SHIDAI      []


     Where would the history of cinema, or for that matter, the nineteenth-century novel, be without the “chance” encounter on a train as passengers and vehicular conveyance hurtle through the darkness? Not exactly Rimbaud’s romantic trope, Le Bateau ivre, but not so far away either insofar as, like time itself, the train cannot be escaped, either in literary history or in the repositories of memory. After all, the novel itself was an especially privileged genre, subsidized by lending libraries in train stations in nineteenth-century England, which elided narrative plots and plotted train tracks both for its prospective passenger-consumer and productive distributors. Two of Japan’s popular post-war authors, Kawabata Yasunari and Matsumoto Seicho, were “train watchers” both in life and their fictions, the latter of whom used train schedules to reach a different solution, more dependent upon a conspiracy, in the death of a postwar Japanese government official on a train platform than did the “official version.” All of this in a country with the highest track mileage per square mile in the world.

The railroad carriage, environmentally, is spatially highly introverted, insofar as the passenger is assigned a space, an estimated time of arrival, and more often than not, a social class, not unlike private life. But, it is also a familiar, open public institution insofar as it attends to a regular schedule along a pre-scribed route; emits periodic announcements, as if it had a derivative public voice; is regulated by a public or quasi-public agency; allows nearly everyone entrance; and architecturally, inaugurated an exclusive domicile, the simultaneously periodic (both spatially and temporally) smoky public waiting rooms in stations that became both historical icons, and an arbitrary locus of plural intersections among other lines through a system of synaptic points. Peter Whitehead uses this systemic anomaly to construct in Girl on a Train a novel where the very notion of plot (as an incremental spacing of motion through time, and hence the vulcanizing of time and space) is a strategic misnomer insofar as no event can ever be singular in his imagination, an imagination that privileges surplus in what Bataille termed a “general economy.”[]

As with its predecessor, the horse-drawn carriage of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, train passengers, like writers of diaries, have considerable freedom within an enclosed space, as long as they “keep to time.” They might “keep to themselves” (which has its analogy in the myth of autobiography or the time-bound diary) hidden behind manipulated screens (like newspapers or even a novel, like Girl on a Train); become entirely transparent and open to a heretofore unfamiliar companion; or voyeuristically engage in speculation about the life of the Other seated opposite or across the aisle. But the passenger may also passively look out the window of the carriage in which his own image is occasionally reflected, thereby conflating window and mirror, the channel indistinguishable from opacity. One consequence is reverie or boredom en route to a destination that may assume the dimensions of some final terminus. All of us are terminal,

     entrapped every day by the promises of a linear narrative, of a parent’s love, a single thread of yarn, stretched between two-dimensional horizons, a train journey to death.

                                                             (Chapter V, ital. added)


In a 1913 essay, “On Beginning the Treatment,” Freud compared psychoanalysis and the train journey (of obviously indeterminate duration) upon which analyst and patient converse about the fleeting view while the world goes by outside. Ephemeral thoughts (mutually reflected) nonetheless contain our lives. The journey would end, though Freud never elaborates on this, when the patient knows as much as his physician and hence the adventure becomes a mere question of the transference of maintenance or management of what one already knows—carrying our personal baggage through life. At the barred or double-glazed ticket windows are often variously pushing mobs attempting to change reservations or belatedly purchase a ticket from a besieged agent/governor who requests patience in ostensible reverence to his own need to manage the politics of consumer revolution while maintaining the “flow.” The position of the clerk at his window resembles that of novelists and film-makers.

 Peter Whitehead’s novel thus commences with a historically familiar metaphor of life and narrative travel, before subjecting it to a nuanced deconstruction, shaped by its setting in Japan. In this case, an invited guest to an academic conference, the hopelessly dated romantic (in life as well as in his academic interests) Dr. Michael Schlieman, carries a lot of baggage, both collectively as a character from his presence/absence in previous novels, and, individually, from his private reading in Japanese literature which he tries to assimilate unsuccessfully to his own discipline. Each of us first visitors uses a different code to try to translate (to sleep with?) an innate resistance to linguistic or sexual commerce imbedded in the language. Japan has a special alphabet/syllabary, katakana, to enable alien words to be transacted, not unlike love-making, highly dependent upon “sound” for successful intercourse.  

