THE WAY OF THE CHAMELEON IN ISER, BECKETT, AND YEATS: FIGURING DEATH AND THE IMAGINARY IN THE FICTIVE AND THE IMAGINARY
John Paul Riquelme
When I try to put it all into a phrase, I say, Man can embody truth but he cannot know it. I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Song of Sixpence.
W. B. Yeats, Letter of 4 January 1939
Chameleon in spite of himself, there you have Molloy, viewed from a certain angle.
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Hodos Chameleontis: Plenitude and Death
In their quite different texts and styles, Samuel Beckett and Wolfgang Iser follow what Yeats in his autobiography, alluding to alchemical traditions, calls hodos chameleontis, the way of the chameleon. Iser takes Beckett up into his own travelling of this path most obviously when he writes about Beckett’s work. The merging of their paths is particularly arresting in the discussion of Beckett that Iser inserts at a crucial moment in The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology, which is a work of theoretical speculation, not literary interpretation. His remarks on Beckett there are a part of his theoretical discourse rather than a digression from it.
The dual standing of Beckett’s works in Iser’s writings, as texts for interpretation and as, in effect, a component in the theorizing, invites looking through both ends of the telescope: at Beckett through Iser and at Iser through Beckett. Doing so necessarily raises the issue of the fit between theory and interpretive method, an issue that Iser has been concerned with frequently, most explicitly in his essay “Key Concepts in Current Literary Theory and the Imaginary."1 One hermeneutical fit between theory and literature can come into being when the reader or the writer of a theoretical text brings to the text attitudes generated by literary works that have themselves contributed to producing the theoretical text. That fit is possible again when we turn eventually from a theory to the interpretation of literary texts that have contributed to the theoretical formulations. A dynamic cross-over between literary text and theoretical discourse is likely to be a matter of rhetorical figures and their implications, not primarily a matter of logical argumentation, whether speculative or interpretative. Looking through both ends of the telescope can become a kind of binocular vision of a sort that is potentially self-testing, self-adjusting, and self-correcting. The testing, adjusting, and correcting are neither a technical matter nor an abstract one.
The path of the chameleon discernible in both Iser and Beckett is, as in Heraclitus's fragment about the hodos that is both catahodos and anahodos, a way up that is also a way down, a way forward that is a way back, and a response to living, even the end or goal of living, that is also a response to dying, another kind of end to and of living. Traversing the path enables looking in two directions. Yeats concludes the section called Hodos Chameleontis in his autobiographical writings by introducing his theory of masks. He takes Oscar Wilde’s ideas about masks and elaborates them into the notion that self and anti-self in the artist are linked. Wilde expressed the double, antithetical vision that Yeats took over in his essay, “The Truth of Masks," from Intentions when he says in the closing sentences that “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true."2 It is this kind of insight about the simultaneous coexistence of opposites, with its challenge to Aristotelian logic, that links Beckett and Iser in ways that make Wilde and Yeats also relevant. Although I do not pursue such a description here, a coherent sketch of modernism from Wilde to Beckett could be elaborated from the connections among these writers. Any persuasive description of modernism would have to take such connections centrally into account.
In The Fictive and the Imaginary, Iser scrutinizes various thinkers' descriptions of imagination. He does so as part of an attempt to clarify the central role in culture of literary play. His attempt provides access to the path of the chameleon, as does Yeats's statement about embodying truth but not knowing it and about refuting philosophical arguments but not poetry. The unsayable, ungraspable character of truth for Yeats, his reference to death in the ambiguous phrase "completion of my life," the recognition that abstract language is not adequate to express life's truths, and the suggestion that art can realize those truths more fully than philosophical discourse are all pertinent to reading Iser's work and Beckett's.
