THE TRUTH OF BEING AS NON BEING
A Search for Truth within a Limited Perception
By Lauren Bush
In “The Medium of Fiction”, William H. Gass suggests, “That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking.” Here, the words put forth by Gass contrast those of Derrida highlighted by Barbara Johnson’s essay “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida”: Derrida states that while the text itself appears present, the meaning of the text remains absent. In other words, both the subject and object represent something that exists in absence. If we consider what Derrida suggests as legitimate, can any one valid reading emerge from a text? Perhaps if no one objective truth exists within the text, but exists anterior to the text, then the individual words become void of meaning. Derrida continues, “What is veiled/unveiled…is a hole, a non-being; the truth of being as non-being.” Such comments provoke the human being to question the nature of her existence: if human life exists only to illustrate the “truth of being as non being”, then any previously validated purpose for the human being becomes deconstructed.
Could Derrida’s literary analysis contradict his own ideas, in that defining the human being’s existence as “non-being” only acts as a part of a greater whole which supports a dualistic interpretation of a text? Johnson summarizes a literary analysis driven by a dualistic perception: When one unified object becomes divided through subjective reasoning, the reader cannot help but arrive at a crossroads in which the tragic comportment of the human being must be put into question. Furthermore, when abiding by a dualistic frame of reference, the reader feels compelled to decide upon affirming or negating this tragedy. Here, the image of the other could serve as a validation of identity, or contrarily, as an existence that cancels out one’s identity. Upon my reading, such a crossroads serves as a confirmation of the concept of imaginary duality, which “is characterized by its absoluteness, its independence from any accident of contingency which might subvert the unity of the terms in question.” Considering imaginary duality as an impossible occurrence, how could the human being be a “substitute for something that was never really present”, as Derrida suggests? If no underlying truth exists, then the crossroads presented in a dualistic literary interpretation becomes problematic due to the invalidation of identifying by the other. Derrida opposes literary analysis based on imaginary duality by upholding the principles of the symbolic, which refers to the entrance of otherness into the idea of identity.
Here, Derrida’s symbolic does not overturn the symmetry of imaginary duality, but the possibility of the “independent unity” of any given subject.
Similarly, Barbara Johnson investigates the correlation between a “divided unity and a duality.” Johnson asks, “is it possible to conceive of a division which would not lead to two separable parts, but only to a problematization of the idea of unity?” Here, Johnson displays how defining any collective results not in one distinguished truth, but as fragmented concepts which will continue to infinitely divide so long as such truths remains valid. This “dissemination of unity, rather than the existence of any one duality” reflects the impossibility of the human being to define herself in any terms. In like manner, the issue of duality when referring to identity sends one’s textual analysis to ponder the legitimacy of secular, specifically numerical, definitions of the human being.
Despite the fact that numbers exist only to a conceptual extent, they are often utilized in the explication of a text, and, as a result of such, used in an attempt to define the comportment of the human being. Here, a conceptual definition of the human being restricts the capacity of her true existence, or that which Derrida claims was “never really present.”
Perhaps in contrast, Derrida suggests that the human being exists in some form outside of her identity, searching for answers to reverse the division of her being. Here, the human being attempts a becoming of being, to completely unify herself from her fragmented human nature. Correspondingly, Barbara Johnson states that literature “calls out irresistibly for analysis”, encouraging the human being to accept this call and attempt “…a re-appropriating return to the place of true ownership, an indivisible identity functioning beyond the possibility of disintegration or unrecoverable loss, and a totally self-present, unequivocal meaning or truth.” In this way, literature beckons the human being not to establish objective truth, but “to sow an uncanny uncertainty about our position in the abyss.”
Johnson continues to upset the common grounds of literary analysis by suggesting “what we call a random series is, in fact, already an interpretation, not a given.” Here, Johnson suggests that these random series act not as a validation of chance, but only of something “which obeys our conception of the laws of probability.” Such statements reach out beyond literary analysis to the interaction of the human being in her reality: if no one truth becomes defined, then chance also remains undefined. Additionally, defining any truth from a subjective perception only results in an interpretation characterized by “infinite divisibility”. Johnson states, “…recognition is a form of blindness, a form of violence to the otherness of the object.” In this way, Johnson illustrates how truth may become present in a text, depending on the frame of reference used to interpret it: an infinite number of truths may exist within one text, but only a limited degree of truth becomes available from such a limited perception. Similarly, a reader may attempt to step outside of her own bias and seek truth without boundaries by stripping away her subjective perception of reality. Despite this, a reader who lacks subjectivity may not be any closer to truth than the myopic reader, for Derrida remarks that, “anything signifiable is stricken as soon as it’s raised.” In this way, both Derrida and Johnson suggest that, even if objective truth becomes present, the action of the human being projecting her own subjectivity on the object completely destroys its authenticity.
Such statements expose the reader to the subjectivity influencing any literary analysis. Derrida states that subjective perception of the object remains “an inevitable process” in the logic of reading. If we accept this as a valid statement, how does one return to the meaning of a text aside from the truths set forth by past interpretations? We must inquire further, how does this equate to the comportment of the human being? If forgetting our “indivisible identity” remains inevitable, how do we return? Upon my understanding, defining the tragic comportment of the human being within language will not result in un-comportment, but only as an illustration of non-being in terms the human being understands.
From a frame of reference characterized by Derridian views, we now must further investigate Gass’s “A Medium of Fiction.” Gass states, “To say, then, that literature is language is to say that literature is made of meanings…and that these are so static and eternal as to shame the stars.” Here, Gass illustrates the problems that arise when a reader attempts to define literature based solely on the patterns that emerge from it: just as meaning extracted from a text exists not only between the lines, but sometimes completely absent from it all together, literary analysis cannot always be defined as a cause and effect relationship. In like manner, certain symbols may arise from one particular word a number of times across a vast array of texts, but this does not always lead the reader to one collective truth. Furthermore, saying “one thing means another” creates a dependent relationship that imprisons ideas or concepts in whatever words they may be presented in. Here, the words of William H. Gass challenge those of Derrida: Gass writes, “Concepts…invade us as we read.” In this way, the human being becomes completely engulfed in language, which brings to mind the Derridian state of non-being. In this way, the human being acknowledges her meager existence by the indefinite meanings of words. Similarly, just as literature remains neither static nor definite, the comportment of the human being cannot be defined, for her existence remains confined to only language.
William H. Gass’s “A Medium of Fiction” offers insight into the nature of the human being’s present and potential existence, based on the understanding that “words mean things.” In contest, Derrida suggests that the presence of text does not equate to the presence of truth. Here, Derrida challenges the possibility of a literary analysis arriving at one objective truth amidst the cloud of subjectivity which plagues language. In concordance with such Derridian ideas, defining the tragic comportment of the human being within conceptual understanding as a frame reference becomes an unreliable path to objective truth. Furthermore, the human being’s ability to define herself while confined to her human form of non-being remains her enigmatic and ambiguous obligation, an obligation that may destroy us as we face it.
About the Author:
Lauren Bush was born in Dallas Texas in 1999. She currently attends Lakehill Preparatory School.