The image in the window is an amalgam, the ethnic and visual “half-breed.” For she is partially reflected (translated) in a double-glazed train window through which the viewer sees simultaneously outside to an awaiting conference guide on the platform, an interior (but seated opposite) image, and his own (because of a reflecting space generated by a double-glazed glass channel) reflection. The apparent channel is thus a man-made visual palimpsest, simultaneously barrier and medium of transmission, transparent and opaque—not unlike a window–as–mirror –which de-constructs a binary world of tourist guidebooks when not an accessory in pornographic fiction:


           Michael watched her in secret, as if through a two-way mirror. The reflection bleached of colour because of an optical illusion on the layer of opaque snow sticking to the glass behind, a trick played by the light in the double glazing of the window; no longer two parallel layers of glass, one was slightly warped. His conference paper discussing the effect of opium on nineteenth-century writers alluded to similar shifts in space induced by the drug altering the mind’s balance.

                                                                            (Chapter I)


Every imaginative journey is always-already warped precisely because the agency (or categories) enabling perception are always-already inscribed, even if derivatively, in the institutional and personal filters and prejudices which accompany perception. If the human mind has a mind of its own, then who owns perception? Hence, we approach an obstructed transcendence, not as in Western thought, “through a glass darkly,” but rather by associating the glass channel-as-barrier as a generator of differential images, even as it freeze-frames them in an attempt to produce the symmetries upon which western rationality (privileging ratios) is based: “The sake seemed ominously strong as more and more shards of time, fell out of the frame, disappearing from the mirroscape before he could protest” (Chapter IV, italics added). This reflection/destruction occurs at the commencement of a ritual ménage à trois (plus a surplus watcher, creating a fourth voyeuristic dimension) involving Miyako, a translator/facilitator; the mysterious girl on the train; a guest in the shadows; and our intermittent narrator communicating via the Nohzone, assuming he exists as more than fleeting encoded messages to an equally imaginary recipient on a journey to death, Dr. Michael Webster. To exist only in “reception” is one way of describing the novel, contemporary celebrity culture, and the prostitute, all of which share a culture of consumption-on-demand.                                                                                                     

Such phenomenal appurtenances, including the window-as-framed-two-way mirror, lend the train an uncanny resemblance to its structural antipode, a more stationary terminus also familiar to readers of nineteenth-century European novels: the prison. Open to public regulation and scrutiny, yet highly privatized if not introverted in terms of space, both the passenger/inmates and their attendant/wardens are enmeshed in a time-keeping inseparable from the disappearance of time. All the inmates characteristically know how much time is left on ticket or sentence, as do their conductor/wardens, who may be co-conspirators. There is rather free ingress and egress to visitors (as Dickens’ Amy Dorrit discovers) as long as one leaves and departs at the appointed time, a temporality that eludes the lingering Schlieman at his conference. Hence what goes on “there” – what kind of “there” it is may be is a crucial question since it partakes less of a real than a virtual space and time, neither a unity nor a multiple—is like asking what goes on in a castle.[] And if the castle is not unlike a prison—as the work of De Sade and Kafka in their separable ways, makes abundantly clear—then there is some sense in which all three of these vehicular and stationary institutions involve “serving time”: historical, personal, institutional. Peter Whitehead’s work in film, photography, and fictional narrative involves an exploration of the leakage across “diaphanous membranes” (Chapter III)—more on membranes later—between our public, allegedly private, selected sacred spaces and the times in which we encounter the companionably sacred ghosts that are just across the aisle, even when they are not “there.” And, as it turns out, it is the ghosts of the past—the persistence of time as duration, making of the present, a virtual virtual—that makes every ménage à trois a ménage à quatre. Ghosts make the Nohzone (akin to, but not identical with, cyberspace) what it is: a virtual continuity, an informational cult to which all potentially have access in a plurality of venues.

     And though Whitehead has never been physically in Japan as traveler or resident, he has travelled to the Land of Wa in his reading. Kawabata Yasunari’s Yukiguni (Snow Country), a realm simultaneously descriptive and a proper noun, even a country, like the Nohzone. Kawabata’s novel continually foregrounds Girl on Train, Whitehead’s incessantly differential plagiarism, like recurrent ghosts that frequently haunt what Henry James termed “The House of Fiction.” Its plot is thus intimately connected both with the history of Japanese literature, including the layered history of the warped mis-readings which have accompanied it’s consumption as merely “exotica” (an easily explicable “coda”) in Western markets. But ghosts also mean in other parts of Whitehead’s varied oeuvre: films, photographic diaries, pottery-making, and a series of antecedent novels, including BrontëGate. Every mis-translation or mis-reading becomes part of the textual palimpsest, which haunt it and threaten to subvert it, much as does this introductory shidai, in the same way that historically antecedent interpretations haunt every literary house of fiction as a kind of ghostly shadow. If, to differentially plagiarize Picasso, “all art is theft,” then Pelagius, the classical kidnapper who lent the vice its name, is the payee of the eye’s ransom.