"Completion of my life" in Yeats’s statement "I must embody it [truth] in the completion of my life" suggests that life as something partial can be made complete, presumably by aesthetic means. The artist is capable of bringing life to a state of completion. But "completion of my life" also suggests my death, which Yeats was contemplating, as a primary way in which humankind embodies a truth that it can neither know nor control. Imaginative activity and death bring life to apparently antithetical completions that are, in fact, linked. They are connected because art responds to and even arises from our shared human experience of limits, with death as the ultimate form of unavoidable limitation that we all face.
Iser draws on Beckett to articulate a related view in language quite different from Yeats’s ambiguous statement about completion, but he does so, nevertheless, in a way that invites extension and interpretation concerning human limits and potentials. In an essay published in English over twenty years ago, “The Pattern of Negativity in Beckett's Prose," Iser comments on the way that Beckett's work reveals “the nature of man's inescapable limitations" (Prospecting 51), which involve the retaining of something within an "insurmountable finiteness" that is the opposite of the finite. He goes on to say: “Herein lies the true significance of Beckett's negativity, for finiteness means being without alternatives, and this intolerable condition explodes into an endless productivity." (Prospecting 51) Iser concludes the essay by asserting that we recognize through Beckett’s achievement that "explanations are not possible-the most we can do is experience the unknowable." Iser begins the same commentary by quoting Sartre's statement that "'concrete negativity . . . retains for itself that which it rejects, and is completely colored by it'." In my Yeatsian reading of Iser's reading of Beckett, the concrete negativity of Beckett's art involves a recognition of mortality in a mortal no that permeates his art's proliferating response to finitude. That response cannot explain the truth of finitude's unbounded plenitude, but it can evoke and even embody it. A related evocation and embodiment of finitude’s abundance in The Fictive and the Imaginary emerges in a dense pattern of figurative language as part of an apparently abstract discourse.
Iser’s Figures: Chameleon and Holophrase
In The Fictive and the Imaginary, the phrase "the chameleon of cognition"3 occurs prominently as the rubric for the concluding section of the third of six chapters. With regard to the book’s chapter arrangement, this section is located exactly in the middle. In the third chapter Iser surveys and comments on ways in which fiction has been thematized in philosophical discourse. He uses the word "protean" in this section, but the chameleon calls attention to itself more emphatically because it is mentioned both in the section title, “The Chameleon of Cognition: Some Conclusions about Fiction," and in the discussion. The chameleon then apparently vanishes, but in my reading it only changes color, recurring later in a variety of hues (as the protean, kaleidoscopes, shifts, transpositions, self-transposings, boundary crossings, dual counterings, contraflows) and in numerous oppositional pairings (decomposition and composition, nullification and enabling, free and instrumental play, and the like). The book’s character changes with the introduction of the chameleon, which is an early note of an eventual crescendo. The change involves Iser's use of the phrase "the chameleon of cognition" as a figure for fiction that differs from the thematizing of fiction in philosophical discourse. Iser’s writing has the appearance of an abstract, cognitive discourse that forms part of a tradition of philosophical speculation about creativity and culture. Because many of his terms contribute to a sequence of mutually illuminating, reciprocally defining figures, they suggest that The Fictive and the Imaginary is, in fact, not discursive at crucial points. This non-discursive quality is one of the truths that the chameleon embodies.
At each of the book’s non-discursive moments, the conceptual implications of the language tend to be emphatically non-totalizing and self-transforming. A particularly clear example of this tendency occurs at another important point in the sequence of the book’s argument, in the final pages of the last section, "Staging as Anthropological Category". In these concluding pages, Iser introduces a curious compound term, “fractured ‘holophrase’" (Fictive 302). The unusual term holophrase denotes a single word that stands for a complex of ideas. The term appears three times in the final two pages, first simply as "'holophrase'" (cited from the work of Sir Richard Paget), then as "fractured 'holophrase'," and finally, in the antepenultimate sentence as "ever-fractured 'holophrase'." The increasingly emphatic repetition marks the maximum moment of the book's rhetorical and conceptual crescendo.
