This article considers two postmodern texts, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, in order to reconsider how madness can be defined in a postmodern, inter-American context. A comparison between the two novels reveals the importance of how shared experience affects postmodern madness. In both novels, madmen use popular culture art forms, such as science fiction or classical Hollywood cinema, as a means to cope with their situations. Cinema and science fiction adhere to very precise rules; yet, because these products are based on popular forms of fantasy, they invite misreading or re-appropriation. Vonnegut and Puig’s use of science fiction and classical Hollywood cinema, therefore, invites a new definition of postmodern madness. I argue that postmodern madness is the confusion, both individual and social, that occurs when the need to retain one’s individual identity against the onslaught of the ubiquitous culture industry clashes with the euphoria of living in a mass-produced fantasy world.
1. Madness in a Postmodern Context
Considerations of madness have sparked many literary narratives, starting with the madness of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and moving through the ages, past King Lear’s Fool, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Faulkner’s Benjy, and García Márquez’s José Arcadio Buendía. In a contemporary context, theorists like Fredric Jameson, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have presented schizophrenia as a metaphor for the postmodern world. Yet, such definitions of insanity do not always fully encompass how postmodernism’s plurality affects the individual as a consumer of culture. By analyzing how deviant characters and popular culture interact in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña [Kiss of the Spider Woman], I argue that one can begin to see postmodern madness from a different perspective. In both texts, popular culture serves as a paradoxical force that confines individuality through adherence to communal illusions, yet also encourages the individual to find personal freedom through such fantasies. Madness, therefore, lies in the struggle between the two extremes.
The question of madness in postmodernism is a subject riddled with polemical debates. Some scholars claim one must read postmodernism through the lens of psychoanalysis, while others believe one should reject psychoanalysis and instead consider postmodern madness outside the confines of Oedipal authority. Fredrick Jameson, in Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, focuses on Jacques Lacan’s definition of schizophrenia, though he considers Lacan’s formulation “as description rather than diagnosis,” and a “suggestive aesthetic model” (26). Jameson describes Lacan’s definition as “a breakdown in the signifying chain” that depends upon the Oedipal paternal authority of the word (26). According to Jameson, Lacanian schizophrenia occurs when the meaning created by a confluence of signifiers ruptures, initiating a break in the cohesive nature of language that leads to a breach in both personality and temporality (26-27). The schizophrenic, therefore, experiences everything outside of time, “a sentence in free-standing isolation” (28). In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Jameson continues this discussion, maintaining that the schizophrenic is isolated, disconnected, and “does not know personal identity in our sense” (119). Such people only live in the moment, a moment that brings not joy, but loss: an “unreality” (120). These traits are caused by the incoherence of postmodern media and capitalistic consumption, where “an ever more rapid rhythm of fashion and styling changes the penetration of advertising, television and the media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society” (124). Jameson finds this especially ominous as society is confronted with “the disappearance of a sense of history” which corresponds to the individual’s loss of identity (125). In this sense, then, schizophrenia is a disease spread by the postmodern culture industry, which ruptures personality and isolates the fractured self, spread by a disruption of society and its interactions with what has come before.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, however, in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, discard Lacanian theory and propose instead “schizoanalysis,” rejecting the hegemony of Oedipal authority over neurosis for an approach that takes into account a “relationship with the outside world (2). Deleuze and Guattari see the schizophrenic’s insanity as a break, just as Jameson does, but one that results from synthesis rather than isolation (41). This synthesis comes from the schizophrenic’s relationship with capitalism; Anti-Oedipus proposes that schizophrenia is an answer to and a product of capitalism, “the ultimate residuum of a deterritorialized socius,” which is itself produced by what they call “the capitalist machine” (33). Here, the schizophrenic is not an isolated, fractured personality, but is instead “an ongoing process of becoming that is the becoming of reality” (35). The fractured nature of the schizophrenic is therefore just as regenitive as it is destructive, to both personality and to temporality. Schizophrenia is therefore not simply a symptom of society, “for capitalism constantly counteracts […] this inherent tendency while at the same time allowing it free rein” (34). In these terms, capitalism produces schizophrenia but then shuns the schizophrenic, for such people could mean the death of capitalistic society (246). Thus, for Deleuze and Guattari, schizophrenia is not so much a disease as a form of rebellion, something that “seeks out the very limit of capitalism” and “scrambles all the codes” (35, 15). As such, it is also a form of production itself, for “the schizophrenic is closest to the beating heart of reality, to an intense point identical with the production of the real” (87).
Compared side-by-side both Jameson’s notion as well as the Deleuze and Guattari notion present useful and intriguing interpretations of postmodern madness, but I believe neither fully investigates the relationship between the postmodern man, the formation of identity, and communal illusion. Jameson, Deleuze, and Guattari focus on the singular – the schizophrenic is either without personality and therefore not an individual or is the ultimate individual, living solely by and for the self. Deleuze and Guattari do begin to discuss the difference between individual and group fantasy, but use this consideration more to debunk Freud than to insert the popular into their schizoanalysis (62-64). We must not forget, however, that popular culture, which lies at the root of both theories, is popular, which complicates how we can view the individual within the postmodern context. We cannot wholly reject or embrace popular culture without acknowledging the rules that allow everyone to share experiences through popular film or pulp fiction or the top 40 songs on the radio. This focus on the communal, along with a need for individuality, precludes a total adherence to defining the postmodern madman by whether or not he or she is an individual. Instead, we must consider the struggle inherent in such seemingly necessary divisions.
