CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|A Resistance to Theory
Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part I of Paul Park’s “A Resistance to Theory,” published November 25, 2014.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said one of the policemen. “But you can’t stay on campus. If you just go down the hill, you’ll find …”
“No, I’ll go,” she said, wiping her nose with her handkerchief. “And thank you, officer. You saved my life back there. I don’t know what I might have …”
“That’s okay. If you just …”
It was almost dark when she did find it: a safehold, a place of refuge, a coffee shop on Main Street where an hour later she sat clutching the remains of a bran muffin, and reading for the third or fourth time the introduction to Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. But finally the man from Craigslist sauntered by the plate-glass window. He pressed his face against the glass, cupped his hands around his eyes. The rain had stopped. When he saw her, he came inside, took off his coat and hat. “May I?” She saw no sign of his revolver.
“I think I’d rather be alone.”
He shrugged, then sat down opposite her at the small, square table. He leaned across it with his elbows on the polyurethaned surface, his long hands near her plate. “That was quite the Q&A,” he said. Then he leaned closer: “Listen, I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re wrong, but you were right. I saw some manifestations, just for a moment. Just before the police showed up.”
“Please go away.”
He sighed, rubbed his long, crooked nose. “It’s humiliating. But there’s a chance. You must know who killed your adviser.”
Yvette swallowed three times before she spoke. “I did,” she confessed. “My dissertation bored her to death. She had a dozen pages with her in the bathroom.”
The man smiled. “Always a risk,” he said. “But I feel sure that was not the proximate cause. Barely a contributing factor.”
“You don’t know. You never tried to read it. Besides, the door was locked on the inside. No sign of a …”
“Sure. A locked door isn’t much of an obstacle to a creature like that.”
“And she’d been depressed. Her husband told her he was leaving.”
But Yvette knew Karen would have been honored to see Judith Butler through the peephole, let alone Julia Kristeva.
She looked out at the slick sidewalk under the streetlight. “Sure,” the man said. “Sure.”
He himself looked so mournful, momentarily, that he was almost handsome, big features, small beard, chapped lips. His hands were big, his knuckles prominent. “Look,” he said, “I’ve been mapping out what I call power nodes in the different universities, mostly in the Northeast. The oldest and the wisest ones are territorial. The one I saw, she’s not that wise, not in comparison.”
“You mean Farinelli.”
“No. God, no. Farinelli’s just a wannabe, just starting out. Butler’s the transhuman here, but I don’t think she’s made the change to full-fledged antihuman. Not yet. She won’t have had the time. She was born in 1919, made, created, you could call it, in the late thirties—maybe by Martin Heidegger, which would explain the antiSemitism. It would have come in through the blood.”
“1919 … ?”
“Sure. Hadn’t you guessed? It’s Paul de Man. We’re talking about Paul de Man.”
“Judith Butler is Paul de Man?”
He slapped his hand on the table. “That’s who you’re dealing with here. That’s why the imitation is so good. The actual transformation was at Yale in the early eighties. He must have known it was going to come out, the story of his collaboration with the Nazis during the war. He must have taken this young graduate student from Bennington, groomed her, inhabited her body—Jewish, a woman. How he must have laughed! And of course her academic work is all about performativity. Not to mention antiZionism.”
“But she’s at Berkeley,” objected Yvette. “Berkeley and Columbia. Farinelli’s the one here, isn’t she?”
“I’m not sure. I was hoping to find out this afternoon.”
She glanced away. “Well, I fixed that,” she said.
Depressed and melancholic, she picked up her book. But she had lost the thread. Nor did she care to imagine the long drive home. After several minutes she looked up. The man hadn’t gone away. He hadn’t even changed the subject. “Why are you reading that posthuman trash?” he said. “I think there’s someone else here, someone important. Maybe somebody from Frankfurt. Farinelli seems too raw to me, too young.”
Why was he staring? What did he want? She didn’t know his name, didn’t want to know it. She found herself irritated by his bossiness, his explanations: “What’s your field? Are you a poet?”
Startled, he drew back his hand. “Why do you ask?”
She put down the book. “Well, those are the battle lines, aren’t they? The Hatfields and McCoys. Plato kicked the poets out. We’re losing, in case you hadn’t noticed.” She had folded into eighths the remains of her muffin’s pleated baking slip. Now with her thumbnail she was rubbing it smooth on the surface of the table. “I was hoping you were a poet.”
His eyes were quite attractive, kind of a speckled brown. This close, she could see his contact lenses. “I think that’s an oversimplification,” he said. “Plato was a poet, too. The Republic is a piece of poetry.”
“Oversimplification is my new crusade. You think our enemies might hate themselves. Good to know. An Achilles heel, not that it gives us an advantage. For Plato, everything’s an imitation of the ideal. But does he ever say that’s bad? Maybe the imitations are always better, as it turns out.”