This is the point in the book’s final paragraph at which Iser asserts that, because "cognitive discourse cannot capture the duality" of staging, "we have literature" (Fictive 303). If we accept Oscar Wilde’s claim that truth in art involves a doubling, Iser’s statement resembles Yeats’s stance in his letter concerning the difference between philosophy and verse. Iser’s assertion about cognitive discourse is a conclusion that emerges from the argument that he has pursued for more than three hundred pages. At the same time, in so far as the argument has relied on cognitive discourse, it is an act of stepping back from that argument. The difficulty that Iser faces and acknowledges is one that Beckett notes in the fifty-fifth section of Ill Seen Ill Said, where he writes: “How explain it? And without going so far how say it?"4
Many of the terms in Iser's book, including key phrases, such as "fractured 'holophrase'," are not quite at home in cognitive discourse. As a consequence, they invite and enable us to recognize something that the argument cannot itself articulate precisely. The discussion contains its own figurative supplement that turns out to be a primary way to evoke the character of the study's subject. The figures “say it," but they do not “explain it." Any attempt to describe the book's methods and procedures that does not attend to this supplement is incomplete, since the supplement is not a distraction or digression from the study but rather an integral part of it. The book’s lengthy penultimate paragraph, for example, is marked by a rhetoric of plasticity and openness that prepares us for the final statement of the closing paragraph. It includes unfolding (twice), opening up (twice), exhibition, changing patterns, the mirror of possibilities, luring into shape the fleetingness of the possible, shifting, transposition, and self-transposing.
"Fractured 'holophrase'" is an important example not only because of its placement but because as a trope it pulls us simultaneously in two directions. Iser ascribes related dualities of effect to staging but claims that cognitive discourse cannot capture them. The term is a compound, antithetical figure. Holophrase is a synecdoche, for it means that one thing stands for a complex whole, even for a network that we might ordinarily understand metonymically as the conjoining of many parts. The adjective fractured, however, qualifies or even removes the wholeness. The figure, then, resembles a golden bowl that has been cracked or Humpty Dumpty, whose fragments are permanently sundered. The synecdoche (holophrase) that stands for a metonymy (the complex of ideas) is transformed by "fractured" into an irony (something that is not identical with itself), or into another metonymy (the fractured parts). No matter whether we understand "fractured" as creating an irony or a metonymy, the synecdoche of holophrase has been countered. In the compound trope, figures with contrary implications have been conjoined in a way that poses difficulties for cognitive discourse. In this case, it pushes the discourse in directions that it otherwise could not go. Having climbed as far as possible up the rhetorical and conceptual ladder of cognitive discourse, Iser here kicks off from the top rung.
Iser’s chameleon is as puzzling and revealing a figure in its context as “fractured ‘holophrase.’" The English word chameleon and its German cognate come to us through Latin from a Greek root, khamai, which means "on the ground." The Indo-European root dhghem - that stands behind the Greek root gives us various words, all of which refer to the earth, including chthonic (having to do with gods and spirits of the underworld), autochthon and autochthonic (referring to something sprung from the land itself, something aboriginal or indigenous), humus (a word that evokes decomposition and decay but also renewal and enabling), inhume and exhume (having to do with burial and its opposite), transhumance (the seasonal transfer of livestock from one locale to another), and finally the word human. These words can help bring Iser's wide-ranging book into a general focus and throw some light on the chameleon's status in his discourse and on the chameleonic character of that discourse.
The large issues in Iser's book are obviously anthropological ones; they pertain to the question of what it means to be human. He looks into something that he argues is autochthonous, or indigenous, or aboriginal, or innate about the human. That intrinsic aspect of the human is for Iser chameleonic. Transhumance and related matters are elements sometimes mentioned in pastoral or bucolic literature, which Iser discusses at length in his writings, including in chapter two of The Fictive and the Imaginary. We can think of the shifting of positions that is transhumance as a boundary crossing (from one locale to another, one season to another, one stage of development to another). A boundary crossing, as Iser uses that term, is the activity of a chameleonic creature. Inhume and exhume may remind us of the excursus at the end of chapter four, which together with the immediately preceding section, "Interplay between the Fictive and the Imaginary," occupies a place parallel to the section at the end of chapter three involving the chameleon.