Thus, I argue that we need to examine specific codified aspects of popular culture in order to understand postmodern madness. And since the culture industry has become a global phenomenon in the postmodern age, we need to also consider sources beyond the borders of the United States. A focus on the Americas is particularly relevant because of the shared popular culture that connects most American nations. Contemporary North American and Latin American novels confront a hybrid culture industry that jeopardizes sanity, regardless of nationality. As Nestor García Canclini states in his book Hybrid Cultures, new technologies “soften national borders” and allow foreign ideas to infiltrate national identity, especially in Latin America (10). Latin America is therefore the product of hybrid cultures, where “adopting foreign ideas with an inappropriate meaning is at the basis of the majority of our literature and our art” (49). In this sense, postmodern literature, in Latin America and elsewhere, is about adaptations and adoptions, translations that do not quite hold with the original. This places an emphasis on a repositioning of the borders between the cultured, the popular, and the masses.
Jesús Martín Barbero, in his essay “Experiencia audiovisual y desorden cultural,” also recognizes the monopoly popular culture has over Latin American cultural output, but adds that North American popular culture vehicles like magazines, television, and film are integral pieces in the formation of contemporary Latin American national identity (35). For Martín Barbero, however, this inclusion of technological, global information on the mass scale (what he calls multiculturalism) is detrimental to a true national unity (36). This kind of globalization spreads one specific type of culture straight from the Hollywood propaganda machines, and is truly just another form of cultural imperialism, at least when seen from the viewpoint of struggling nations still searching for a permanent, independent cultural identity (43).
Taking these two representative views of popular culture in Latin America into account, one can recognize that North American culture distracts and complicates popular culture in the rest of the hemisphere, just as it does within its own borders. For even within the United States we can see the influence of an imperialistic conformity to popular culture. Leslie Fiedler, in his book What Was Literature? points to the American Dream (a Dream propagated by the culture industry) as an equalizer with a Utopian sensibility (66). This is an important aspect of cultural hegemony: the desire to be like everyone else. A comparison of how both North and South American national literatures present and interact with popular culture is therefore critical to understand postmodern madness in an American context. North American popular culture not only affects its own citizens, but also complicates the national and international identities of the entire continent.
Breakfast of Champions and El beso de la mujer araña are therefore ideal for this study because both deal with specific aspects of the culture industry. Vonnegut’s novel grapples with the world of science fiction, bounded by the specific rules and functions of the genre. Puig, in turn, creates characters ruled by the norms set down by classical Hollywood cinema. The illusions created by science fiction are controlled, proscribed by specific archetypes, canonical forms, and reader expectations, and classical Hollywood cinema adheres to codified genres, audience expectations, and the unwritten rules of the blockbuster film. Such constraints, paradoxically, allow readers or audience members a way to believe the fantasies these genres create – and these fantasies in turn provide an escape from the rules that bind the common man’s everyday actions. Though classical Hollywood cinema and science fiction narratives do not map perfectly onto each other, the way the two forms of popular art promote fantasy through the use of constraint allows us to compare madness in El beso and Breakfast.
2. Breakfast of Champions
When critics consider madness in Breakfast of Champions, many offer in-depth discussions of insanity and popular culture, most of which vaguely view the term as presented by Freud, Lacan, or other psychoanalysts. Lawrence Broer and Josh Simpson examine madness and popular culture within Kurt Vonnegut’s works: Borer’s Sanity Plea considers most of Vonnegut’s characters to be insane to some degree, each person a soulless victim of American’s mechanical culture, while Simpson’s article “‘This Promising of Great Secrets’” considers the correlations between science fiction and madness within three of Vonnegut’s novels (Broer 103, Simpson 262). Both critics equate madness with popular culture and point to it as the cause of insanity, yet neither recognizes the importance of how each madman interacts with technology or science fiction, the manifestations of popular culture found in Vonnegut’s works.
To go beyond such connections, then, I will begin with a close reading of Breakfast of Champions. As a narrative, the book does not have a well-defined plot. The text follows the actions of two characters: Kilgore Trout, a failed science fiction author, and Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman whose ‘bad chemicals’ will ultimately lead to a maniacally destructive rampage. These two men are doomed to meet at the Midland City Arts Festival, where Dwayne will read one of Trout’s novels, take it too literally, and attack everyone he sees. Most of the narrative follows Dwayne and Trout on their respective journeys to the Arts Festival, as they interact with numerous representatives of the country’s commodified, consumerist culture. The novel ends with Dwayne silenced, leaving Trout to come to terms not only with the implications of his stories, but also with the implications of the narrating in general – the last scene in the novel is a confrontation between the Creator of Trout’s Universe (the author) and Kilgore.
Within this seemingly abstract narrative hides an important trope: Dwayne’s madness. From the beginning of the novel, the reader knows that Dwayne is filled with bad chemicals; his brain does not function the same way as everyone else’s. As the narrator explains, “Dwayne’s incipient insanity was mainly a matter of chemicals, of course. Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mind” (Vonnegut 13-14). These chemicals create strange and often comic effects, causing Dwayne to see things and say things that others would not. They force him to break the status quo, berating his co-workers and his lover. He sings random songs in public and wanders about town aimlessly, with no goal or plan. His chemicals even produce echolalia, which compels him to repeat the last word anyone says to him. These symptoms seem to present Dwayne as Jameson’s postmodern schizophrenic, with a disease that adheres to Lacan’s breakdown in the signifying chain.
Bad chemicals, however, are not the only side to Dwayne’s madness. Dwayne also seems, at least to an extent, to represent Deleuze and Guattari’s theories on schizophrenia, for his madness is also formed by way of a specific interaction with popular culture. Dwayne’s actions (and his bad chemicals) should separate him from the rest of his community, yet, according to most critics, Dwayne is one of many, no different than anyone else. His neighbors choose to ignore his odd actions and are themselves caught up in similar predicaments. Some critics point to this lack of differentiation as an indicator of a ubiquitous madness within society, a condition that seems to point to Deleuze and Guattari’s hypothesis that madness comes from synthesis, not breaks. Broer argues that Dwayne’s participation in popular culture condemns him, writing, “He was already a soulless victim of Midland City’s machine-ridden culture […]. That in itself causes incipient insanity” (103). To add to this, Dwayne is an ultra-consumer – he not only participates in a commodified society, but also owns several pieces of it. Dwayne is therefore caught up in what Todd Davis, in his article “Apocalyptic Grumbling,” calls “the dominant narratives of America” (160). As Broer tells us, “the people of Midland City occupy themselves with the most mundane, brainless, and materialistic subjects and cultivate, in the name of culture, a reverence for the insipid and soulless junk of mass production that clutters their lives” (99). These citizens, including Dwayne, are inhabitants of a culture of commodities, condemned to reproduce in their own lives the quality and quantity of the soulless junk they worship, as seen on TV or heard on the radio. Their lives, like their junk, must follow a specific order and serve a specific function.