The man smiled. “He would have disagreed while he was alive. By now I’m sure he’s changed his mind. You could ask him. I think he’s still at Harvard. Emeritus now, finally.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’d heard the average age at Harvard for a tenured professor is a hundred and ninety-five. A lot of wisdom all around. I didn’t know Plato was skewing the numbers.”
“It would take more than that,” he murmured. Were they flirting? It was hard to tell. She decided to think so. “What are you doing here, really?” she asked. “It wasn’t to see my little disaster. Was it? I hope it was.”
Nearby, one of the waitresses was upending the chairs, placing them on tables. “Time to go,” he said.
“I’ll show you. But we have to wait for a couple of hours until the building clears out.”
“What shall we do in the meantime?” She placed her hand on top of his. “Can you think of something that might make us feel like human beings?”
He had a motel room on Route 66 a couple of miles past the campus. The sex took a long time, but she did not come. In the old days with her ex-boyfriend, she would have been okay with faking it in order to achieve her naturalized idealization—no more. No longer would she feel she had to justify a Butlerian concept of heterosexuality.
She was thinking too much about herself to find pleasure. She had helped him with the condom, making sure that he was tightly sealed. But when he pushed into her, she excited herself by imagining what it might be like to become pregnant, to experience the real deal—she loved thinking about this, in this and other contexts, but only after having first removed the possibility. This time she could not manage to sustain herself, and as the minutes passed she found his rhythmic movements had knocked something free, had liberated a series of images that had nothing to do with him or where they were, and which did nothing to comfort or pacify or fulfill her: She saw Karen Larsen in the bath of a hotel room like this one, perhaps: the same yellow walls, the water tinged with red. She had imagined this before, but now there was some other movement in the room, a quick, flitting shadow, or else a white face, briefly, in the mirror above the sink.
He took her upper lip between his lips, pulled on her nipple, but what she thought about were the figures on the steps behind her at the lecture hall. Or she imagined the innocent young face of the undergraduate seated beside her, and remembered the excitement she had once felt in the early days, puzzling over gnomic texts from the Frankfurt School—where was Adorno now? she wondered, irrelevantly. Where had he managed to hole up? And what was his lineage—Hegel via Husserl, perhaps? Could she make the dates work out? It’s lucky they were such a greedy bunch, and these cushy academic appointments were so rare. Otherwise they would have infected the whole world with critical theory. But they lived forever, or almost forever, and they didn’t want the competition.
After the man was finished, for a while he lay on top of her, his cheek against her shoulder. She liked that. He was not heavy. She brought up her hand to stroke his hair. Then he rose to take a shower, and she stretched her arms and legs out on the wide bed. He left the door open, and she listened to the water. She was thinking, again, in a series of images, a graphic-novel version of the past few years: herself, sitting in the kitchen of her Somerville apartment, barefoot, dressed in sweats, halfway through a bottle of Chardonnay, listening to a voice mail from her douchebag ex-boyfriend; herself, walking down Mass. Ave. toward her stupid job in the maternity store, hands in her pockets, stupid knitted cap on her head; herself, late at night, slumped forward in her study carrel in Mugar Library, her face pressed against her crossed forearms; herself in Karen Larsen’s Arlington house, staring across at Karen’s kind, solicitous, angelic, baffled face, as she searched for words to describe the doomed morass that was the Kristeva dissertation, the sucking, endless, teeming, bug-infested tarpit through which both of them were doomed to wander, caught in circles, until breath gave out. No, Karen had escaped, seen her chance and taken it. Only she was left, Yvette Daume, cowering on the one dry island, no one to light the way.
She’d been wrong about Butler and apparently about Kristeva too—postanthropologic after all. She listened to the man use the toilet. He hadn’t given his name and she hadn’t asked for it, perhaps as a security precaution. Whistling softly, he flushed—he was proud of himself, no doubt. She, less so. The last panel, before she closed the book, was of herself, now, spread-eagled on this bed, the sheet pulled up over her big thighs. She must look terrible, she decided, her face blotched and streaked.
She took an instant to remember more precisely the young man at the lecture, the student, his black glasses, his earnest face. What if she were with him now, listening to his sounds in the bathroom? Maybe she would have been able to share something more with him. Maybe she would have been able to teach him something as he lay in her arms, his unshaved cheek against her breast. Maybe he might have had performativity issues, and she could have consoled him, though not in Butlerian terms—she was done with that. Never again. She could have explained some things, and if he’d said, “One could critique that,” she could have gone: No, just think about it. Fuck critiquing it. And if he’d said, “I want to address how we frame the question,” then she might have gone: No, if you want to do that, do it for a minute afterward, and not for very long. If you try it before, it ruins everything. You want to answer the question before you frame it, let alone address the frame. He would have nodded, thoughtful, and she would have felt the movement on her breast.