These structurally parallel, related closing sections of chapters three and four concerning the fictive, the imaginary, and Beckett work in tandem in the crucial late middle of the book's argument. The excursus deals with Beckett's "Imagination Dead Imagine," which has to do with the simultaneous inhuming and exhuming of imagination. Beckett's title captures this double movement if we read it in the way that Iser does as the imagining of the imagination as dead. The issue of death, called up explicitly by the title of Beckett's work, in relation to the fictive and the imaginary is important at various points in Iser's book, including in the closing of the section immediately preceding the one on interplay. Death is the chameleon's other, both its opposite and its mutually defining counterpart. In death we cross a boundary that cannot be recrossed; the ground claims us. There is no humus in Iser's commentary, but there is decomposition, and that too brings us back to ground and to mortality.
Capturing Beckett and Other Imaginary Creatures
Beckett’s “Imagination Dead Imagine" holds a surprising place in The Fictive and the Imaginary. We can understand that place by drawing an analogy between Iser’s work and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. The analogy has to do with contradictory tendencies and implications within Iser’s writings and Beckett’s. Iser provides us with a thorough typology of concepts of the imagination, in effect a periodic table of the imagination, as it has been conceived in intellectual history; he provides an equally thorough typology of play. The typological tendency is also evident frequently elsewhere in his writings. In the essay “Representation: A Performative Act," for instance, he sketchs the variety of forms that representation, understood as a process of bridging, can take. His attempt to map imagination and related aspects of aesthetic experience in the process of “charting" literary anthropology bears comparison to the chart that the Captain uses in Carroll’s poem. In the words of the crew, that map is “A perfect and absolute blank," as is apparent in the Ocean chart illustrated in Carroll’s text.5
Insert illustration from The Hunting of the Snark
Preferably on page facing black page
The quality within humanity that Iser attempts to elucidate always eludes capture, except to the extent that, through a reaching that exceeds our grasp, we conceive of it and express its character as inherently double and antithetical. Dual in character, imagination, a strange compound like Carroll’s snark (snake/shark), avoids capture by our usual conventions for mapping positions. Carroll’s illustration presents the snark’s location as a fluid one in an ocean that cannot be adequately framed because there are no landmarks. Its fluidity is countered by its opposite, a frame based on assumptions about determinacy and positive knowledge that helps make fluidity recognizable for what it is through a conjunction that in turn allows for recognition of the frame’s dimensions by comparison with all that the frame is not. Like cognitive discourse, the frame, which sets limits, has its limitations. The blank space that represents the ocean in Carroll’s text, like the various blanks, gaps, and other indeterminate openings that Iser identifies in his writings about aesthetic response, stimulates our imaginative activity and resists easy explanation. It is rendered in the poem’s language by details that present the conflation of opposites. The Captain, for example, instructs the helmsman to “Steer to starboard, but keep her head larboard." In the hunting process, the vessel is “snarked" when “the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes." The way forward has become the way back. To be “snarked" can be both to be misled by the attempt to follow the snark’s path and to participate in its character.
The literal blank in Carroll’s poem, one of the few in the history of literature accompanied by an illustration, finds its counterpart and opposite in the black page of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a text about which Iser has written extensively. The emptiness of that page is of another kind, though it resists explanation as persistently as the unchartable ocean.
