shifting (moving from one college to the other.) If we step outside of the embedded novel of Kepler’s Blood (as a mise-en-abyme for the genealogical chain of forebears from Barber’s focalized perspective), we find similar indices. The typological symbolism within the structure of Moon Palace suggests that this "egg-shaped monad" is bound to fall into pieces. The double os in Barber’s moon (signifying his version of the point de capiton created by his own shifting subjectivity) appear several times in the novel. "Barber tilted back his head and blew a perfect smoke ring int the air. Kitty and I both looked up at it in admiration, following the O as it quivered past us and slowly lost its form" (Moon Palace 276). At the climax of Fogg’s drama of losing his sanity, the reader learns of the following event: "The two eggs I was about to place in a pot of water and boil up for my daily meal slipped through my fingers and broke on the floor. (…) I felt as though a star were exploding, as though a great sun had just died. The yellow spread over the white and then began to swirl, turning into a vast nebula, a debris of interstellar gases" (Moon Palace 42). This explosion of singularity happens at the beginning of the story, long before Fogg meets any of his ancestors. At the end of the book, the very same event is retold in a figurative sense. This time the incident takes place only three days before Fogg loses the last of his three absent father figures (i.e. Uncle Victor, Effing, Barber). "The egg was slipping through my fingers, and sooner or later it was bound to drop. Barber died on September fourth, just three days after this incident in the restaurant" (Moon Palace 298).

As opposed to Fogg’s sustained effort to free himself from all systematic beliefs in monadic subjectivity, Effing and Barber, as Moncef insists, "recover their self-identity and the possibility of realizing their potential by positioning themselves at the atopian limit between the nomadic containment of the self and its nomadic deterritorialization" (el Moncef, 85) This limit is the intersection an adjacent spaces where the three subjectivities overlap in metalepsis. Effing’s metaphorical change of his name (from Julian Barber to Thomas Effing) retains some element of nominalization in his self-realization. Solomon Barber keeps his name, however, metonymical games seem continuously to overwrite his identity. Unable to remember her son’s name, Solomon Barber’s mother "addressed him as Teddy, or Malcolm, or Rob (…) or else by using strange epithets that made no sense to him: Bally-Ball, Pooh-Bah, and Mr. Jinks" (emphasis added) (Moon Palace 251). "Solly Tear, he said to himself, punning on his name" (Moon Palace 271). Despite his shifting identity, since Barber interprets the absence of his father as a motivation to restore unity (see Kepler’s Blood), it is not him but Fogg who serves as a mise-en-abyme for the triad of their genealogical selves. In his failure, Fogg as the protagonist (and antagonist) of the novel, shifts into a ghost in the deterritorialized, atopian field of signification. As a mise-en-abyme (now on the level of the characters in the plot) his shifting subjectivization is expanding both regressively and progressively along paternal lineage. Salah el Moncef confirms this by stating that Fogg condenses a "twofold articulation of the monadic-nomadic subject: intrinsic unfolding in an atopian dimension (the dimsension of virtual space in which Barber »ouze[s] out« beyond the limits of his three-dimensionality and deploys himself »where he [is] not«; extrinsic movement across the expanse of the heartland (the dimension of effective deterrirization and discovery)" (el Moncef, 85). Which latter (extrinsic) articulation is a return to Effing’s effective self-realization in the desert.

Fogg as a mise-en-abyme of his grandfather’s story works perfectly with his father. "I was able to talk about his father without censoring myself, giving the whole story of my months with Efing, the good along with the bad" (Moon Palace 250). However, the linear grand narrative of paternal lineage here is twisted into an infinite cycle, where the returning mirroring surface brought about by Fogg as a multiplied mise-en-abyme provides the linking nodes.

Instead of the linear, monadic pattern:

what we have is a loop of mise-en-abymes (the graphs bellow are intended to represent the same loop):



(Where shield ‘D’ would be
M.S. Fogg again, and so on…)

So thus, when Fogg as a connecting node containing paternal stories pars pro toto faces Barber as his direct ancestor, Barber collapses into his own mise-en-abyme, that is, into his own grave. The chain reaction of unfolding subjectivities results in a clash, an implosion of a story made possible to be told only by Fogg as a mise-en-abyme. From this moment on, Fogg is freed from the burden of carrying the weight of making all their stories communicable, and now is able to start his own peregrination into the desert after he realizes that it is not possible to return to the origin of the story. The cave where the stories of three sons and absent fathers started, the cave where the ultimate truth of Barber’s/Effing’s masterpieces is buried, has disappeared under Lake Powell forever. The only origin to which Fogg can now return to is the origin of all beginnings, the infinite possibilities inherent in every fresh start and every dark end: a continual return to the white space of emptiness, a return to the blank page of death.

