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Pen and Bomb: Creative Agency in Paul Auster's Leviathan



The Transcendentalist legacy in Auster's Leviathan faces many questions posed by postmodern cultural politics. Previous studies of the novel have highlighted the irresolvable tension between writerly solitude and political engagement, which largely accounts for Benjamin Sachs's undoing. Departing from this interpretation, the present essay provides an alternative reading that links Auster's Thoreauvian representation with Cavell's idea of Emersonian Perfectionism. It seeks to cast further light on the idea of America, examine its relation to self-transformation, and reevaluate Sachs's life and work within a philosophical framework.



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1 Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, trans. Hollingdale, R. J. (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 96.

2 Varvogli, Aliki, The World That Is the Book: Paul Auster's Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001), 145.

3 Martin, Brendan, Paul Auster's Postmodernity (London: Routledge, 2008), 211.

4 Brown, Mark, Paul Auster (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 91.

5 Fleck, Linda L., “From Metonymy to Metaphor: Paul Auster's Leviathan,” in Bloom, Harold, ed., Paul Auster (Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2004), 207–22, 214.

6 Not to mention that the words “dynamic” and “dynamite” are etymologically related, and that I lend a Nietzschean sense to these words.

7 Auster, Paul, Leviathan (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), 49; references hereafter are given parenthetically with the abbreviation L.

8 “[T]his is his [Emerson's] vocation, what he does and what he suffers”; “Thinking is a handicraft.” See Cavell, Stanley, “What Is the Emersonian Event? A Comment on Kateb's Emerson,” in Hodge, David Justin, ed., Emerson's Transcendental Etudes (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 183–91, 188, 187; references hereafter are given parenthetically with the abbreviation ETE. By saying “doubtful” Cavell indicates, according to my understanding of what he articulates in other essays on Emerson (“Finding as Founding” and “Aversive Thinking”), that Heidegger's formulation “Thinking is a handicraft” – in association with “hand” and “grasping,” thus “a mode of necessary, everyday violence” (similar to the “unhandsome part of our condition” in Emerson) – should be differentiated from his thoughts on “being drawn to things” and “getting in the draw, or the draft, of thinking” (similar to what Emerson calls “attraction”). See Cavell, Stanley, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 8687; references hereafter are given parenthetically with the abbreviation NYUA. See also Cavell, , Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 39, 41; references hereafter are given parenthetically with the abbreviation CHU.

9 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden and Civil Disobedience: Complete Texts with Introduction, Historical Contexts, Critical Essays, ed. Lauter, Paul (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 29, original emphasis.

10 For Thoreau one cannot imagine (change) the individual without imagining (changing) the state at the same time; meanwhile, the motivation for change definitely pivots on the individual. We just need to refer to his closing remarks in “Civil Disobedience,” wherein he shows us the state in his mind.

11 Cavell, Stanley, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 62; references hereafter are given parenthetically with the abbreviation SW.

12 Hegarty, Emma, “The Practice of Solitude: Agency and the Postmodern Novelist in Paul Auster's Leviathan,” Textual Practice, 23, 5 (Oct. 2009), 849–68, 853, original emphasis.

13 Ibid., 865, 856.

14 For a comparison of Cavell's “passionate utterance” and Foucault's “parrhesia” see Lorenzini, Daniele, “Performative, Passionate, and Parrhesiastic Utterance: On Cavell, Foucault, and Truth as an Ethical Force,” Critical Inquiry, 41, 2 (Winter 2015), 254–68.

15 Obviously Aaron assumes that Sachs will revert to normal life after this crisis, but, as we can see, Sachs's conclusion is a far cry from his “I want to end the life I've been living up to now. I want everything to change” (L 122; my italics).

16 When Cavell expounds his idea of Emersonian Perfectionism, he pays particular attention to Emerson's influence on Nietzsche and situates their affinity in the region of perfectionism. Also noteworthy are his attempts to defend Nietzsche against John Rawls's criticism and to value moral perfectionism (say, its aesthetic dimension) in the context of democracy and justice.

17 A deranged Thoreauvian character in this story gives an impression of pertinent exaggeration insofar as we, like Cavell, “keep in mind the question of insanity to which the writer of Walden recurs – or at any rate, the extremity and precariousness of mood in which he writes” (SW, 87).

18 It is likely that Lillian's slap reminds Sachs of the “turning point” of his childhood, namely the “absolute dictatorship” he experienced when visiting the Statue of Liberty with his mother: “There we were, about to pay homage to the concept of freedom, and I myself was in chains” (L 33).

19 Foucault, Michel, Fearless Speech, ed. Pearson, Joseph (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 19.

20 In his essay “Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's Endgame,” Cavell expands on the image of the Bomb (or what he calls “the phenomenology of the Bomb”) as he perceives a possible link between it and Endgame: “one dimension of our plight can only be discovered in a phenomenology of the Bomb … it [the Bomb] has finally provided our dreams of vengeance, our despair of happiness, our hatreds of self and world, with an instrument adequate to convey their destructiveness, and satisfaction.” See Cavell, Stanley, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 136–37.

21 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature and Selected Essays, ed. Ziff, Larzer (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 310–11.


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