Insert page from Tristram Shandy here
Preferably on page facing Snark chart
This other unusual instance of a literal textual blank does not represent the fluidity and life of an imaginary creature who cannot be captured and whose location cannot be mapped. It represents instead a heart of darkness that remains perpetually to be mapped by those who attempt to explore its precincts. This literal emptiness and silence respond to the death of Yorick, a double for Tristram, who narrates his own story in a vain but determined attempt to capture the shape, direction, and meaning of his own life. Taken together these illustrations provide a conjunction like that of the yin and the yang. The limitless plasticity of imagination that comes into focus as a kind of blank and duality when we attempt to frame it is matched and reversed by the fact of death as both an unalterable limit in human experience and a motive for the workings of imagination.
Iser allows various islands to float into the cognitive grids by which he maps the imagination. Central among these is “Imagination Dead Imagine." But the result of his doing so resembles Robert Grave’s poem, “Warning to Children," in which the opening of a box on an island reveals a simulacrum of the scene in which the original box was placed. Because of the nature of play, the box has to be opened, in spite of the warning that accompanies it. A related, potentially endless, nesting and repetition of elements occurs in Jan Potocki’s film, The Sarragosso Manuscript, which Tzvetan Todorov discusses in The Fantastic.6
When Iser turns to “Imagination Dead Imagination" in his “Excursus" on Beckett and “Fantasy Literature," he engages a literary text that conjoins opposites in chiastic patterns of oscillation and recursion. The linking of imagination and death in Beckett’s work involves a spiraling process in which the imagination is invited to imagine itself as dead, in effect, to imagine death. The details of the text frequently take the form of chiasmus, a rhetorical structure marked by repetition and reversal. Chiasmus occurs as a rhetorical figure and structurally in the work, for example, in the movement of “resuming, or reversing," and in “the rise now fall, the fall rise" of light and heat, as both recede and return “till the initial level is reached whence the fall began."
Two figures, a man and a woman, are described in a structure presented geometrically that resembles the form of the yin and the yang. This human yin and yang consists of “partners" both lying “On their right sides" “back to back head to arse."7 The narrator describes them as if inscribed in a circle that is intelligible as part of a mathematical “proof." Each is “inscribed" in a “semicircle" defined by identifiable points, ACB and ADB. The description recalls the positions of Leopold and Molly Bloom, with Leopold’s head at the foot of the bed, at the end of the “Ithaca" episode and in the “Penelope" episode of Ulysses. The geometrical figure also recalls Joyce’s geometrical construction in the “Schoolroom" episode of Finnegans Wake, a construction that alludes to Yeats’s presentation of the gyres graphically in A Vision as a way to understand the deaths and births of civilizations. But Beckett’s structure is also Heraclitus’s stream, since within it we experience “never twice the same storm." A related experience of difference and doubling is made possible by Beckett’s language. The diagram, as in Joyce’s schoolroom and Yeats’s prophetic writings, is part of a “proof," but more precisely it is “world still proof against enduring tumult." It is stillness set against tumult, that is, in antagonistic relation to tumult and physically set against a background that can be called tumult. But the proof is “still," both continuing and dead. This world as proof provides an argument against the “enduring" character of tumult. “Enduring," however, can be a present participal rather than an adjective. As a consequence, the proof’s validity has to be judged against the fact that we continue “enduring tumult." On the one had, we have a “world" that is still, but it is also whirled still in a tumult that is rendered as a situation with limits but whose oscillations are aleatory and unpredictable in character. Like a Moebius strip or the surface of a sphere, the text’s space and the character of the experience evoked in it are finite but unbounded. As Iser says in his essay on Beckett’s negativity, we are faced with an apparent lack of alternatives but also with the possibility of “endless productivity."
The yin and the yang and its avatars have a place in Iser’s writings from his early publications in English to the much later The Fictive and the Imaginary with its double, antithetical formulations and figures. The yin and the yang are implicit as early as Iser’s influential “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction" (1971) in his reference to the work of Rudolf Arnheim (Prospecting 36). The essay by Arnheim that Iser cites there concerns the perceptual analysis of the tai chi tuan, or yin and yang, as a symbol for interaction.8 In his later writings about creativity, like Beckett in “Imagination Dead Imagine," Iser turns to structures of interaction presented as doublings and oppositions in order to map the way new things come into being in human experience.