What virtually holds all of us together is the wandering pilgrim-figure who exists primarily as a sender and receiver of encrypted, ghostly messages directed by (or to) a plethora of intelligence (MI6) “handlers,” but potentially accessed by “hackers,” who resemble readers, for none is able with certainty to discover the authenticity of any message. In American literature, the “receivers” at least originally, were also pilgrim/exiles convinced that they were “on God’s message,” even when they were internally generated. Similarly, Whitehead’s characters can never identify what sort of story they are living in, nor determine how to alter the story so as to become free of it. Like the bottles and urns of Giorgio Morandi (or Whitehead’s own delightful Japanese-style vases and urns) the question that initially poses itself might be: “how, precisely, does the artist and the spectator ‘handle’ (or ‘get a handle on’) this achievement?” The “handle” is of course spatially an inverted “opening,” an external hole that beckons to see if our touch “fits” and it can be accommodated to our use.[]

Noting that we have historical novels built upon presumably genuine historical record and its distortions and exaggerations (War and Peace, The Charterhouse of Parma), one of Whitehead’s characters in Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts, an earlier novel, wonders aloud why there has been no novel (other than academic novels) dedicated to the mutual, parasitical dependencies of literature and literary criticism? And, with its titular gesture to one of De Quincey’s more memorable essays, that earlier novel (and the film based upon it) might just qualify as a new genre, the “critical novel,” insofar as the mode, medium, and authorized and fugitive subversions, interceptions, and second hand re-transmissions of critical reception become more important than the narration itself. Could we have a novel that was a secondary commentary on all of the criticism of the novel, from the beginning of the novel, so as to redeem itself from its own secondary-ness? And if so, how would this imaginary cumulative “critical novel” re-write the idea of the “history of the novel?” The time of the novel would be indistinguishable from the time warp and weft of its critical reception(s).

In De Quincey’s oeuvre, to which Whitehead has long been attracted, the secondary assumes a number of structural or metaphoric formulations: reality as a transparent (and recording) vellum perpetually re-inscribed so that the reader might see “through” it; the imagination as a palimpsest which, like the dream, retains and reworks previous experiences and images; and finally of all mythic thought resembling a caduceus wrapped about with copulating snakes, an image of the bicameral bent of the human mind. De Quincey’s vellum dedicated to perpetual re-inscription finally becomes more valuable than the message inscribed upon it, because the repository of (whatever) text is also a mirror of (simultaneously) antecedent and superimposed texts (the persistence of the ghostly) and the ensuing commentary (responses to the ghostly). We can no more escape literary criticism than we can escape gossip, another instance of the infinite regress of those vulnerable to repeated re-inscription.

That we are now more exposed to theory than we are to history might be read as a crisis in each or, alternatively, that the secondary “reflection”, the critical reproduction, has displaced time-as-history, by bringing history forward, just as the image of the girl on the train is warped and distorted by a framing window that is in fact, a mirror. The latter might suggest why the secondary, copy, plagiarized “version,” as with the mixed-blood offspring of the various Gods (Christ included), is so persecuted in art and mythology. They are all literal or figurative “doubles.” Like the various “half-breeds” and homeless orphans that stalk the (occasionally chemically-induced) dreams of the British Romantics (Coleridge’s Abyssinian maids, Wordsworth’s Lucy, Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, De Quincey’s “Ann”, even Breton’s “Nadja”), the criticism of nineteenth-century British literature has long been over-determined by the quest for a “source”, foundational antecedent, or father—only to find a plethora of claimants, unauthorized traces, and imposter/plagiarists who simultaneously, interrupt and reproduce a presumably authentically “pure” text or lineage as part of a creative drive. The homeless, potentially disappearing (because already “disappeared”) waif is nothing less than the “enslaved ward of dissonant literary reveries” (Chapter IV) re-incarnated as the girl on the train bound to, in love with or the daughter of a companion near death or on a journey to death.[] Attendant, daughter, and lover all apparently share the same body.

