‘Resisting Pathos: Probable Suicide in Ann Quin’

‘Resisting Pathos: Probable Suicide in Ann Quin’

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  1 Introduction During the August bank holiday in 1973, the British avant garde writer, Ann Quin, walked out into the sea off the coast at Brighton and drowned. This has since been widely read as suicide. Written ten years before, Quin’s 1966 book, Three,  seems to almost anticipate its author’s death. It narrates the conversations and reminiscences of its two living protagonists, the married couple Leonard and Ruth, as they attempt to come to terms with the death and assumed suicide  –  also by drowning at sea  –  of a young woman only ever referred to as S, who lived with them for a while. The book consists of an experimental composite of third person narrative sections together with the different journal forms of each of its protagonists, including S. Below, I describe some of the ways in which the effects of and urge towards suicide are addressed in the book. I begin by referring to Freud’s notion of the death drive to suggest parallels between psychoanalysis and literature in terms of their utilisation of the apparently determining role of the desire for death. I then consider the representation and implications of first; the relationship between death and authorship in Three  , and second; the role of repetition and foreshadowing. Finally, I consider the effects of parody and humour together with the book’s ultimate refusal of determinism. Throughout, my reading thus establishes the ways in which Quin’s writing here both seems to give in to and resist the reductive trap of pathos in its representation of the re lationship between a woman’s writing and her (probably) suicidal act. In this way, my discussion here is concerned with how the writing of suicide may provide a way of thinking about how to resist or refuse stereotyping. The literary death drive  2 Freud begins his theory of the death drive with anecdote. He narrates his observations of his grandson’s play when the child’s mother is ‘ fort  ’ (gone) . The boy throws ‘a wooden reel with some string tied around it’ ‘over the edge of his curtained cot’ so that it disappears inside, his action accompanied by a mournful ‘‘o -o-o- o’ sound’. He then uses ‘the string to pull the reel out of the cot again’ greeting it with a ‘joyful Da  ! ’ (here) . The game is repeated whenever the mother is absent; although Freud notes th at ‘this first act’ of absenting ‘was tirelessly repeated on its own’ . 1  he then asks why the child repeats a seemingly meaningless act, and concludes that the child is attempting to ‘abreact the intensity of the experience’ through repetition in order to b ecome ‘so to speak master of the situation’ . 2  He recognises the need to ‘fill time’, to meaning make, in his mother’s absence and until her return. The child’s ‘staging’ of the tragic drama of the ‘disappearance - reappearance scenario’, whereby he re-enacts    the trauma ‘ himself  ’ 3   (and so becomes ‘narrator’ of that story), acts as an analogy for Freud’s more fully develop ed concept of the death drive. In Freud’s story of his grandson’s game he observes ‘the mysterious masochistic    tendencies of the ego’ , 4  whic h manifest in the compulsion to repeat ‘self  - harmful’ behaviours. The series of arguments that follow in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ are comprised of various attempts to reconcile the proposed dominance of the sexual and life drives with the ‘evidence’   offered by ‘biological’ tendencies towards death. 5  Freud ’s conclusion is that the life drives will ultimately be dominated by the death drives, because, as he puts it ‘ the goal of all life is death  ’ . 6  Put simply, life is a distraction, structured on a rep etitive attempt at mastery, on the way to one’s own permanent absence in death. In the case of self-destruction, Freud says that the self takes a ‘short cut to its life’s goal (to short - circuit the system as it were)’ 7 : the  3 killing off of the whole self is the ultimate symbol for both the dominance of the death drive and an attempt at mastery. But, what has the form and content of the psychic death drive got to do with literary analysis? In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, not only does Freud’s self  -consciousness as a writer draw attention to the literary nature of his text, but specifically, it is the textuality   of the repeated act itself that captures his attention. Maud Ellman has it that ‘i n the fort/da   game, it is specifically the element of drama that alerts Freud to the presence of the death drive’ : this ‘drama’ of repetition, which signifies textuality, ‘also underlies the drama of analysis’ . 8  More specifically, other critics approach the literary potential of the death drive in terms of the function of repetition and the role of ends in narrative plotting. The death drive, in its insistence on the potency of repetition   as well as on the resolving effect of the end, recalls narrative plot: ‘what operates in the text through repetition is the death in stinct, the drive towards the end’ . 