Beckett himself reflects on how writing comes into being in various works in ways that provide a counterpart and perhaps even an inspiration for some of Iser’s insights and discursive strategies. “Company," for example, can be understood as a text about “devising it all for company" (Nohow On 33), producing works for an audience, who are invited as company, and for performers, who are a company of actors, but also to keep the writer company in an act of doubling involving resemblance and reversal. Beckett’s representations of the creative act lend themselves at times to being understood and inscribed as a version of the yin and the yang. This is so in “Company" when the narrator presents his character “feeling the need for company again" and telling “himself to call the hearer M at least": “Himself some other character. W." (Nohow On 31) Rather than psychological presences, these characters are characters of the alphabet. In “Company," Beckett could have presented M and W, like the figures in “Imagination Dead Imagine," as man and woman, but male pronouns are applied to both. “W" could be writer, whose creature “M", perhaps W’s me, is his double, though orthographically inverted in a curious mirroring. The orthographical inversion but identical shapes of M and W as they are presented in this context encourages their representation as a version of the tai chi tuan:
Insert diagram of M and W as the tai chi tuan
“Devising it all himself included for company," the character W speaks of his devised character M as if it were himself: “He says further to himself referring to himself, When last he referred to himself it was to say he was in the same dark as his creature." (Nohow On 31) Being in the dark in this text is both a literal situation and the position of not knowing where or who we are. Out of that position, there emerges the recognition that there is “no improvement" (Nohow On 33) likely but that there are questions to be asked and statements to be added. The questions give rise not to answers of a determinate sort but to ambiguities, indeterminacies, and openness. One of these questions involves the possibility of choosing: “Could he now if he chose move out of the dark he chose when last heard of and away from his creature into another?" (Nohow On 31-32) Whether this is the narrator’s report of the character’s thoughts or a question the narrator raises about W, it is not clear if the language concerns moving into another “creature" or into another “dark." In effect, it leaves us in the dark. Because M is characterized by “unnamability" and the fact that “M must go," “W reminds himself of his creature" (Nohow On 33). The ambiguous language suggests that W remembers his creature, whose qualities he has temporarily forgotten and must remind himself of, and that he resembles M, who reminds him of himself. Finally, in this process of the “Devised deviser devising it all for company," W is “In the same figment dark as his figments" and “for good not yet devised" (Nohow On 33). His permanent state is to be “for good," or always, in an unfinished condition, and that situation, which involves being in the dark, is beneficial, or “for good," as a condition of perpetual potential.
Play’s doubled, self-differentiating, self-transforming character, as literature realizes it, is its chameleonic quality. Chameleons change color under certain circumstances, including to protect themselves from enemies, to attract mates, or to threaten rivals, but probably not as a matter of play or performance in the way that we would predicate play or performance of humans. Human play includes the alliterative play with language by children. At age nine, my son, Victor, told me about “the chameleon’s curious color-changing capabilities." The echoic language of writers (devised deviser devising) is also a matter of play, as is the use of chameleons, or ground lions, to describe fiction’s relation to cognition, a relation that includes echo-like doublings. Fiction is the chameleon of cognition. It refuses to maintain a singular shape to accommodate abstract attempts to define it by cognitive discourse, which threatens it. Iser’s discourse, which is not narrowly cognitive, changes its rhetorical colors so that this unnamable creature will not disappear entirely from view.
The Chameleon as Translation
Iser’s discourse is a matter of translation, as is Beckett’s writing. The writing process for both involves translation. As with Beckett’s works, Iser’s exist in two versions, neither of which takes precedence over the other. Each text has a double with which it is not identical, though the doubles are counterparts, like W and M. The Fictive and the Imaginary is a work of theory, but it is also a form of practice in various ways, including the practice of translation. It is constituted by translation in a transitive way through the act that turned a German text into an English one. And it includes various kinds of intransitive translations, or crossings-over. One of the boundary crossings, death, puts an end to those preceding it, against whose enduring tumult we understand it imperfectly. It is the last translation in the sense of final and not just previous.