The way the rest of Midland City reacts to Dwayne’s untoward behavior underscores these claims. Dwayne’s echolalia only prompts his waitress to apologize for using the wrong word; his singing makes his lover believe he is finally happy; his verbal attacks on his friends make them reevaluate their own lives, but not question his. Yet, I argue that the way the narrator describes society’s nonchalance to Dwayne’s idiosyncrasies belies the conclusion that everyone is mad as well. The narrator reminds the reader, “Every person had a clearly defined part to play […]. If a person stopped living up to expectations, because of bad chemicals or one thing or another, everybody went on imagining that the person was living up to expectations anyway” (Vonnegut 142). By imagining that everyone is the same, even if they are not, the people of Midland City homogenize society, making it very hard for anyone to become less or more than anyone else.
Yet this does not make everyone mad – disturbed, perhaps, but not mad. As long as a madman’s insanity is run by bad chemicals, then the community’s captive imagination can take care of the rest. This imagination, restricted by the norms set down by consumer mentality, cannot cope with Dwayne’s problems, and so, instead, ignores them. As the narrator explains, “Their imaginations insisted that nobody changed much from day to day. Their imaginations were flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of the awful truth” (142). Instead of creating fantasies that open the world up to new possibilities, here imagination regulates the speed and accuracy of how the culture industry affects people’s lives, which in turn confines that which fuels them. The men and women of Midland City share communal illusions, but these illusions are bounded by conformity, by the culture industry and community standards. Standards are important here – the rules set down by the culture industry allow a consensus that becomes a common language of agreement. Because everyone understands each other, or is at least complicit in following the rules and ignoring differences, oddity can have no place – it is not shunned or cast out, but simply explained away. This, in part, contradicts Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic as a scrambler of codes and seems to run counter, at least partially, to their idea that capitalism both inhibits and gives free rein to the madman. Here, instead, madness is ignored; shoved to one side; subsumed in everydayness.
The narrator’s second statement about Dwayne’s affliction is therefore of utmost importance in an understanding of madness in this text. He tells us, “But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas, too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction” (Vonnegut 14). Caught in the paradox of an imagination confined by consumerism, Dwayne can only be knocked out of his somnambulism by way of aberration, by misunderstanding the rules. His madness needs to be more than bad chemicals in order for people to notice, in order for him to gain a semblance of freedom from conformity. Thus, Dwayne is not Jameson’s schizophrenic, born from a lifetime of popular media, isolated and incoherent, made up of destroyed of perspectives. Nor is he Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic, with a productive unconscious that makes his fantasies a reality. Instead, he is simply a man with a natural disposition to insanity, who can only find outlet for his bad chemicals when he misinterprets how he should interact with popular culture.
Halfway through the novel, unable to control his waking or sleeping desires, lost in the clutches of his bad chemicals, Dwayne tries to find a new meaning to his life. He attends the Festival for the Arts, where he tries to come in contact with men and woman who are outside the status quo. These others may be able to guide Dwayne, remove his dependency on the bad chemicals. Ironically, however, surrounded by important ideas, “so open to new suggestions about the meaning of life that he was easily hypnotized,” Dwayne returns to the culture industry and not the Arts community for instructions (Vonnegut 196). Here, Dwayne reads Now It Can Be Told, a science fiction novel written by Kilgore Trout. The text, written in second person and to a ‘you’ who is also the hero of the narrative, is a letter from the Creator of the Universe to the only real human in existence. Dwayne, ready to read the text as both a seeker of knowledge and a consumer of culture, cannot distance himself from the fictional YOU of the narrative. The culture industry has programmed him to receive messages – his bad chemicals only make him more receptive – yet, Dwayne is not able to decipher these messages. Had Dwayne simply been influenced by popular culture, he would know how to read Trout’s novel. His yearning for meaning, however, his search to find a new identity, interrupts what popular culture tells him to do.
Therefore, Dwayne’s misreading of the text, which seems to represent Deleuze and Guattari’s theory that the schizophrenic escapes from the idea of coding, is actually just a misreading of that coding. Dwayne does not suddenly live outside the confines of consumer society – instead, he just applies the wrong rules to it. Dwayne’s madness hinges on his contact with Trout’s science fiction narrative, for it is this book that allows him to fulfill his potential as a madman. Leonard Mustazza notes in Forever Pursuing Genesis, “[Dwayne] has used, albeit involuntarily, science fiction to lift from his shoulders the burden of anxiety and the fear of victimization” (120). The narrative, by giving him a fictive universe in which to live, lifts him clear of his quotidian dilemmas. Kenyei Tamas, in his article “Leakings: Reappropriating Science Fiction,” notes, “In Breakfast of Champions, science fiction cannot help being anything else than a textual tradition” (432). Science fiction may be a commodified, popular literary form, but it is also an institutionalized and codified genre, something that follows certain rules and standards that do not change (or at least do not fluctuate too severely) over time.