V. Moon Palace as a Mise-en-Abyme



„Reluctantly, I abandoned all my witty stories, all my adventures of far-away places, and began, slowly and painfully, to empty my mind. Now emptiness is all that remains: a space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen.” (Disappearances 108)

In my study, I ventured to explore the manifold functions of mise-en-abyme implemeted in Moon Palace, a seminal novel in Paul Auster’s work. My starting point was the controversial critical reception of Auster’s oeuvre due to its deceptive compliance and persistent resistance to such widely held deconstructionalist concepts as dissemination, cancelling out, and subversion. In discussions of the mise-en-abyme first, as an ontological projection of the self, secondly, as a semiotic lacuna projecting the de/nominalization of shifting subjectivities en abyme, thirdly, as the sublime experience of limits, and finally, as a genealogical loop surrounding the missed encounter with the origin of the work, this exploration revolves around what Auster epitomizes as a white space, a blank page of death, or − in his poetry – “the naked eye” (Disappearances 110).

There are several critical concepts, metaphores that come to mind facing the music of origin and death in such a paradoxical de/territorialized locality. To name but a few, the space of literature, the Orphic space, the gaze (Maurice Blanchot), tuché, the gaze (Jacques Lacan), punctum (Roland Barthes), hibridity, the third space (Homi Bhabha), mirror stage (as interpreted by Paul de Man) and the decisive moment (Henri Cartier-Bresson) has to be enlisted here. What these differing concepts embedded in their ideosyncratic contexts have in common is that they connect the idea of an aporetic surface, movement, moment to their selfsame impulse, namely, to the act of perception.

Once again, let me quote Shostak quoting Weisenburger, who concludes "that one might argue that Fogg has found his own place in the world", but it is just as well possible, that Moon Palace is structured around "gap or absence" signifying the representational error of the gaps of representation.

Indeed, it is possible that Fogg finally succeeded in breaking the cycle of repetitions and freed himself by turning plurality into singularity (from mOOn to mOnad). It is also possible, that after the last sentence he disappears into thin air just like many of his pre/postfigurartions do in Auster’s novels. We "can’t be sure any of it" (Moon Palace 32) What is sure beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that the reader is lured, wooed into a book of questions, that jumping from a "springboard for the imagination" (The Art of Hunger 296), the reader/author disappear into the naked eye.

The drive that each and every one of Auster’s books share is a passionate desire to probe into the uncharted territory of the space of writing, a space of signification that is so close to the perceiver, that it becomes absolutely invisible. To add just another metaphor of this atopian locality, I cite Patrick Burke, who argues that "fissure" is

the gap, the separation, the differentiation between the touching and the touched, the seeing and the seen, mind and world, self and others; it is the fissure that language tries to bridge and that the philosophical methods of reflection, dialectic and intuition have historically attempted to close through their respective theories of meaning, only to ignore thereby how this »un-tamable«, at once secretly nourishes and undermines the habits of thought and experience that they sought to establish. (Burke, 84)

In Paul Auster’s poetics of absence the most important function inherent in an extended concept of the mise-en-abyme is to lure the reader into a territory that is so close no one can see it. Moon Palace as a novel in Paul Auster’s oeuvre, Moon Palace as a sign in Paul auster’s novel Moon Palace, and the Moon as a mise-en-abyme recurring despersedly everywhere in the book can be interpreted as indices of Blanchot’s Orphic space, which is really the moment when Orpheus looked back to Eurydice. Paul Auster’s extended mise-en-abyme is the space and time of "[t]his sudden eclipse (…) of Orpheus’s gaze; it is the nostalgic return to the uncertainty of the origin" (Blanchot, 173).

The differing perspectives taken by Auster’s critics can best be described as viewpoints that certainly evade any opportunity to get into dialogue with one another. Who has ever heard of ferocious critical debates between, say, Alison Russell and Jeffrey T. Nealon? Yet it is quite obvious that while Russell reads The New York Trilogy as anti-detective fiction on par with the first wave of postmodernism and such works as, for example, Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, Nealon’s comments couldn’t be farther from her views:

I want to suggest that City of Glass offers a confrontation not so much with a reading space of play and possibility − the dominant concepts in American postmodernism of the 1970s − but rather with a writing space of (im)possibility, hesitation and response to alterity, those crucial watchwords for the second wave of artistic and critical postmodernist inquiry. If, as Spanos argues, the detective-as-reader is a privileged site for understanding the first wave of destructing postmodernism, I will argue that Auster’s detective-as-writer constitutes a privileged site for understanding a slightly different impulse within postmodern American fiction (Nealon, 95).

The twofold interpretation arising from the undecidability of the novel’s closure creates an awarenesss of confronting, yet coexisting literary traditions. As Auster himself complains: “[t]he novels of Melville and Hawthorne, the stories of Poe and the writings of Thoreau for example (…) were not about sociology, which is what the novel has come to concern itself within the United States” (Varvogli, 4). The appropriation and extension of the mise-en-abyme as a constitutive figure in Paul Auster’s poetics of absence is illustrative of reasons why modernism and postmodernism seems in many respects inseparable, and why all of Paul Auster’s work pose a categorizational problem inherent in this previous statement. On this, for lack of conclusion, let us read a postmodernist Paul Auster quoting Samuel Beckett’s idea of a borderline modernism:

What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form, and that this form will be of such a type the it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. … To find a form that accomodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now (Varvogli, 14).


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