9  This provides a parallel for the compulsion to read. The end of the narrative is desired because we anticipate the larger significance events will be given by their conclusion and termination. In this way, both narrative drive and death drive are shaped by the structuring presence of what is to come. Peter Brooks makes this link explicit when he says: ‘narrative has something to do with time-boundedness, and plot is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality. ’ 10  This agrees with Walter Benjamin’s claim that ‘[d]eath is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death’. 11  In the case of suicide, or self-destruction, Benjamin’s interpretation suggests that the person be comes storyteller of his or her own life: ‘his real lif  e  –  and this is the stuff that stories are made of  –  first assumes transmissible form at the moment of  4 his death’ . 12  In this way, the event of death could be seen to impart authority on an individual’s life-story. Significantly here, life is only completed, and hence made transmissible, at the moment of death and the dead body is the text that remains. Thus, as a text itself concerning the textuality of death, Freud’s ‘speculation’ can be seen to be ‘thick with literary significance and potential’ . 13  It is thus an apt literary interpretive tool bound up with literature as much as psychoanalysis. Death and authorship in  Three    I become almost a shadow. The kind that extends up the wall, across the ceiling, dwindles gradually into other shadows. 14   Three   opens with a newspaper article concerning a possible suicide: ‘ A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window  ’. 15   This beginning announces the narrative’s obsession with uncertainty and death: a preoccupation most manifest in the absence and probable suicide of S: as Ruth puts it: ‘I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch’. 16  This death then, as the narrative’s significant ‘moment’ , is also an event shrouded in uncertainty and absence. It is the event that Ruth and Leonard obsessively return to in conversation throughout the book; a continual return which is mirrored in the book’s structures.  This absence and uncertainty directly engage with the problems death places on articulation and serves as a trope for the relation of the writing process to death in general. In Over Her Dead Body  , Elisabeth Bronfen reminds us that the act of writing only ever renders present a shadow of what is absent. 17  She posits that the act of writing presupposes, or is itself an act that confirms loss and absence. In this sense, the written word is always a matrix of presence and absence, because writing necessarily absents what it names. In addition, not only does the presence of a text  5 always denote an absence or negation of the writing subject, but in the case of death, there is a particular gap between language and the linguistic signifier. Death, as the dissolution of the self, can only be articulated in relation to the self, either in presence when looking forward to death, or retrospectively in absentia, interpreted by the surviving subjects. In Three  , S persuasively represents this matrix in her dominating absent-presence throughout the narrative. The narrative ‘begins’ when S is dead and ‘ends’ when she is approaching death: throughout, she is absent in real terms. Nonetheless, her ‘voice’ is absolutely central to the narrative in the constant presence and dominance of her journals over other narrative methods . The memory of her living presence and the ‘fact’ of her dead absence, haunt and disturb the lives and desires of the other characters, Leonard and Ruth, throughout. This paradox of S’s simultaneous presence and absence is one of the circularities of the plot. Here S can be seen to embody Freud’s connection between a person who is gone ( fort  )  –  an absence signifying death  –  and the desire for their return. More specifically, throughout the book S’s  written journal suggests that even while alive she already desired and narrated a foreshadowing of her own absence. In this, S simultaneously asserts and denies her presence: ‘I bec ome almost a shadow’ . This metamorphosis from ‘I’ into a shadow that ‘dwindles gradually into other shad ows’ is towards the absent signifier of previous presence. Further, this dissolution is something S desires as a self-determined act, in which she desires to become author and protagonist in the narrative of her life. Thus, she imagines her death as an art iculate act: ‘My certainty shall be their confusion’ 18 . In this way, S’s self-destruction is a form of authorship with her own life, an act she feels in control of through repeated thinking about and planning the forthcoming and supposedly
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