Dwayne is able to relate to Trout’s novel, and also exploit it, because the novel deals with two forms of science fiction. Both of these forms adhere to the governing strictures of the genre, but do so to varying literary degrees and with varying depth. Tamas goes on to state that Trout’s novel is both elite and pulp, two models of science fiction that are widely different yet impossible to differentiate (446). For most readers, science fiction (or sf) is usually pulp. In his book Reading by Starlight, Damien Broderick asserts that academia “deems most sf to be stimuli tailored to the evocation of soothing daydreams, a species of craft writing directed to the satisfaction of lower middle-class and working-class hungers for solace and consolation in their presumed misery” (9). Pulp sf is therefore part of the culture industry, a tool used to entertain the masses, to help them forget, for a moment, their mundane existence. Pulp science fiction allows the imagination to expand, but in a controlled manner, each fantasy world or invented future dominated by proscribed archetypes and canonical forms. Seen in this light, science fiction is little more than trash, which has little literary or high culture value. Jeanne Murray Walker, in her article “Science Fiction: A Commentary on Itself as Lies,” notes, “Science fiction, according to this view, runs on the same tracks over and over. Because it is repetitive, it is merely repetitive. It reiterates fictional conventions thoughtlessly in an effort to get its ideas across or to entertain its readers. That is, science fiction is irresponsibly unconscious about its own aesthetic processes” (29). Pulp sf does not know what it does and therefore cannot truly influence the reading public in the way that it should or in the way in which it wants. In this way, science fiction feeds upon and feeds into the captive imaginations of Midland City natives and Americans in general.
Not all science fiction, however, needs to adhere to this level of writing. Walker continues, “it is simply wrong to fault science fiction for offering its readers dull, thoughtless repetition of conventional plots and characters. In some examples of the genre, at least, the process of reading requires that the reader think about what those conventions mean and whether they may ultimately lead him to the truth” (36). This kind of science fiction, elite sf, can break through the barriers placed upon it by consumer culture, producing not only literary merit, but also an interaction with its audience that goes beyond simple entertainment. Walker sees within elite sf an extra importance. Though filled with the same kind of flotsam and jetsam inherent in pulp science fiction, this elite form of the genre contains within it a kernel of literary value, a questioning of literature itself (36). Sf at this level therefore examines the production and consumption of fiction by way of fiction. Science fiction, at its best, produces the unexpected and allows its readers to share in questioning how they, as members of society, string things together, and why they do this in the first place.
Science fiction, therefore, is an appropriate genre for Breakfast of Champions because it follows the conventional, popular norms in its pulp forms, yet at the same time encourages inquiry and a challenging the status quo in its elite manifestations. The key to how science fiction interacts with society, however, is not only in how it is written, but also in how it is read. Broderick reminds us, “The very best sf […] appeals to something eager and open within the crustiest adult heart even as it dazzles the mind with the riches of abstract knowledge and the hard, constrained ambitions of scientific practice. So there is often something joyfully exuberant and romantic in sf, fatally kitschy to the cultivated literary intellectual” (107). Elite science fiction appeals to fact and fiction, science and imagination. It deals with themes and textures on a grand scale by dazzling its audience. Leslie Fiedler, in his review “The Divine Stupidity of Kurt Vonnegut,” acknowledges this. He writes, “[Vonnegut] has, in any case – as writer of, rather than about, mythology – written books that are thin and wide, rather than deep and narrow […] and so happen on wisdom, fall into it through grace, rather than pursue it doggedly or seek to earn it by hard work” (7). Though here Fiedler is talking about Slaughterhouse-Five, his words could easily apply to Breakfast of Champions as well. Because science fiction is wide instead of deep, because it falls into wisdom through grace, it is a genre that depends upon its readers. Anyone can read a science fiction novel, but not everyone can gain something from it because its revelations do not depend upon diligence and hard work, but upon chance and the intuitive comprehension of irony and sentimentality at the same time.
This is why science fiction proves such a fertile ground for the transformation of Dwayne’s madness, from docile to violent. Dwayne, an unbalanced blank slate, absorbs Trout’s words literally, reading, “tens of thousands of words of such solipsistic whimsy in ten minutes or so” (Vonnegut 257). A man ready for some sort of philosophical epiphany encounters, instead, a speed-read science fiction novel that even the author considers farfetched, self-indulgent, and a bit silly. Dwayne cannot digest what he receives; he has read it too fast to understand the nuances and irony involved in the art of science fiction. He does not, in fact, understand the fiction of science fiction. This is what drives him over the edge – a literal reading of a text not meant to be read literally. Dwayne yearns for a new outlook on life, one that will set him free from the conformity forced upon him by consumerism and the confined imaginations of his neighbors and friends. He finds that freedom by merging a science fiction novel with his reality, yet because he does not fully understand the nuances of the novel and its universal nature, he misinterprets its message. Dwayne is therefore not a decoder of the symbolic order, nor is he an isolated, disconnected automaton. He is simply a man who wants to find happiness by following the rules – he wants to be like everyone else and everyone else wants him to be like them. Yet, because Dwayne misreads the reality of Trout’s text, which leads him to misinterpret the reality of reality, his madness can finally manifest. Dwayne goes on a rampage, wounds several people, including Kilgore Trout, and ends up in an asylum. He has tried to make Trout’s fantasies real, not realizing that by doing so he has negated his own freedom, in every sense of the word.
Postmodern madness, in this sense, can therefore be seen as the confusion created by the clash between pulp and elite in the space provided by the paradox of postmodern conformity and the chaos of outright freedom. Dwayne Hoover is mad because his bad chemicals mix with bad ideas – his need for freedom from conformity mixes with a misunderstanding and misreading of how those rules are supposed to work. And this misunderstanding itself is a product of consumer culture, for his confined imagination does not allow him the tools necessary to read elite sf, let alone a combination of elite and pulp. As Horkheimer and Adorno state in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” “Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealism balked at” (125). Art produced by the culture industry reflects a paradoxical conundrum that shatters dreams, yet maintains the structures inherent in dreaming, building its creations within the scaffolding of idealistic illusion. Illusion is the key here, not the substance, or lack thereof, contained within the artwork. Science fiction (and its inherent paradoxes) initiates, advances, confounds, rejects, and at the same time embraces Dwayne’s particular manifestation of postmodern madness because it is illusion – an illusion that still conforms to specific rules. Dwayne buys into this illusion so fully he bypasses the rules that circumscribe the illusion and thus falls into madness.
