Eric Dean Rasmussen explores Lynne Tillman’s “cognitive aesthetic,” suggesting that her work is powered by the generative disconnect between asignifying affect and signifying emotion. He argues that her 1998 novel, No Lease on Life, examines the role of affectively sustained universal values in responding politically to the neoliberal city.
Tillman's Turbulent Thinking
Tillman's Turbulent Thinking
This review is a simultaneous publication from the current issue of American Book Review.
Reflecting on the art of fiction in her 1995 essay “Telling Tales,” Lynne Tillman repeats a familiar narratological claim - conflict is essential to storytelling - but expands it to encompass “theorizing,” indeed cognition itself, which, she emphasizes, includes an affective dimension. Using vocabulary reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophizing on affect in What Is Philosophy? (1994), Tillman notes that “turbulence,” the “wordless conflict” from which language likely emerged, is everywhere. This omnipresent turbulence, however, is easily overlooked. Writers, she proposes, work with words to make this turbulent activity present - that is, not just perceptible but communicable:
There may be imperceptible conflicts, actions, events - I think, thinking is an activity. An emotion may produce an action, be an action, or be a re-action. In some form the writer addresses some kind of event. In some way there is a problem, an event, an action, a thought, an issue, an emotion, to be resolved or left unresolved; there’s a problem to be solved, or incapable of solution, a problem engaged or contemplated. There’s a kind of adjudicating, whatever the writer does.
As Tillman’s fictional art critic Madame Realism observes in The Madame Realism Complex (1992), “[S]tories do not occur outside thought. Stories, in fact, are contained within thought. It’s only a story really should read, it’s a way to think.”
Madame Realism aptly summarizes Tillman’s cognitive aesthetic, which posits literary writing as a way of thinking through imperceptible conflicts. And though this process involves making critical judgments, literary adjudicating entails more than conscious ratiocination - more than predominantly logical operations occurring in the mind. Tillman regards storytelling, indeed all modes of intellection, as a thoroughly embodied activity in which meaningful comprehension results from complex, recursive processes involving both cognitive and affective operations.
A survey of the short fictions in This Is Not It (2002), which collects some of Tillman’s many collaborations with contemporary artists, reveals that, throughout her career, she has been experimenting with ways of registering the effects of imperceptible intensities, of tracing in language the recursive processes through which asignifying affects resonate, give rise to, and interfere with signifying emotions - the “subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience, which is from that point onward defined as personal,” as the Deleuzian theorist and translator Brian Massumi puts it in Parables for the Virtual (2002). Consider for instance: the struggle to articulate adequately the intimate bond between Julie and Joe, the couple who co-habit but are no longer lovers, in “Living With Contradictions” (1984); the description of the depressed man’s behavior at a dinner party as a tropism in Madame Realism (1984) (“Indifferent to everyone but his object of the moment, upon whom he thrives from titillation, he blooms. Madame Realism sees him as a plant, a wilting plant that is being watered”); the narrator’s identification of herself as the “obstacle,” the “swelling of emotion” that “becomes physical,” stuck in the writer Paige Turner’s throat in “To Find Words” (1992); the ecstatic, dizzying dance Madame Realism is moved to perform before the tombstones on Normandy’s Omaha beach in “Lust for Loss” (1994); or the man’s struggle to grieve, “the most private act a human being could do, next to shitting,” which only finds release during masturbation in “Hold Me (9 Stories)” (2002). This effort to articulate, in unconventional, quasi-parabolic, prose forms, the “relationship between the levels of intensity and qualification” (Parables), i.e., the generative disconnect between affect and emotion, has become increasingly central to Tillman’s cognitive aesthetic, which makes apparent that negotiating the contemporary crisis of belief requires subjects able to practice a measured “response-ability” when experiencing the excess of affect circulating in neoliberal social systems.