The word chameleon is itself a translation of two Assyrian words, nes qaqqari, that mean ground lion; that is, the figure in the middle of Iser's translated book is already the result of a boundary crossing, for it rests on an attempt to render literally into Greek a phrase from Assyrian that was already complexly figurative, simultaneously metonymical (next to the earth) and metaphorical (like a lion). I would speculate that the word is a kind of diminutive that combines terror and play, tragedy and comedy, which for Wilde constitute together the truth of masks and of art. As with a child’s stuffed animal, the chameleon looks fierce, like a lion, but its threats and its potentials are of a different order. This fused and already translated figure typifies Iser's book, literally a work in translation whose language is dual in its fusion of cognitive discourse with complex figurations. The book's chameleonic character linguistically and rhetorically embodies but does not explain its subject. Beckett once said of Finnegans Wake that it was not “about something" but was instead “that something itself."9 Iser's book may be as close an enactment of its subject as anyone is likely to achieve by means of language that is ostensibly discursive. The study's own processes and terms become a staging of its subject. At the end of the section that deals with "Imagination Dead Imagine," Iser remarks that "only language that consumes itself can give articulation to the imaginary" (246). He has Beckett in mind, but in another mode The Fictive and the Imaginary is itself an example of that self-consuming articulation.
One point that Iser makes repeatedly is that the fictive is groundless, that it has no substratum and is not a substratum. He says that in the section that refers to the chameleon, and he makes the claim emphatically for the fictive, for the imaginary, and for play in the last two sections of chapter five. His subject is a groundless chameleon, a lion of the ground that has no ground, that subsists on a kind of air, as chameleons traditionally were thought to do. Rather than a debilitating contradiction, we have here a duality that marks the need for staging and defies cognitive unraveling. Like "Imagination Dead Imagine," the groundless chameleon is a truth in art, in this case a truth of and about anthropological tendencies.
Humankind is a groundless creature that finds itself on the ground, in the midst of multiple translations that have a singular end. It embodies truth but does not know it as it changes forms through performance, including the performance of translation and other echoic, boundary-crossing processes. The interplay of fictive and imaginary that produces proliferating possibilities is living, but its apparently endlessly changing character is no more knowable or namable than a creature of the ground who has no ground. Endless change in this context responds to and vivifies a life that changes because it is mortal, the human always on its way to becoming humus. Is the chameleon a figure of living or of dying? The answer is surely yes. Is it possible to “refute" Iser, as Yeats says we can “refute Hegel," on abstract grounds? Section thirty-three of “Ill Seen Ill Said" provides an answer:
Renderings of the navigational chart, the black page, and the yin and yang were produced by Marie-Anne Verougstraete, whose work I acknowledge with gratitude.
1. Wolfgang Iser, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 215-235. [back]
2. Richard Ellmann, ed., The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde (1969; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1982), 432. [back]
3. Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 164. [back]
4. Samuel Beckett, Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 83. [back]
5. All citations from Carroll’s poem are from Martin Gardner, editor, The Annotated Snark: The full text of Lewis Carroll’s great nonsense epic The Hunting of the Snark and the original illustrations by Henry Holiday (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), “Fit the Second, The Bellman’s Speech" (47-52). [back]
6. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, translated by Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 27-31. [back]
7. Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 (New York: Grove Press, 1995), 184. [back]
8. Rudolf Arnheim, “Perceptual Analysis of a Symbol of Interaction," in Toward a Psychology of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 222-244. [back]
9. Samuel Beckett, “Dante... Bruno. Vico... Joyce," in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), 14. [back]
© John Paul Riquelme