- 1 Welcome to Hard Times (the western genre revisited) in 1960 and Big as Life (a science-fiction nov (...)
1In The Book of Daniel, Doctorow’s third novel1, published in 1971, the narrator is an orphan who tries through his narrative to rehabilitate his parents who are fictionalized re-creations of the Rosenbergs, renamed Isaacsons. Daniel’s narrative reshapes the past making central what had previously been marginalized by the dominant historical discourse. The novel is hard to categorize for it draws on many traditions such as the Bildungsroman, the historical novel or the essay as it is supposedly Daniel’s PhD dissertation and it springs backward and forward in time from the fifties to the sixties. Daniel tries to find meaning to the void left by his parents, he is on a quest for a truth that constantly eludes him for Mindish, the only witness and main accuser at his parents’ trial, is, at the time of his writing, a senile man who spends most of his time in the fairy-tale universe of Disneyland.
- 2 This is Nebuchadnezzar’s threat, Chapter Two. Among all the different stories composing the biblic (...)
2Daniel Isaacson frames his narrative with The Book of Daniel: the first epigraph and the final words of the novel quote passages from the Old Testament. The biblical character he identifies with was an interpreter of dreams for a cruel king who tended to forget his dreams. Daniel therefore needed to recreate the dream before interpreting it. Should he fail, he risked death, for the king threatened to cut him and his friends in pieces2. Referring thus to this specific biblical passage stresses interpretation as a matter of life or death and, in Doctorow’s novel, Daniel, the ever-dissatisfied interpreter, lives, whereas his past-oriented and catatonic sister Susan dies.
3This analysis describes how Daniel, from an imaginary position of mastery, starting with a wish to rehabilitate his parents, gradually comes to understand, through the process of writing, that no absolute truths are available, and thus becomes a subject.
- 3 This idea is clearly formulated in Doctorow’s next novel Ragtime (1975): “It was evident to him th (...)
- 4 It corresponds to the style of the biblical source which alternates between first- and third-perso (...)
4Daniel goes through endless realignments of vision3 that allow him to re-adjust and adapt to society. The many-faceted, polyphonic voice of the text revisits his past through different angles and positions. From the start his voice hesitates between “I” and “he,”4 and he interpolates past and present. More than simply divided, Daniel is fragmented: he explores all possible positions: from extreme distance to closeness, and his narrative ranges from autobiography to history book, from journal to dissertation.
5Doctorow said about The Book of Daniel:
It was the characters and their complexity that moved me - the historical intersection of social and personal agony, history moving in Daniel, shaping his own pathology-[...] Daniel breaks himself down constantly to reconcile himself to what is happening and what has happened to him. (McCaffery 39)
6Daniel is on a quest to fill the moral and affective void left by the execution of his parents, trying to recover truth as a substitute The book opens with a journey, with Daniel and his wife hitch-hiking, on their way to visit Susan in the psychiatric hospital.
Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Massachussetts […] the early morning traffic was wondering - I mean the early morning traffic was light, but not many drivers could pass them without wondering who they were and they were going (3)
- 5 This shows in the metonymies: “thumbed” and “wondering”.
7Daniel is first described from the outside: a third person narrator pictures him in a state of dependency on the external world5, before the “I” suddenly emerges and the perspective shifts inward. The “I” intervenes in order to clarify the rather puzzling “wondering trafic” of the beginning. The voice thereupon stops, leaving a blank reinforced by the absence of punctuation. His attempt to rephrase fails to bring the truth nearer. There follows a passage showing Daniel in the act of writing, in a library, and the same shift of perspective appears: “This is Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browsing Room. Books for browsing are on the shelves. I sit at a table with a floor lamp at my shoulder.” (3). The inside/outside pattern is further emphazised in repetitions of words and recurring syntactic structures. Daniel goes back and forth looking for the “right way to start” his narrative, wandering between different possibilities. Looking for the truthful perspective, the adequate distance between himself and the world, he alternatively speaks and is spoken, he’s only a shifter and he fails to find a satisfying starting point for his narration.