In the “Next to Nothing” passage from No Lease on Life (1998), a tragicomedy depicting the socioeconomic tensions affecting a New York neighborhood, imagined as a fragile urban ecosystem, Elizabeth Hall only becomes truly committed to a cause, fighting the illegal rent increase imposed by her unscrupulous landlord, after an intensely affective encounter with her upstairs neighbor, Ernest. Elizabeth catches her aptly named neighbor’s passion for the just fight and begins to derive surplus enjoyment from their activism (“She could feel his anxiety. She liked it and hated it.”), even as she comes to realize that their efforts, in all probability, will turn out to be “close to hopeless, futile.” The episode juxtaposes the hopelessness of the pair’s mission with the jouissance it induces, demonstrating how the local pursuit of a seemingly lost cause can affectively sustain universal values. It’s Tillman’s sensitivity to thinking’s affective dimension that distinguishes her cognitive aesthetic. Here, she provides a nuanced depiction of both the transmission of affect between Elizabeth and Ernest and the manner in which these affective transmissions stimulate subsequent adjudications about the limits of liberalism and the ridiculously sublime fantasies underlying all principled political commitments.
After receiving a rent-increase letter that misrepresents the number of rooms in her apartment and physical improvements made to her building, Elizabeth is “swamped in lethargy,” upset yet “unable to rouse herself to action.” But Ernest’s “compelling” appeals for help - first relayed in a letter filled with “long sentences” on “unlined paper,” slid under her door one night, and then in a five-minute long, answering-machine message - convince Elizabeth to collaborate in a plan that, she wrongly presumes, requires “next to nothing” of her. It’s the materiality of Ernest’s communications, Tillman implies, that makes them so compelling. Their nonsemantic production of Ernest’s “indignant” yet “likeable” presence, manifested in their idiosyncratic delivery and media-unsavvy attributes (lengthy, unformatted, unrehearsed, etc.), moves Elizabeth, preparing her, when Ernest eventually appears in person, to be enlisted in the cause. Although Elizabeth feels anxious about “being seen as an agitator, a conspirator” and worries about being evicted, Ernest’s “relentless” dedication, his willingness to engage the city’s Kafka-esque bureaucracy, reassures and impresses her: “He took action. He was a hero in a local way.”
Ernest’s heroism notwithstanding, the point of this episode, first published in Lacanian Ink 11 (1996), concerns the affective dimension of belief, the revolutionary potential of which entails remaining true to one’s desire so that a local agenda might achieve universal significance: Elizabeth does not fully believe in the cause until she falls in love and is converted into someone willing to do (not next to nothing but rather) virtually anything for it. Elizabeth’s conversion occurs one night as she and Ernest discretely gather photographic evidence (of literally “next to nothing,” an anamorphic black hole and dust) for the dossier they must submit to the City authorities to make their legal case. Working in close proximity, in the dark, leads to an affective exchange between the two tenants. Elizabeth feels Ernest’s anxiety (the only emotion, Jacques Lacan claimed, that doesn’t lie and an indicator of one’s proximity to the Real) and is so affected by his compassion that she falls in love, first with him and then with something larger, something more universal:
He opened the front door as wide as it would go. Then he studied her with a worried expression. - Is that better? Is that better? she thought. The way he said, Let me open the door, his perplexity about photographing the hole, the way he said, Is that better? was priceless and ridiculous at the same time. She fell in love with him. For a minute. He changed in her eyes in the dark, ugly vestibule. She could fall in love with anyone.
As this “anyone” indicates, the love Elizabeth feels goes beyond a romantic crush on one individual. Following Slavoj Žižek, Christian love is more accurately described as Pauline agapē; ultimately, the object-cause of Elizabeth’s desire is Ernest’s voice or, more accurately, the passionate, unconditional commitment to a shared cause conveyed by its tone. These tonal affects are transpersonal and flow between subjects in exchanges that, as an intrusion of the Real, can suddenly, mysteriously, trigger an anamorphic shift of perspective that transforms the coordinates of the field within which one cognitively frames a situation. Here, the struggle to resist the shady landlord and the “Big G,” his building manager Gloria, goes from being a possibility to a necessity for Elizabeth, but not because of any positive, empirical factor that could reasonably increase the probability of their winning a legal victory against the owners. On the contrary, the evidence of hazardous conditions she and Ernest seek to document remains elusive: “Photographing dust on the walls was implausible. She did it anyway and looked at Ernest. He was smiling, reassuringly. He knew it was absurd. He wasn’t deluded, he was optimistic. Ernest was a mystery.”