3. El beso de la mujer araña
Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, written 3 years after Breakfast, also presents an intriguing picture of postmodern madness, though insanity and popular culture are not as easily linked in discussions of Puig’s novel. In terms of critical study on the subject, Stephanie Merrim, in her article “Through the Film Darkly,” studies how cinema and psychoanalysis reflect each other within Latin American postmodern texts, including El beso. Merrim equates film with the language of dreams and argues that the films in the novel reflect the inner turmoil and psyche of Molina, who narrates them (302). The structure of Puig’s novel, which is mostly a conversation between Molina and his cellmate, therefore mimics psychoanalysis, for it questions the meaning of Molina’s films (302). Rubén Gómez-Lara, in his book Intertextualidad generativa en El beso de la mujer araña, de Manuel Puig, also comments on the connection between film and insanity, seeing men’s use of film and imagination as a symptom of the madness of privation (69). Yet, though these readings of the text acknowledge the link between psychosis and film, they do not recognize how popular culture can affect how madness manifests.
The novel itself tells the story of two men sharing a cell in an Argentine prison during the repressive political regime of the early 1970s. Most of the book is structured as a dialogue between the men, without an omniscient narrator, speaker tags, or other descriptive interludes. The first to speak, Molina, is a homosexual charged with the corruption of a minor; the second speaker, Valentin, is a younger man being held indefinitely because of his radical political views and involvement in a worker’s strike. The novel begins in medias res, with Molina retelling the plot of one of his favorite films to Valentin as a way to pass the time. The characters and their own particular worldviews are introduced by how they react to and interact with several of these film plots, spaced carefully throughout the narrative. As the novel progresses, the implied author/narrator also provides us with additional information via footnotes, transcripts of conversations between Molina and the prison warden, official government reports, and several semi-lucid dreamscapes. Throughout the course of the novel, the two prisoners come to relate to each other through the help of Molina’s film narrations and Valentin’s renderings of political dogma. The two become friends, and for a brief time, lovers. In the end, Molina is released, only to die as he tries to deliver a message to Valentin’s activist friends. Valentin is once again tortured for information, though he dreams of love, not political gain, in a morphine-induced sleep that closes the novel.
The madness found in Puig’s work is not overt, yet plays an important role in the progression of the novel. The protagonists, most notably Molina, are considered transgressors by those who inhabit the world outside the walls of their prison cell. Because of their transgressive natures – Molina is a homosexual and Valentin a political deviant and activist – the two become unfathomable to society at large. As the prison warden remarks in a phone conversation the reader overhears, “Es difícil prever las reacciones de un tipo como Molina, un amoral en fin de cuentas” [“It’s hard to fathom the reactions of a type like Molina, a pervert, after all”] (Puig, El Beso 250, Kiss 246). The warden rejects one aspect of Molina’s life and therefore rejects all of it. Molina is the personification of Jameson’s schizophrenic in this sense – a break in the Oedipal order within society, a man who, at least from society’s standpoint, is isolated and has no real personality.
Even Valentin finds Molina unfathomable, at least at first, echoing society’s views on homosexuality. After hearing a few details about Molina’s life, Valentin wants to hear more because, “Si estamos en esta celda juntos mejor es que nos comprendamos, y yo de gente de tus inclinaciones sé muy poco” [“If we’re going to be in this cell together like this, we ought to understand one another better, and I know very little about people with your type of inclination”] (El beso 65-66, Kiss 58-59). Valentin lumps Molina into a category, as someone ruled by his inclinations and not by his personality or his individuality. Valentin sees him not as a man or a human, but as a stereotype, and thus as a symbol of corruption. According to José Amícola in his book Manuel Puig y la tela que atrapa al lector, we can compare Valentin to the warden, as voices representing a condemning public, at least at the beginning of the novel (119).
Immediately following Valentin’s comment, Puig provides us with the first footnote explaining certain scientific views on homosexuality, which reinforces Molina’s place as a madman in the text. As Santiago Colás explains in Postmodernity in Latin America, “the footnotes […] constitute themselves on the basis of a repression of a threatening Other […] the character of Molina. They form in this way another appendage to the repressive machinery of the state that has physically imprisoned Molina” (91). Read in this way, the footnotes, like Valentin’s remark, force Molina into a specific role – he has to fit into the definitions others place upon him. The fact that the first footnote follows Valentin’s remark reinforces not only Valentin’s place as a representative of society in this instance, but also Molina’s place outside society’s bounds. Even the reader must find him unknowable in this instance; Molina is so different, so marginalized that we cannot fully understand his role in the novel, or even understand the novel itself, without the information we receive in the footnotes. It is implied that only science can make sense of such an aberration; only through psychoanalysis can we come to terms with such a transgression.
One can see, then, how El beso can be compared to Breakfast. Though Molina is not as overtly mad as Dwayne, he does possess similar attributes – his ‘bad chemicals’ is his transgressive nature. And like Dwayne, Molina turns to popular culture as a way to solve his need for community, for answers. Norman Lavers notes in Pop Culture into Art, “These characters […] have no language to speak, cannot even think their deepest thoughts, except with the vocabulary of popular culture, the only vocabulary given to them” (39). Molina yearns to have a common language that can connect his experiences to someone else and that common language blossoms out of the language of film. Though Lavers implies that this language is forced upon Molina, just as the cell is forced upon him, at least he and Valentin will be able to communicate on some level, both to each other and to the reader. This need for communication, as opposed to Monlina’s incarceration, seems to promote Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the schizophrenic, who challenges boundaries and is caught up in becoming something else, a new entity formed by, yet also limited by, capitalism. While in Breakfast residents of Midland City try to ignore the outward manifestations of Dwayne’s bad chemicals, the Argentine government in El beso imprisons Molina because of his non-conformist ways. They set him aside, outcast from society, abandoned – yet this only provokes his need to find kinship somewhere else.