Whitehead’s “protagonist/narrator (s)” should always be placed in quotation marks, because he is seldom directly accessible either to the other characters in the novel or to the reader of Whitehead’s heavily narratively-embedded framers whose voices often codify, even as they usurp each other. This vulnerability to narrative ventriloquy (a vocal two-way mirror?) by characters who often speak “through” each other (or through their defectively shared memories—and hence criticism—of each other) lends Girl on a Train an ideology inseparable from the proliferation of the secondary. One’s intermittent co-respondents are variably, demons who may be protective, merely digressive acquaintances, ex-partners, or those who would haunt one’s mission by plagiarizing shared events or interests which both hijack them and reproduce them. Whoever speaks is a necessarily intermittent and indeterminate “voice,” reaching us through the ether of the Nohzone, the Noh Drama elevated to a medium of transmission. Whether he be the aging figure on a train looking for Maria in the film, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts, or Michael Schlieman attempting to penetrate a terrorist cell that gives the lie to his own theories about the British Romantics’ tendency to elide love of nature and love of man, the sender/seeker/receiver of messages is always curiously detached, audible only to those attuned to hear voices. Among them might be: intelligence agents vacuuming up fugitive transmissions; literary critics like we writers of “introductions;” hackers into private messages; and religious fanatics. All assume that they are being addressed. 

Michael Schlieman, to those of us critics who are always hearing voices and trying to string them together as a “train” of reducible “meaning” (that we can maintain on one or another theoretical “track”) is an extension of the tradition of the involuntarily “detached narrator.” He perhaps most closely resembles the narrator of the late Carlos Fuentes’ recent novel, Destiny and Desire—the orally reproduced diary of a detached human head occupying a peculiarly durational recombinant spatio-temporal sphere: the remains, both physical and narrative, of the narcotic wars in Mexico, sending messages from an archaeological position beneath the earth as one of the “Disappeared.”

As Fuentes’ novel makes the public (albeit repressed and unacknowledged) life of Mexico private, miming a national culture of political repression, so Whitehead in Girl on a Train reveals the culture of “hacking,” “covers,” and their handlers and deniers—long before Parliamentary Investigative Committees looking at the industry of the British tabloid press—as a secondary palimpsest. This is the “life” of a country that, at least since Jane Austen, parasitically maintains itself upon a secondary, fugitive “tittle-tattle” that just as surely needs consumers in a symbiotic relationship that is criminality in situ. If every secret can be down-loaded by advances in the technology of surveillance—a form of democratic possession after all—then, the distinction between the policing and the revelatory liberation of secrets is totally obscured to such an extent that the life of the secret is threatened by its eternal existence (transcendence). Narrative double-agency is the (obscured) name of the game.

As Plato discovered in the Sophist, the Forms are available only in discourse. Given that reality must be systematic (because of the intrusion of non-being into our definitions of being), imitation, forgery, and sophistry proliferate. We are thus able to meaningfully say what is not true: to fantasize, speculate, gossip, and of course write stories. In such a world, the sophist or charlatan-liar would be a natural phenomenon, bearing the burden of a deeper truth: for truth to exist, falsehood must also exist. In Peter Whitehead’s work, but especially Girl on a Train, the true and the false are as bound as time present and time past are in Bergson’s durational model of time.

“It” (or Schlieman) always exists somewhere, at some time, as data which can be put to a variety of uses, as with our ideas of God, or the literary text. This symbiosis resembles those bonds creating the toxicity of love/hate relationships involving critics and authors, but also those of lovers in need of each other for the social reproduction that maintains both in a curious space not definable by any traditional topology of narrative, but which might be contained in the figure of the parasitical. It always takes two trying to be one in Peter Whitehead’s work, a view of the world read in terms of the copulation of figural opposites which need each other, even feed off each other, until “death do them part” (for a while, giving reincarnations). One instance of the inseparability of mask from body in oriental cultures might be the subtle “crazing” of porcelain ceramics resulting from the glaze cooling at a slower pace than its metamorphic “body clay,” resulting in a cracked surface (incorporating a resistance-s-cracking to cracking by an ordered “pre-cracking”) on jar, vase, or plate. The surface (inseparable from what lay beneath it, as both surface and commentary) thereby becomes a palimpsest whose loss (or is it not a loss) of structural integrity (?) is part and parcel of the virginity which underlies it. In Japan, a built-in obscurity is the first line of defense, part of a body’s expressiveness, well-suited to capitalism.