8Using various voices and relying on a variety of literary genres, Daniel tries to master the world around him. He is locked in an imaginary position which is expressed in his fits of violence towards his wife or his child. A rather violent sexual act follows the initial scene of Daniel in the process of writing in the library. He is depicted as dominant and even sadistic:
So the phone is winding up to ring and here is soft Phyllis from Brooklyn suffering yet another penetration and her tormentor Daniel gently squeezing handfuls of soft ass while he probes her virtue, her motherhood, her vacuum, her vincibles, her vat, her butter tub, and explores the small geography of those distant island ranges, that geology of gland formations, Stalinites and Trotskyistes, the Stalinites grow down from the top, the Trotskyistes up from the bottom, or is it the other way around - and when we cannot be many moments from a very cruel come that is when the phone rings. It is the phone ringing. The phone. I believe it is the phone. (6)
9What is most salient in the passage, especially through the use of increasingly vulgar terms to describe his wife’s anatomy, is this age-old idea of a feminine nature that can be controlled by masculine scientific knowledge - that is to say an imaginary position of potency.
- 6 His narrative is composed of different voices (splits of his own, plus those of relatives) and int (...)
10Although he feels dominant, it is a rather indistinct inner world he voices6 and tries to escape from. When he describes his mentally-ill sister Susan, just days before she commits suicide, what he gives prominence to is the blurring of boundaries between self and other:
Ah Susy, my Susyanna, what have you done? You are a dupe of the international moralist propaganda apparatus ! They have made a moral speed freak out of you ! They have wrecked your hair and taken away your granny glasses and dressed you in the robe of a sick person. Oh, look at what they’ve done, Susan, look at what they’ve done to you— (10)
11Identification with the Isaacsons proved fatal to his sister Susan who completely cut herself off from the world and has inflicted on herself the death sentence of her parents. Therefore Daniel feels it is his duty to resist: on the one hand resist the system that deprived him of his parents, and on the other he must also resist identifying with his parents, for they were maladjusted to society, and, as such, are inadequate role-models.
- 7 “A strong electric current is applied by means of electrodes fastened to the scalp earlobes should (...)
12Daniel is therefore locked in an impossible position, a misfit, victimized by an hostile world. Electricity appears as a metaphor of this repressive system. It corresponds to his parents’ death but is also a recurring motif of oppression and violence throughout the novel. It is, for instance, the power source of Disneyland, the land of the imaginary, that Doctorow locates somewhere between Buchenwald and Belsen (285). It is also used for Susan’s shock therapy.7
- 8 This technique will be clearly stated in Ragtime through the representations of Theodore Dreiser a (...)
13At first, Daniel fights a system he considers most cruel and unfair, based on victimization. As critic Arthur Saltzman has noted, “Daniel hopes to surround and overwhelm the truth; his asides, associations, and digressions may be likened to military tactics, by which he means to outflank the truth before it can elude him.” (88). He plays with generic categories interweaving historical narrative, romance, poetry and nonsense. His imploding narrative proceeds through the introduction of non-fictive texts. For instance, the book is peppered with more or less reliable quotes from historians, documents concerning the Isaacson-Rosenberg case, or information about various forms of torture. Daniel mixes fiction and history, underlining their discursive and narrative dimension, constantly emphasizing the fact that reality is construed. His violent dynamics of transgression takes the shape of constant shifts8 of perspective in order to destroy all frames of reference. He tries to attain the truth he thinks they seek to hide.
14Daniel, in his attempt to master the outside world, also represents his reader, blurring the boundaries between narrator and narratee. The representation of the reader, only suggested at first in the shape of simple interrogations, influences his writing which, he gradually realises, proves inadequate from the start compared to the intensity of the experience.