When one looks closer at Molina’s transgressions, however, one can see that he is, in fact, a conformist, but not in the typical sense of the word. His paradoxical submission/rebellion complicates how he interacts with popular culture. Molina lives through film – and classical Hollywood cinema, like Trout’s science fiction, provides the potential madmen with ideas, though here the ideas are not ‘bad’ in the same way. And it is these ideas that make him more (and less) than the schizophrenic proposed by either Jameson or Deleuze and Guattari.
To understand this claim, one must first understand the nature of classical Hollywood cinema and how Molina, in particular, interacts with its tenets. David Bordwell, in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, sees it as “bound by rules that set stringent limits on individual innovation” (3). Classical Hollywood films, unlike more avant-garde fair, adhere to strict codes of conduct, which may offer a “range of alternatives,” but do not stray too far from the norm (5). This allows spectators to share a certain common language when discussing film. Bordwell also notes that this style of film “should be comprehensible and unambiguous” and possess “a fundamental emotional appeal that transcends class and nation” (3). This transcendence, born out of a need to reach as many people as possible on the same level at the same time, provides an imaginary that anyone can join and permits spectators to believe what they see on screen without question. According to Bordwell, classical Hollywood cinema involves two kinds of realism: that which is probably true and that which is historically true (3). He also remarks, “Hollywood film strives to conceal its artifice through techniques of continuity and ‘invisible’ storytelling” (3). The classical Hollywood film should thus appear to be true, seem to be true, present a straightforward, easy to follow narrative, and appeal to the masses, from whatever background. These films make spectatorship easy, for they allow the audience to get caught up in narration, agreeing with absurd plot lines or blatantly implausible action sequences because the narrative form of the Hollywood film encourages such oversight.
At first glance, Molina is the perfect spectator for such films; he buys into cinema’s form of narration and does not question illogical plot devices or characterization. Molina’s spectatorship replicates Hollywood’s median demographic – the thirty-something, middle-class Housewife. He loves the sentimental aspects of each film and dwells on the details stereotypical to a woman’s desires. Read in this way, Molina’s interaction with film is the perfect escape, a way to forget his situation and live a different life. As the primary film narrator in the novel, however, Molina inserts his own personality into his recitations – this complicates his escapism and makes his interactions with film a larger part of his madness. He tells his films in installments, like a detective story or serial. He also tells the story from memory, intertwining past and present tenses in his narrative, combining loyal retellings of the story and imagined details. This places Molina in an awkward position, as both narrator and spectator. As a spectator, Molina is the perfect receptacle for the classical Hollywood film. As a narrator, however, Molina does not retell a proper classical Hollywood narrative. Instead, he inserts his own views and opinions into his retelling, creating a verbal history of his personal, specific version of each film. This complicates not only Molina’s relationship with his own narration, but also his relationship with his audience, blurring the lines between fantasy, reality, classical Hollywood plotting, and ‘real’ life. Molina’s madness thus stems not only from his role as a transgressor (his ‘bad chemicals’), but also from the fact that he allows specific terms to bleed into one another, giving him ‘ideas’. This is not just escapism – here, Molina struggles between passive and active, between being caught by society’s definitions and film’s codified genres and remaking those strictures through sheer force of personality.
We must therefore consider closely one of Molina’s narrations. In the opening sentence of the novel the first speaker states, “A ella se le ve que algo raro tiene, que no es una mujer como todas” [“Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others”] (Puig, El beso 9, Kiss 3). Here Molina tells his story to an audience, yet is also an audience member. His inclusion of “se le ve” [“that’s what you notice”] places him in this awkward position. Molina saw this movie and now he is retelling it. Linda Hutcheon, in Poetics of Postmodernism, points to this relationship between speaker and listener as one of the main problematics in the text, though she does not couch it in cinematic terms. She writes, “Postmodern novels like Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman point to the problematic nature of […] designations of speaker and listener (I/you)” (168). This relationship between film and narrator/spectator is important – it supports the view that an audience member is not simply a passive viewer, hand fed information that does not need to be digested. As Bordwell notes, “The spectator participates in creating the illusion” (7). Bordwell also mentions the act of ‘gap-filling,’ stating, “just as we project motion onto a succession of frames, so we form hypotheses, make inferences, erect expectations, and draw conclusions about the film’s characters and actions” (8). When the reader reads Molina’s film narratives, he or she experience this process – the spectator’s interaction with a classical Hollywood production. In this sense, Molina’s narration is also a form of spectatorship, both living up to the strictures of the classical Hollywood form and breaking those rules at the same time. He is participating in the film as a spectator, yet is also rewriting it as a narrator, forcing his audience to see what he saw, making Valentin (and the reader) see the film through his eyes.
Cinema’s fantasies, moreover, allow Molina to rationalize, and even accept as normal, his transgressions. Bordwell writes, “Classical narration’s reliability habituates the viewer to accepting regulated impersonality and sourceless authority” (83). Classical Hollywood cinema is meant to indoctrinate spectators into viewing life in a certain way, into conforming to certain cultural norms or goals. These norms, however, may not agree with norms promoted by society at large. Rick Altman, in Film/Genre, agrees with Bordwell, but adds a new dimension to the relationship between the viewer and what he or she views. Altman claims, “Hollywood has over the years designed techniques assuring a certain uniformity of perception, even if this involves chastising conduct that in the real world may under certain circumstances be entirely acceptable, or recommending behavior that is far from universally recognized as desirable” (157). Hollywood dictates a kind of normative behavior that does not always sync with ‘real’ life, complicating the spectator’s view of his own reality. Hollywood is a purveyor of illusions, of fantasy, of a life that may not co-exist with society’s views on what is acceptable. Film thus allows the outsider to find consolation, to encounter an acceptance he or she may not be able to find in reality.