Dr. Schlieman, Whitehead’s narrator combines the binary in his very being. Cambridge academic doubling as an occasional contract “contact” for MI6, our don, unlike his predecessors in Graham Greene or John le Carré, could never pretend to “go native”—though he is occasionally “out of reach” of his control officers—but rather radically “goes tourist.” He is hence always vulnerable to a double betrayal, by those at home and abroad. After Joyce’s Ulysses (and perhaps Claude Levi-Strauss), “our” Schlieman—for he is a kind of pilgrim-as-archaeologist-as-everyman—is, like most academic explorers, a part of all that he has read. But whether Schlieman has read it, dreamed it, experienced it, or plagiarized it remains indeterminate. He is always too late or too early.

The snow fall en route is a bit early. Just as it is in a Kawabata short story, only recently translated, “First Snow on Mt. Fuji,” which involves fugitive lovers in old age trying to recapture the lure of witnessing the first, virginal autumn snowfall, by wagering on its date, mis-reported in a newspaper’s weather forecast. The auction of the virginal geisha to the highest prospective male bidder, known in Japanese as the ritual of mizu-age (literally, to be lifted out of the mizu-shobai, “the water trade,” a euphuism for prostitution) stalks Whitehead’s novel with its wet condensation in the snow of Girl on a Train. Schlieman takes wagered risks in all save his derivative “take” on British literature and Japanese life. Or just maybe his risk-taking is part and parcel of his conventional theories in the same way that the Edo-period “pleasure quarters” co-existed with the privileging of virginity then and now in the culture.

Michael Schlieman’s very name evokes a possible nineteenth-century forebear, the aesthete-archeologist and scam-artist, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who constructed his own myth of “white goddesses” (in anticipation of Robert Graves’ myth and Peter Whitehead’s recent white-on-white ceramic vases and jarlets). As with the author of Girl on a Train, Schliemann’s mother died while he was very young, committing her son to an early education in charity schools in Germany. After making a fortune under dubious circumstances in the California Gold Rush and another after cornering the market in saltpeter, sulfur, and lead (all components of ammunition) and selling it to the Russians during the Crimean War, the historical Schliemann jettisoned his first Russian wife to marry a woman of mixed ancestry thirty years his junior, the seventeen year old Sophia Engastromenos, after advertising for a bride in a Greek newspaper. He then became interested in the excavation of the site of the ancient Troy, believing that the Hellenic Troy must lie, as uniformitarian geology dictated, at the lowest level and hence destroying much of what he regarded as sacred in attempting to align historical time with its narrative. Creators and destroyers are often inseparable in Whitehead’s oeuvre, as his recurrent image of copulating snakes about a caduceus might suggest.

Though Heinrich Schliemann found gold beneath the ruins of Troy (and named the lode “Priam’s Treasure,” presumably later ferried away by Sophia), more sophisticated archaeologists have come to believe that the gold may have come from elsewhere. Other parts of his narrative reproduced in such volumes as Troja und seine Ruinen (1875) have raised problems for twentieth- century archaeologists, like William Calder of the University of Colorado, who has suggested that some of the detail may have come from other sources. Cosmopolitan (Heinrich Schliemann was fluent in at least four languages) explorers pick up a lot of baggage, fugitive intellectual gold, along the way.    