But how would I get this scene to record Phyllis’ adenoidal prettiness (6)
And if the first glimpse people have of me is this, how do I establish sympathy? If I want to show disaster striking at a moment that brings least credit to me, why not begin with the stacks, Daniel roaming through the stacks, searching, too late, for a thesis. (7)
15Daniel then introduces the voice of a rather hostile reader who interrupts him, asking for explanation. This metafictional insertion of the reader’s voice further destabilizes the text. Daniel is alternatively writer and interpreter. This mock-interaction is another way to overwhelm the external world in representing what belongs to another ontological level. He tries to grasp the meaning outside the text, to go through the barriers in order to control the central and magnetic void. The reader-in-the-text mirrors Daniel’s own claims to truth, refusing to accept his incomplete and therefore frustrating narrative:
You’ve got these two people in the poster, Daniel, now how you going to get them out? And you’ve got a grandma you mention once or twice, but we don’t know anything about her. And some colored man in the basement - what is that all about? What has that got to do with anything? (42-3)
16The passage ends on an empty signifier and a question mark, thus opening up the text, as if Daniel were gradually losing faith in the possibility that his narrative can reveal a sustaining truth about his parents.
17This insertion of the reader’s voice is a way for Daniel to pretend he’s manipulating the text when, in fact, he may just be groping his way through an incoherent inner world. These apostrophes could be calls to the reader, the unknown all-powerful other who will give his narrative meaning, for Daniel’s feelings swing between mastery and despair. In his attempt to master reality, he exposes what he seeks to hide - that is, his inner void: his frustration and shortcomings.
18All the distances he experiences through writing, from self-effacement to division, enable him to rebuild the past and himself, escaping from the rigid positions once fatal to his sister Susan. He gradually realises that the present is unattainable and that the past can only be perceived through the mediation of subjective texts.
19Part of Daniel’s narrative recounts the trial of the Rosenbergs-Isaacsons, trying to show the absurd character of this definite judgement. Through this case he questions the credibility of the law:
The difference between Socrates and Jesus is that no one has ever been put to death in Socrates’ name. And that is because Socrates’ ideas were never made law.
There could be no law without trial. Trial is the point of the law. (184)
An Altar for the judge, a lesser altar for the lawyers. Like some kind of church. Banks and churches and courtrooms all depend on the appartenances of theater. On illusion. Banks, the illusion of stability and honorable dealings to hide the rot and corruption of capitalist exploitation. Churches the illusion of sacred sanctuary for purposes of pacifying social discontent. Courtrooms of justice designed to promote the illusion of solemn justice. (197-8)
- 9 To use Doctorow’s terminology, in “For the Artist’s Sake,” (15). This formulation also appears in (...)
20The law is just another man-made illusion, an “armory around nothingness,”9 only hiding a central void. But, it is all we have, Daniel realises, there is no possible escape from the system. This is expressed in a rather Orwell-like manner:
I am beginning to be intolerant of reformers. [...] I am beginning to be nauseated by men of good will. We are dealing here with a failure to make connections. The failure to make connections is complicity. Reform is complicity.
It is complicity in the system to be appalled with the moral structure of the system. (226-7)
21Ironically, challenging the system, he realizes, only just strengthens its presence. What he gradually comes face to face with is the illusion of meaning, the fallibility and imperfections of the symbolic order. This shows in the mock-historical tone he sometimes adopts in order to undermine rationalizing perspectives.
- 10 The first part of the sentence is repeated five times (23-5).
Many historians have noted an interesting phenomenon in American life in the years immediately after a war. (23)10
22The sort of universal and eternal truth historians of his days are satisfied with, Daniel refuses, for he sees it as both an illusion and a form of oppression. We could also say that, through these attacks on historicism, he wishes to undermine its central concern, that is to say the concept of Man. What is stressed in The Book of Daniel is the fragmented nature of the self, which is an ideological construct dependent on language. And nothing can possibly transcend the discourse in which it is expressed.