Film, in this way, could allow the potential for solace, even if this solace can only last as long as the film remains on screen and the audience in their seats. Molina can be a woman during the film because he is part of the audience and a recipient of the sentimentality inherent in the film. As part of an audience, Molina can hide his abnormalities and focus on what he has in common with other audience members. Lois Zamora, in his article “Clichés and Defamiliarization in the Fiction of Manuel Puig and Luis Rafael Sánchez,” recognizes this in the way Valentin and Molina are able to communicate with one another by the end of the novel. She states, “Their clichés, precisely because they are clichés, offer a means of social affiliation, even integration, which neither has attained in society at large” (425). This shared language, created by the culture industry and adopted through spectatorship, allows freedom through conformity. The reality Molina and Valentin live, in contrast to the cinematic models they reproduce, are not so well delineated, thus making a language and lifestyle that has such defined boundaries enviable. Through film, Molina can be accepted, his thoughts and actions normalized.
Yet, Puig’s protagonist is more complicated than just this level of reading allows. As a narrator, Molina asserts his personal authority over his audience, emphasizing the power of his own opinions and therefore his individuality. Molina makes the first film into a tragic love story and a film noir by the way he interprets the scenes, by the way he retells the action, and by the way he describes Irena. Though distributors and subsequent film critics labeled the ‘real’ film a horror movie, by reevaluating its genre Molina reveals much about how he views the world. Like Dwayne, Molina cannot come to terms with his own life, with his transgressive acts, and so tries to find some sort of personal freedom by re-interpreting (in Dwayne’s case misinterpreting) a commodified, codified product of the culture industry. Classical Hollywood film thus serves as a catalyst for Molina’s madness, a madness marked by a confusion between reality and communal illusion (his life and film), between a need for conformity to a universal norm and a need for individuality within that illusion (the spectator/narrator dichotomy).
And, as an aural narrator, Molina can be interrupted. Valentin, though he is Molina’s audience, is not just a captive audience – he also represents an alternative version of how a spectator can approach film. Viewership puts Molina and Valentin at odds, for while Molina is the perfect classical Hollywood spectator, during the first film Valentin is a dissenter, someone who cannot immerse himself totally in the illusion. Molina, as the primary spectator, connects with the heroine of the story, aligning himself with film not only through the act of retelling/narration, but also by way of his identification. Valentin, in contrast, tries to be a critic. He equates himself with the psychoanalyst in the film and therefore with ‘reality.’ This explains why Valentin agrees that Molina’s films provide an illusion, yet he cannot keep himself from breaking that illusion. Puig writes,
- Mirá, tengo sueño, y me da rabia que te salgas con eso porque hasta que saliste con eso yo me sentía fenómeno, me había olvidado de esta mugre de celda, de todo, contándote la película.
- Yo también me había olvidado de todo.
- ¿Y entonces?, ¿por qué cortarme la ilusión, a mí, y a vos también? ¿qué hazaña es ésa?
- Veo que tengo que hacerte un planteo más claro, porque por señas no entendés. (Puig, El beso 23).
[- Look, I’m tired, and it makes me angry the way you brought all this up, because until you brought it up I was feeling fabulous, I’d forgotten all about this filthy cell, and all the rest, just telling you about the film.
- I forgot all the rest, too.
- Well? Why break the illusion for me, and for yourself too? What kind of trick is that to pull?
- I guess I have to draw you a map, because you sure don’t get the idea. (Puig, Kiss 17).]
This repartee between Molina and Valentin reveals the dichotomy between the two spectators. Molina reveres the illusory quality of being a spectator – he loves the fact that film can take one away from the ‘real’ world. Valentin, however, though he is also caught up in the reverie provided by spectatorship, feels the need to ground his viewing in reality, in a more ‘centered’ view of how things work. In this sense, Molina is outcast by his conformity to Hollywood’s dictates. Valentin, by trying to map ‘reality’ onto Molina’s dreams while at the same time acknowledging the importance of those dreams, transforms the act of viewing into a form of criticism, an act of judging.
The tension between these two different views of spectatorship also brings us closer to understanding how madness works in El beso. Valentin, as a critic, has the power to frustrate Molina. These two alternate forms of viewing, like the combination of elite and pulp forms of science fiction within Trout’s novel, create a paradox: both prisoners start to compromise their positions in an unconscious attempt to reconcile their differences, thus blurring, bypassing, and confounding the rules governing the art form they watch/create. The dialogue that opens between these very different perceptions of spectatorship provides an avenue by which Molina’s madness can spread. For, as Altman notes, “certain assumptions about films must be shared by all spectators in order for them together to share the experience we call cinema” (157). Until Molina and Valentin share certain assumptions, they cannot share the same cinematic experience, an experience critical for the inception of madness. But once the two participate fully in the same illusion, an illusion so many others maintain, both can partake in madness, a madness based on communal fantasies.
Popular culture, therefore, specifically classical Hollywood cinema, provides a common ground within the text, for narrator and audience, on all levels of the work. It also allows madness, as a contagion, to spread… and mutate. By the end of the novel, both men participate in the film narratives, each reacting to the sound of drums heard by the protagonists in the second to last film. Puig writes,
- […] se oyen los tambores de los nativos […] y el capitán entonces le dice que no se deje engañar por esos tambores, que a veces lo que transmiten son sentencias de muerte. paro cardíaco, una anciana enferma, un corazón se llena del agua negra del mar y se ahoga
- patrulla policial, escondite, gases lacrimógenos, la puerta se abre, puntas de metralletas, sangre negra de asfixia sube a las bocas Seguí, ¿por qué parás? (Puig, El beso 164).
[- […] you hear some native drums […] and then the captain says don’t let yourself be taken in by the sound of those drums, because they can often as not be the portents of death… cardiac arrest, sick old woman, a heart fills up with black seawater and drowns
- police patrol, hideout, tear gas, door opens, submachine gun muzzles, black blood of asphyxiation gushing up in the mouth Go on, why did you stop? (Puig, Kiss 158).]