In the tone of Ernest’s voice, Elizabeth discerns his “pure belief,” registering the reverberations of the “groundless decision that installs all authentic beliefs” that Žižek (How to Read Lacan ) recognizes in Pauline Christianity. Likewise, Ernest’s smile signals that while he’s fully aware of the absurdity of their labors, their shared recognition of this fact should intensify, not diminish, their efforts to win a verdict against the landlord. These nonlinguistic signals assure Elizabeth that Ernest will not succumb to cynical demoralization. Consequently, she falls in love - not so much with Ernest the man, but Ernest the “mystery,” a figure embodying the workings of the Freudian death drive, “an aspect of behavior that persists beyond any instrumental activity towards achieving certain goals (pleasure, reproduction, wealth, power)” (Glen Daly, Conversations with Žižek ) and the unconditional ethical commitment accessed via this unreasonable drive. If, from a psychoanalytic perspective, adhering to these commitments unconditionally is what constitutes human autonomy, Tillman’s prose prompts us to adjudicate by making ethical distinctions between socially admirable and socially abhorrent obsessive behaviors in ways that challenge certain tenants of liberalism, such as the primacy of the autonomous, reasonable individual. Tillman’s cognitive fictions allow for what most conventional narrative realism doesn’t - the space and time of turbulent thinking.
Streetwise Elizabeth may not be a psychoanalyst, but the well-read copyeditor speculates about a “survival instinct” in terms strikingly similar to Freud’s description of the pleasure principle. Here’s Elizabeth, on our all-too-human capacity for cruelty: “People wanted to continue themselves, protect themselves, get pleasure. People wanted pleasure all the time, anytime, anyplace, they’d do anything to get it. Everyone was capable of the most hideous behavior and crimes to get it. The pursuit of pleasure wasn’t pretty.” And here’s Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1900), on the pleasure principle’s supercession by the reality principle, which, in theory, keeps our capacity for cruelty in check: “An ego thus educated has become reasonable; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished.” In late-capitalist, neoliberal consumer societies, the pleasure principle’s demand for immediate gratification begins to infuse the reality principle (“You can have it all!” advertising trumpets, along with free-market evangelists) that, in Freud’s account, is supposed to supercede it. Consequently, as Elizabeth witnesses throughout her neighborhood, people feel free to indulge in all sorts of depraved and “pathetic” (her favored term) behaviors, degrading themselves and their environs. But both the pleasure and the reality principles, Elizabeth discovers during her collaborations, can be derailed by the death drive: Freud’s term for humans’ tendency to become fixated, obsessed, driven, locked into interminable, repetitive cycles of activity. As Žižek explains in The Parallax View (2006),
The paradox of the Freudian “death drive” is…that it is Freud’s name for its very opposite, for the way immortality appears within psychoanalysis, for an uncanny excess of life, for an “undead” urge which persists beyond the (biological) cycle of life and death, of generation and corruption. The ultimate lesson of psychoanalysis is that human life is never “just life”: humans are not simply alive, they are possessed by the strange drive to enjoy life in excess, passionately attached to a surplus which sticks out and derails the ordinary run of things.
This derailment from the “ordinary run of things” can be discerned in the anamorphosis that makes visible the scar on Ernest’s chin, temporarily transforming him into a postmodern pirate, a “swashbuckler for tenants’ rights.”