23Uncertainty and doubt gradually invade the text, which constantly turns backs on itself to the point of questioning language itself, highlighting its arbitrary nature: Daniel, for instance, pretends to forget the spelling of some words:
In any event, my mother and father, standing in for them, went to their deaths for crimes they did not commit. Or maybe they did commit them. Or maybe my mother and father got away with false passports for crimes they didn’t committ. How do you spell comit? Of one thing we are sure. Everything is elusive. God is elusive. Revolutionary morality is elusive. Justice is elusive.Human character. Quarters for the cigarette machine. (42)
24All structures that shape reality are questioned: linear time, the treacherous narrator shaping his text. Linear time is a form of oppression he tries to resist by breaking down the chronology, first through flashbacks, then through incoherencies: the chronology is not worth reconstructing, the reader discovers, for it is mistaken, a fact he sometimes underlines:
I was born in Washington, D.C., but I remember no home before Weeks Avenue in the Bronx.We moved there in 1945 when I was four years old. Or maybe in 1944 when I was five years old. (95)
What is most monstrous is sequence. When we are there why do we withdraw only in order to return? Is there nothing good enough to transfix us? [...] If the flower is beautiful why does my baby son not look at it forever? [...] The monstrous reader who goes on from one word to the next. The monstrous writer who places one word after another. The monstrous magician. (246)
25He stresses the temporal condition of both reading and writing, that is: the fact that they are framed by an arbitrary structure, and that it is impossible to fix a present truth. Daniel’s initial motivation was to unravel a truth that was perhaps hiding at the crossroads of all the different interpretations. He was moved by the detective motive of determining his parents’ guilt or innocence, but the writing process made it irrelevant: he has explored the frames without being able to break them, but doing so has revealed their illusory and flawed nature. All his revisions have proved unsatisfying, perception of the real is dependent on an imperfect code.
26The only truth attainable is to expose the void lurking behind illusions. There is no mystery, no supreme text that can be deciphered, and it is no coincidence that he alludes to Edgar Allan Poe as the “archetype traitor”:
Examples abound. But historians of early America fail to mention the archetype traitor, the master subversive Poe, who wore a hole into the parchment and let the darkness pour through. This is how he did it: First he spilled a few drops of whiskey just below the Preamble. To this he added the blood of his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia, whom he had married and who haemorrhaged from the throat. He stirred these fluids in a small, elliptically stressed circle with the extracted tooth of the dead Ligeaia. Then added some raven droppings. A small powerful odor arose from the Constitution; there was a wisp of smoke which exploded and quickly turned mustard yellow in color. When Poe blew this away through the resulting aperture in the parchment the darkness of the depths rose, and rises still from that small hole all these years incessantly pouring its dark hellish gases like soot, like smog, like the poisonous effulgence of combustion engines over Thrift and Virtue and Reason and Natural Law and the Rights of Man. It’s Poe, not those other guys. He and he alone. It’s Poe who ruined us, that scream from the smiling face of America. (177)
27This rather extensive allusion to Poe is the sign that Daniel is giving up his romantic ideals, his promethean self. Progressively, Daniel’s aim evolves: truth, absolute and total as he imagined it, he now sees as dangerous. This is made obvious by the character of Susan who is petrified in a definite interpretation, a refusal to adjust:
In Susan resides the fateful family gift for having definite feelings. Always taking stands, even as a kid. A moralist, a judge. This is right, that is wrong, this is good, that is bad. (9)
My sister is dead. She died of a failure of analysis. (301)
- 11 “IS IT SO TERRIBLE NOT TO KEEP THE MATTER IN MY HEART, TO GET THE MATTER OUT OF MY HEART, TO EMPTY (...)
- 12 Hence the following passages about heart transplants: “Recently in Houston, Texas, surgeons implan (...)
- 13 They describe the radio as “the lie box” (39) and listening to it as “the ritual of eating your he (...)
28Filled with rage, burdened by ghosts of the past, seeking justice, Susan wants a total rehabilitation of her parents, she wants a Foundation in their name as a means to redeem them. Daniel on the other hand wants to explore the past and make meaningful connections instead of “keeping the matter in his heart”11. Susan, on the contrary, retreats into herself, a state Daniel describes as “Starfish”, the forgotten 13th Zodiac sign that “referred to the wedding in the heart of the five senses. It implied the unification of all feelings. Belief was joined with intellect, language with truth, and life with justice” (250). This is a state of radical self-sufficiency, an image of deathly narcissism. Daniel, unlike his sister, tries to find an intermediate position between total rejection of and total subjection to both the raging idealist heart12 he inherited from his parents13 and the external world that calls for some conformity.
- 14 It is also the case of all the radicals Doctorow represents, as is it expressed quite clearly in t (...)
- 15 Hence the allusion (60-1) to the surrealist film “An Andalusian Dog” (Buñuel and Dali, 1928).