But what if he had said, “Is what’s false an imitation of what’s real? Or is it the other way?” What would she have said?
Now the actual man came in from the bathroom and smiled down at her. He often smiled, which irritated her. “Get ready,” he said. “It’s time to make a foray.” He paused, scratched his arms, smelled his fingers, rubbed his nose. “This afternoon was just a reconnoiter.” Then, after a pause: “I could be wrong about this.”
She hadn’t seen the gun since the lecture, but now she did, a long, antique revolver as if from a John Ford Western. He put on his pants and strapped the holster to the outside of his leg. He didn’t turn on the lamp. Light came from the open bathroom door, and from a lantern by the office door outside, filtered through gauze curtains. “Different colleges have different what you might call nests of activity. Here it’s in the Comp. Lit. department. That’s where the measurements are outside normal levels. I’ve been studying the plans for Fisk Hall, where they have their offices.”
“There’s no Comp. Lit. at Wesleyan,” she said.
He smiled. “Not officially. It’s a secret program.”
Irritated and embarrassed, she rolled out of bed, covering her breasts with her crossed arms. “Please turn around.” She never liked men to watch her get dressed. He stood observing her. He had dimples. She turned away from him and sat down on the side of the bed, facing the window, to put on her brassiere. “For crying out loud.”
“A little privacy,” she said, buttoning her blouse.
When she stood up, he was all business. He turned on the overhead light. Then he went out the door and she watched him open the trunk of his car. He brought in some blueprints rolled in an architect’s case, and spread one of them out on the surface of the bed, away from the wet spot. He dragged the bedclothes down, pushed them onto the floor. “This is the floor plan,” he said. “Fisk Hall is on College and High Streets. I cased it earlier. I don’t have much to suggest. But Farinelli has her office here, above the Language Resource Center.” He paused. “Didn’t she say she was in Anthropology? That’s clear on the other side of Wyllys. Two hundred and seventy-six feet away.”
She was still pissed at him. “Suspicious.”
He shrugged. “That’s all I’ve got. Like I said, I don’t think she is the only one. I was going to go over there and look around.” He’d been bending over the bed, his finger on the plan. Now he glanced up at her. “You want to come?”
Really? she thought. For this he brought a blueprint in a fancy case? On the other hand, of course she wanted to go with him. That was why she had had sex with him: not to be left behind. Not to drive two hours back to Boston, up I-84 and to that vacant exit. At least not right away.
They put their coats on and got back into the car. On High Street it had begun to snow, a few whirling flakes. Past nine o’clock, they sat in the parked car and waited for the lights to go out on the top floor. “That’s her office,” he said. “Fourth from the corner.”
It was nice sitting in the car with him. She reached over to squeeze his hand. “Should we go up?” he asked.
“Don’t look at me. I’m banned from campus.”
They talked about other stuff as well. Personal things. She teased him: “How do you know so much?”
He hesitated. “It’s my girlfriend. She teaches at U. Conn. She was up for this job—Farinelli’s job. They brought her for an interview, a campus talk. No chance. The wise ones have it wired up.”
“Get rid of the undead wood. Give someone else a shot.”
She let go of his hand. “You have a girlfriend?”
The streets were deserted, dark. Eventually the light went out in Professor Farinelli’s office, and in a few more minutes they saw her standing on the steps, peering up and down the street. Nor was it crazy or paranoid to think that she seemed nervous, ill at ease. She pulled up the faux leopard-skin lapels of her overcoat and crossed between the cars, catty-corner toward Wyllys Avenue and the president’s house. Then she crossed to the other side where three small college buildings stood in a row, and stood for a moment outside the middle one, which was dark. She smoked part of a cigarette, flicked it away. Again glancing around her, she stepped onto the porch, unlocked the door, and slipped inside.
“Gosh,” the man said. “I didn’t think anyone ever went in there. That’s some kind of secret-society house.” He jumped out of the car and ran across the street. By the time Yvette was able to follow him, he was already on the porch, pounding on the door.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she came up the walk. The building was an old one, perhaps mid-nineteenth century, with stone lintels. It was windowless, at least on this side. He was hitting the door with slow, powerful strokes, and he had his gun in his right hand. “What are you doing?” she repeated. But if he had a plan, she never found it out; the door opened. Professor Farinelli had taken off her hat and gloves. She stood partially in silhouette, the bulk of the light behind her, a soft, amber glow. But now Yvette was close enough to see a number of details she had missed that afternoon in Crowell Hall—the woman was far younger than she’d thought, perhaps a couple of years out of graduate school. And close up she was luminously beautiful, a cloud of light around her red-gold hair. And stylishly dressed, and also supernaturally quick: She’d been expecting someone, perhaps, and her tense, artificial smile had turned immediately to astonishment and then something else, a look of furious determination. Before the man could raise his hand she’d reached across the threshold, thrust her lacquered nails into his throat, pulled him forward into the chamber; he stumbled to his knees. Yvette received a quick impression of the grotesque, sucking mouth, posthuman, transhuman, antihuman, who could tell? It was the complexity of these distinctions that made modern critical theory so infuriating. Yvette had her stiletto out now, and as Farinelli bent over the man’s breast she stabbed her through the back of the neck with the silver blade. She stepped inside the room and shut the door and leaned her back against it, surveying what she’d done.