Ernest, obviously, has become derailed, which is precisely what makes him so charismatic to Elizabeth, who had become complacent and needed an outlet for her outrage. “Ernest was driven. Driven was sex to her, sexy. Someone active and alive with desire for anything was sexy.” Driven people can be extremely productive, but the intense enjoyment they derive from repetitive activities can become debilitating, as in an addiction, and their obsessive pursuits risk becoming solipsistic. Thus, Elizabeth immediately qualifies her consumerist equation of drivenness with sexiness: “Maybe not driven for a car, or ice cream, or heroin, because it excluded the possibility of you.” Unlike so much identity-fixated contemporary fiction, the focus shifts from Ernest’s subjectivity to his passionate activity, and how it affects Elizabeth’s perception of the relations between things in her physical and social environment, including fantasies, class markers, homelessness, and “unnecessary” modes of labor, like copyediting, that are mostly imperceptible within neoliberal social systems. Ultimately, No Lease on Life is about recognizing utopian possibilities that others present, and deciding to expend the tremendous amount of energy, physical, mental, and affective labor, required to actualize these possibilities in our everyday lives, which are sustained by largely unacknowledged fantasies and constrained by systems, both private (“feudal” corporations) and a public (a welfare “system that employs people to treat them with disdain while assisting them inadequately”), that demand “servile gratitude” from demoralized subjects while remaining frustratingly impervious to gradualist reform efforts.
Noting Tillman’s depiction of the “wearying routine of the city’s daily life - all that garbage, all those druggies and creeps and whores we’ve met in a million Letterman one-liners,” humorist Sarah Vowell astutely characterized No Lease on Life as a utopian novel, “because it takes those things into account; because its heroine fantasizes about murdering all ‘the morons’ not out of hate, ‘but dignity and a social space, a civil space, actually a civilian space.’” This utopian dimension is never more evident than when Tillman presents Ernest’s heroic transformation as a function of his passionate civic engagement. His efforts to correct abuses in inasmuch as concrete particulars make palpable the elusive affective dimension required for the “right circumstances” to emerge, for local resistances to achieve universal significance.
This utopianism emerges most fully in the “Next to Nothing” episode and peaks when Elizabeth recognizes such a transformation could happen to anyone, “under the right circumstances.” Thereafter, the novel’s utopianism grows more muted as her quest for a livable “civilian space” in which life does not unfold as “a series of unwanted accidents” gets tempered by the City’s interminable, and regularly ugly, disruptions. Ernest rouses Elizabeth from her complacency and prevents her from succumbing to “tenement despair,” but they make only minimal progress in their reform efforts. The tragedy of the novel is that they never manage to mobilize a critical mass; consequently, their passionate activism risks being rendered pathetic by the very neoliberalization they’re resisting. Near the novel’s end, when the two sit down over beers at the kitchen table to discuss the firing of their super, Hector, it’s likely that their living conditions will get even worse. Elizabeth acknowledges, “She wasn’t in love with [Ernest] anymore. They had a lot in common.”
The emphasis is no longer on Ernest’s transformation in Elizabeth’s eyes, but rather on all the planning required to address probable contingencies. Both recognize they can’t transform or even reform a massively corrupt urban system in a few months. Not when generations of residents, rich and poor, have adapted to the inequality it is designed to perpetuate. “The poor scrambled, adapted, and metamorphosed into their poverty. They grew ugly. The rich grew ugly too. Repellent. They were complacent…Ugliness is more than skin deep…People lived the lives they deserved.” Such thoughts contribute to Elizabeth’s despair early in the novel. By its end, she’s still struggling against apathetic impulses and murderous revenge fantasies, which is why critics such as Sue Im-Lee can plausibly describe Tillman as continuing the tradition of the realist novel, in which the plot is advanced through a series of misrecognitions, while challenging the realist premise that misrecognitions will ultimately culminate in epistemological clarity, a definitive recognition. After acting out in frustration by tossing eggs at the “crusties and morons,” Elizabeth imagines confessing to the police that “everyone bothered her eventually,” and the novel closes with her ruefully reflecting, “No one deserved to sleep,” wondering, as she pulls the sheet over her head, if she’ll manage to fall asleep, and, finally, waiting, mindfully. What Tillman’s wonderfully Beckettian ending suggests is that the struggle against injustice and ugliness, including moralistic judgments that envision most people living lives they deserve, will be long-term, lifelong, and, if we are absolutely honest, interminable. That Tillman chooses not to make such a tidy recognition available to her protagonist at the novel’s end illustrates how her cognitive fictions allow for what most conventional narrative realism doesn’t - the space and time of turbulent thinking.