As Molina narrates the plot of the film, the reader is given insight into what the two men think. Both react to the implications of the film by imagining the death most horrifying to them personally – Molina imagines the death of his mother, while Valentin imagines the death of his compatriots. Their real lives, their personalities, and the illusions created within the film start to intertwine. Though the two men still do not share the same fantasies, by utilizing the potential for illusion inherent in the act of spectatorship, they finally share the act of viewing. They hear the same sound and react to it in the same way, triggering not only memories, but also possible futures; each lost in thought, but wishing the story to continue.
In this sequence, both men are mad because they allow boundaries to disintegrate, while at the same time adhere to the rules laid down by the codes of classical Hollywood cinema. They are both spectators, yet also narrators, creating their own possible futures, futures that exist simultaneously with the action in the film, which is itself narrated by one of the co-conspirators. Lavers notes that their shared interaction with film is what makes them human: “It is the synthesis of their partial views that has in the end made them complete human beings. And once more, the synthesis has had to be effected through the clichés of popular culture, since they had no other vocabulary with which to formulate it” (43-44). I would add that, within this spectatorship, where reality, possibility, and illusion collide, madness takes root, creating a space outside ‘normal’ and beyond sane. And the paradoxes inherent in film itself allow this to happen. Without the communal illusions provided by classical Hollywood cinema, the two Argentines would not have been able to communicate, nor would they be able to create (or re-create) their own personal versions of the stories, which in turn complicate and often negate or at least confront the communal illusions they wish to join. This sharing of madness, the fact that one needs both narrator and spectator, that Molina and Valentin need each other as catalysts for their interactions with the film, belies Jameson’s schizophrenic’s lack of personal identity or Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on a totalizing individuality. Here one sees a combination of the communal and the individual, the popular and the personal.
One can see, then, how important specific products of the culture industry are in understanding madness in the postmodern age. Popular culture art forms that adhere to very precise codes and strictures seem to provide stability – they appear to allow the reader or spectator to consume the product without having to think, or at the very least without the fear of confronting new or different ideas. Yet, because these products are based on providing entertainment, on creating illusions, they invite complication. Science fiction, because it promotes a strict adherence to genre but can come in many forms, both pulp and elite, causes confusion. Someone who does not know how to read such fiction, who does not know all the codes involved and cannot recognize the difference between the two forms, is prone to misreading the text and therefore infecting his or her mind with false information. Illusion suddenly becomes all too real and, when combined with an unbridled need for differentiation outside the laws of the community, leads to madness. The classical Hollywood cinema in Puig’s novel, though less prone to misreadings, is just as volatile. These types of films adhere to a strict code, yet the code itself invites multiple forms of spectatorship, re-interpretation, and participation. Someone who knows its rules and regulations intimately (or who is infected by them) and who immerses him or herself completely into the action, thus blurring the line between fantasy and reality, illusion and self, can become caught in between, where madness lies.
The madness found within these texts, then, is not the schizophrenia defined by either Jameson or Deleuze and Guattari. These madmen are produced by the incoherence of media, just like Jameson’s schizophrenic, but are at the same time seduced by the coherence of being part of a specific audience. Though Dwayne and Molina both experience a rupture in signification produced when their worlds are turned upside down by their ‘bad chemicals’ (Dwayne’s literal chemicals and Molina’s transgressions), those breaks lead them to try to reclaim coherence through cohesion, by latching onto the codified genres of science fiction and classical Hollywood film. They seek not isolation, but anonymity through inclusion. And though this inclusion allows them to live, as Jameson’s schizophrenic does, only in the moment, outside of reality, their interaction with the popular aspects of popular culture belies the fractured loss of such a situation. Dwayne, by reading, is part of an audience; Molina, by viewing, is one of many spectators. Each joins a community, not of other outcasts, but of the popular as a whole.
This does not mean, however, that we can define the postmodern madness within these texts Deleuzian simply because they do not adhere strictly to what Jameson proposes. Neither Dwayne nor Molina are totally schizophrenic in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms either. In Anti-Oedipus, schizophrenia rejects capitalism and therefore escapes cultural codes, yet Vonnegut’s Dwayne is still bound by the culture industry because of his misreading of it, just as Molina is bound by his multiple layers of interaction, as both spectator and director. And though Dwayne tries to make real what is illusion, something that holds to Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenia, he cannot actually go through with this change because he is caught up in a communal illusion, an illusion created for a mass audience. This illusion is not his to alter and therefore comes into being as a mutated, stillborn version of reality, a simulation that leaves Dwayne straddling two worlds – the communal and the personal. In the same sense, Molina seems to conform to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that the schizophrenic is part of an “ongoing process of becoming that is the becoming of reality,” yet the reality Molina creates is one predicated on fiction, on a blurring of the lines between himself and the selves he sees on screen (35). This new life cannot last in the real world, no matter how much it has affect Molina himself.
By comparing Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, then, one can therefore start to redefine how one regards madness in a postmodern context. Popular culture is popular, a product of consensus as much as a product of the culture industry, and the effects of that consensus need to be considered, especially in an inter-American context. Terms like schizophrenia, whether defined by Jameson’s co-opting of psychoanalysis or by Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical schizoanalysis, are not quite right for delineating what appears in postmodern literature. Instead, we must look for a different definition, one that takes into account a struggle between individuality and conformity. I argue, therefore, that postmodern madness is the confusion, both individual and social, that occurs when the need to retain one’s individual identity against the onslaught of the ubiquitous culture industry clashes with the euphoria of living in a mass-produced fantasy world. Such a clash creates an entity that is both singular and plural, pulp and elite, audience and director. And though the outcome of such an entity depends upon the situation – Dwayne and Molina are not the same, nor do Vonnegut and Puig’s works espouse the exact same philosophies – the existence of this madman is not a singularity. These madmen abound throughout the Americas, fed on a diet of film, television, and pulp that erase boundaries and unite new communities that exist beyond national borders.
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