Whitehead’s Schlieman, like his historical namesake, is not immune to the political-as-sexual scam. In the novel Schlieman is often “caught in the middle” spiritually and intellectually conditioned for his taste in the “half-caste, the interface between East and West” (Ch. I). These are invariably relationships of mixed ethnicity and even possibly the offspring of a previous incestuous relationship, bonds like those which held a magnetic attraction for De Quincey; Byron; the “rough trade” from Malaysia appearing in the first chapter of Dickens’ unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood; and in the penultimate chapter of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. He is as attracted to the taint and tint of that which came into the world as both persecuted (even if perpetually innocent, like Rose La Touche) and yet harboring the blood of an unknown “source” of which she is unaware (and hence ignorant of origins), not unlike the earlier orphan-figure of the nineteenth-century British novel. The half-caste in Whitehead’s work, being a repository of historical-as-genealogical secrets, is a kind of archive of antecedent and successive misapplications, not unlike MI5 or the CIA: she combines innocence, and given ethnic or sexual androgyny, the potential for total duplicity insofar as she has a prosthetic, constructed identity. She therefore resembles and is attracted to the first-time visitor to Japan with equally prosthetic expectations, gleaned from the pastiche of promotional guidebooks, second-hand commentary, incidental reading, and the social practices inscribed therein. Madame Butterfly may be a kind of Ur-text. As with “briefing books” for intelligence agents, the “guide” is always dated, in the sense of pre-inscribed and prejudicial. The tour guide and her guest are quite literally (in some double sense) made for each other, not unlike parasites and hosts in the sense that they are pre-prepared, like the imperfect glaze “applied to” some oriental ceramics which nonetheless fits, as an intentional misapplication.

Schlieman, former lecturer in the British Romantics at Peterhouse College, Cambridge (Whitehead’s College), in his wanderings and hidden messages might well combine Mary Shelley’s protagonist of The Last Man with the critical trajectory of Graham Hough’s The Last Romantics. He is a penultimate narrator, a commentator upon the impending end of art (which he embodies in his work, given that his theories are a bit dated), living out his last days in what Whitehead imagines as a kind of fifth dimension imagined by close readers of Henri Bergson, but anticipated in the development of the Japanese Noh. In the opening chapter of Girl on a Train, Schlieman lives the life of the secondary, not unlike Shimamura Sensei, the protagonist of Kawabata’s Snow Country, a teacher of western ballet who has never seen a ballet performance, partially for fear that he would be shamed by his lack of the most rudimentary cultural knowledge were he to actually visit the culture of the West that has ostensibly been his life’s work: a love/hate relationship that informs his flight to the “snow country.” Rather than being “lost in translation,” Kawabata’s subject is quite at home in his unfamiliarity, a familiar figure in Japanese academic culture, where the absence of practical knowledge in a foreign language poses no hindrance to advanced research in the cultural and social practices of that language. In this case a doubly figural imagination is sufficient to provide the subject for an international conference.

In a country with the lowest English proficiency level in the world outside of North Korea, the English teacher with no knowledge of the language is not an exception, but the rule, a rule which perpetuates the problem. This is a calculated “detachment of the head” in favor of a rather unique voyeurism, not unrelated to that which in other cultures might defer acquiring sexual knowledge of the “other”: the fear of contamination. Partially a residue of Japanese nationalism (and a resistance to western values) ostensibly in the interests of self-reliance, this voyeurism aligns both the sexual attraction of the foreign, and the equivalent need to keep “it”, as an “it”, rather than an experience, i.e., at a safe-distance, so as to preserve the integrity of a detached head, to borrow from Iris Murdoch. Or as David Mitchell’s marvelous The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has recently reminded us, the need to maintain the alien Other in restricted, detached foreign concessions, like the trading outpost, Dejima, in the late eighteenth century: a politically and geographically detached body, neither of the country nor outside it, yet to be “used” by all. Such is a political “whore”, a “concession,” maintained in separate quarters for mutual benefit of both gaijins and kokumin.

That Schlieman should be fascinated with Japan, as is his creator, Peter Whitehead, should come as no surprise. This aging scholar of nineteenth-century British Romanticism is especially attuned to three major themes of its literature: 1) the attempt to restore a “visionary gleam” that has fled only to be replaced by the “sloppy seconds” (palimpsests) of the so-called “philosophic mind” that paradoxically maintains (as a destruction in which he participates) the ethereality of the primal experience (Wordsworth); 2) the spectre or ghost of a future or past partner—often forbidden genetically, socially, or out of fear of some previously unknown or unacknowledged past relationship—who flees at the moment of physical access leaving only the secondary memory to drive one mad (Brontës, De Quincey, Shelley’s “Witch of Atlas”); and 3) the interpreter of ancient gods who arrived too late (after Christianity) and are secondarily accessible only in the fragments which constitute abandoned myths or interrupted dreams—open to “misinterpretation” which are really legitimate interpretations—for poets to re-constitute as the “fake” or secondary (Keats’ “Fall of Hyperion” and “Ode to Psyche” and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”). All are obsessed with the restoration of some “never was” that is plagiarized as “the lost.”