The man, of course, was dead. She hadn’t even seen how that had happened. Farinelli’s mouth was open and her breath was rough. Yvette had severed her spinal column as Professor Larsen had taught her, a single stroke and then a twist of the blade, as they’d practiced during breaks. It was a myth that the creatures couldn’t die, and Karen had told her to pay attention to what happened next, the transformation. She stood with her hands behind her, and again her mind had migrated to her mountain cleft, from which she could look down and examine the sprawled figure of the man, Farinelli’s fingers still locked in his throat. And then there, as if far below her, lay the creature herself, flopping listlessly, a subtle haze obscuring her body, clinging like a mist to her yellow cashmere sweater, her bare shoulders. She must have stripped off her overcoat as soon as she had stepped inside.
The door behind Yvette was heavy and dark. She raised her arms now and grabbed hold of something above her, a sigil carved into the surface. Below her, Farinelli writhed and twitched as her flesh receded, as her arms and legs dried into brittle sticks. Yvette could see the sinews coursing down her neck as the submerged fat melted from her acromion and scapula. Her tongue withered in her mouth, and Yvette could hear, disappearing as if on the wind, her final words, a garbled remnant of something she had said that afternoon: “Through a discussion of bodily suffering, I see eroticism as integral to a deconstruction … a dissolution of the subject …”
And that was that. The creature, ancient, a dry, disassembled, deconstructed husk, was dead. Yvette had been jabbing the point of the stiletto into the wood behind her, while with her left hand she had grabbed hold of the skull-and-serpent sigil above her head. Now she let go and stepped away from the entwined figures, farther into the room. Stiletto clutched, she made a circuit of the chamber, examining the mix of gothic and modern furnishings: glass-fronted cabinets, partial skeletons, stuffed animals, ripped armchairs and sofas around a flat-screen TV, a litter of Xboxes and PS3s—gamer’s grotto meets high Victorian camp. She saw a number of books, poststructuralist classics, backs broken, facedown, strewn about on the scarred coffee table amid the dirty cups: The Gift of Death, Empire of Signs, Hatred and Forgiveness, A Taste for the Secret, The Pleasures of Repetition. Paul de Man’s The Resistance to Theory was among them, the pages decorated with coffee rings. Light came from a low brass lamp with a beaded shade, which left the far recesses of the chamber in obscurity. But now Yvette could see something moving back there, something spread out on the surface of a table or makeshift altar: marble top, mahogany veneer.
She took her time. She imagined leaving this place, shutting the door, walking down the hill again to find her car parked on Main Street in front of the bank. She had to work in the morning at the maternity store in Sommerville. That wasn’t the worst thing, was it, under the circumstances? She examined her feelings, while at the same time she took little steps that brought her closer to the table under the blocked-up window, where among the tarnished candelabra she could see the desiccated figure of a man, curled up on himself and the narrow surface, chained down, she saw, with iron cuffs—that was the sound she’d heard.
His head was hairless, an animated skull. She leaned down to hear him speak, the soft words unintelligible, because her German never had been good. But he must have smelled her; now he opened his eyes and the words came clear, his accent thick at first, then dwindling. “She’s starving me. I was the one who hired her, over some objections I may say. The decision was not unanimous. And now what has she done? Please,” he whispered, and she could see his delicate nostrils flare. “I am so hungry. So … thirsty.”
Yvette brought up the stiletto and laid it across his bare esophagus, just has Karen had shown her. But then she hesitated. And perhaps he could sense the hesitation: “You,” he said. “Please, please. I have under my control a two-year postdoc, what you say. Or if your dissertation is not finished, perhaps we could arrange something … under my supervision. The stipend is … quite generous …”
“What’s the teaching load?” she whispered, her breath as soft as his.
“Teaching …,” he said, almost too weak to continue, until she brought her wrist up to his lips, and allowed his little, childlike mouth to fasten onto it. After a moment she could feel his rough, probing tongue.
Paul Park is the author of twelve novels in a variety of genres, as well as a volume of short stories. He lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, where he teaches writing and literature at Williams College. He is developing a resistance to theories of all kinds.