29Through the character of Susan, stagnation is equated with death14. Unlike his sister, Daniel chooses a dynamic attitude of permanent criticism and increasingly tries to fight his underlying wish for stability, permanence and unity. Daniel tries to resist annilihating truths, hence, he tries to reintroduce play in language and thus to break down habitual mechanisms of perception,15 introducing texts where the emphasis lies not on depth or message but on pure pattern.
I say if this be treason make the most of it!
If this bee is tristante make the mort of it
If this be the reason make a mulch of it
If this brie is in season drink some milk with it
If this bitch is teasing make her post on it
If this boy is breathing make a ghost of him (168)
30Ironically, nonsense is soon turned back into meaning. Language stands as an insuperable barrier to truth, freedom and absolute knowledge. This appears again when Daniel turns the Buddhist meditation “omm” into the electrical unit, emphasizing thus the invisible and inescapable repression language imposes on us.
what is it that you can’t see but you can feel
what is it that you can’t taste and can’t smell and can’t touch
but can feel
ohm ohm ohm ohm ohm
what is it that you can’t feel but you look as if you do
what is it that can’t move unless you put something in its way
What is it that moves through others, comes from the sky
and is invisible, can only be detected after it’s gone –– not
God, not the Lone Ranger
ohm ohm ohm ohm
What makes you smell when you touch it, blacken when you
feel it, die when you taste it.
What is it that lightens the life of man and comforts his winters
and sings that he is the master of the universe; until he sits
- 16 Chapter Five of the biblical Book of Daniel.
31This insertion of rather cryptic texts that rely on sound or rhythm, the typography of which shows many blanks, corresponds to a focus on the void as the novel unfolds. Daniel’s quest thus ends when he finds his parent’s main accuser, Selig Mindish, now stricken with Alzheimer, who spends most of his time in Tomorrow Land, Disneyland. This sham world is “shaped like a womb” (285), surrounded by a “replica 19th-century railroad line” (285), full of “cultural artifacts” (288), and “proposes [...] a mindless thrill, like an electric shock, that insists at the same time on the recipient’s rich psychic relation to his country’s history and language and literature.” (289). The void, the initial lack in the individual, and the failure of the symbolic order appear thus as the only truth attainable: nothing lies behind the “writing on the wall.”16
32The end of the novel takes us back to the beginning, to the opening scene in the library, where one of the students says to Daniel: “don’t you know you’re liberated?” (302). He is liberated, we are told, that is, he has acquired subjectivity and a relative autonomy, and that has allowed him to enter the world of language and culture. Daniel has accepted his state of fragmentation, that he is contextualized. This appears in the list he proposes as a categorization for his book.
DANIEL’S BOOK: A Life Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Doctoral Degree in Social Biology, Gross Entomology, Women’s Anatomy, Children’s Cacophony, Arch Demonology, Eschatology, and Thermal Pollution. (302)
- 17 “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end ... Go thy (...)
33We note here a shift in perspective, from The Book of Daniel to Daniel’s book. Writing has shaped him into being. That maturation required the acceptance of his limited potency. This heterogeneous list also shows that he has both appropriated different types of knowledge and that he has realised that absolute truth, like unified self, was unattainable. Writing has thus been a means to sustain his oppositional attitude and to avoid being imprisoned in the representations of others. His acceptance of frustration as the human lot is shown in the return to the primary text. Daniel finally defers to the authority of the sacred text to close17 his narrative and thereupon passes on his book, thus proceeding to a transmission of the law and calling for reinterpretation.
34Freedom lies in the capacity to expose the failure of the system, to rejuvenate perception of ready-made views and automatic reflexes. Daniel, a dissenting voice, resists the totalizing ideology of the fifties, exposing its illusions and flaws, showing that truth is imperfect and provisional. “[N]othing is more powerful than a vacuum” (63): Daniel-as-subject has built himself through a mode of constant negation of all absolutes. Questioning can be an existentialist quest in itself, even if it is vain, and, as John Hillis Miller said: “To live is to read, or rather to commit again and again the failure to read which is the human lot. We are hard at work trying to fulfil the impossible task of reading from the moment we are born until the moment we die.” (59)