A subtext of the literary conference to which Schlieman has been invited to contribute (to which Girl on a Train repeatedly alludes) is the growth of the shishosettsu novel during the Meiji Period in Japan. A belated and misunderstood application of what Keats (referring to Wordsworth) termed the “egotistical sublime,” Japanese novelists like Dazai developed a “confessional mode” in which a desiring (or at least seeker after transcendence) speaker attempted to establish a stylized first-person sincerity in a confessional genre. The so-called “I novel” was, from one perspective, an attempt to import a Western form into a country whose literary, and even grammatical, practices constitute a “native” resistance: the mirror image of Whitehead’s attempt to thematically appropriate the girl on the train.

In both conversational and literary Japanese, the first person pronoun is seldom used out of fear of imposing oneself upon the listener, i.e., “my husband died” would be translated into Japanese as “shujin ni shinaretta”, e.g., “ (unstated “I”) was died upon by my husband.” The verbal grammatical form is known technically as higai ukemi (suffering passive). Abasement, bowing, unconditional surrender, the diminishment of the “self” are all in the language, but of course romantic fashion with an imported Whitmanesque “barbaric yawp” is an affect that does not escape becoming an effect for the shishosettsu novelist. Such is the secret agency of cultural transaction. Internationalism (and thus a form of false assimilation) is plagiarism, a differential reincarnation in the interests of an imaginary universality. Misunderstandings and mis-applications of the Other (criticism) come to constitute a fascinating genre.

Dr. Schlieman, not the first refugee-as-secret agent in the history of the novel (pace Conrad), arrives by train during a premature autumn snowfall in Girl on a Train in a place that is simultaneously a season, a locale, and a repetition of a familiar fiction of that season, Kawabata’s antecedent Snow Country, to attend a conference, escorted by a translator-caretaker. In fact, this was exactly the circumstances of this plagiarist’s (what else is the writer of an “Introduction”) first visit to the Land of Wa: the academic conference (in my case jointly sponsored by both the United States Information Service and the Japanese American Studies Association way back in 1978). The attractive bi-lingual translator (in my case a well-known feminist journalist working for the American Embassy), just as does the Miyako (her name would translate as “capital” or the more idiomatic “Old Capital” of Kyoto, but also the title of another Kawabata novella). The professional translator of courses eases entrance into the foreign culture and its social and sexual practices in a variety of ways, while invariably arousing suspicion as to her “real” loyalties which are highly variable (monetary, sexual, as a spy for her employer). But those roles are not radically different from that of the geisha, a social lubricant in a country where the disappeared ego needs her to resurrect it.   

And though, gentle reader, I did not marry her, to turn a tradition of nineteenth-century novelistic endings upside down, I did marry a librarian who helped a then Visiting Professor to find a book, using a classification system which, like so much else in Japan, was then totally illogical to this gaijin. In an earlier novel, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts, that Professor Gordon (or a facsimile), now having a regular academic position, is mentioned as having extended an invitation to Dr. Schlieman to deliver a conference paper in Japan, thus establishing a temporal and thematic duration. We have had, gentle reader, a long fictional association, and, take it from me (or not), the aging scholar of British Romanticism and the aging critic are wrapped about the same caduceus. Is the writer of this shidai, really but another ghost from the Noh, in this case the “man about the house”? A ghost, etymologically derived from the word “guest,” after all often shares the life of the host in both nineteenth-century gothic novels and in Noh Drama, all love stories being ghost stories.

In Japan, there is no difference between the customer (to one’s business establishment) and the guest to one’s house: both are ongyakusan’s, strangers who are made or become part of the family. Does the writer of this introduction exist separately from Schlieman and if so, how does the fictional character of one novel become the introductory music, the “between-ness” as


the fraught coincidence implied by the kinship in virtual domains between author and      reader each of whom before they met on the blanched page of the printed page, had colonized an elaborately dissimilar universe ….

                                                           (Chapter II) 


Author and critic share a sole inter-corporeality, alternately betraying and supporting, to which criticism has lent the name, “inter-subjectivity.” As I borrow myself from the other (what else is an introduction/shidai but a borrowing and re-stating, that persists through the Noh performance), I also make him, inclusively, out of my own thoughts in the same way that Schlieman has accommodated Gordon Sensei. This intropathy of communication is never directly given as empirical data, but re-constructed from a secondary, invariably derivative impression/suppression, as perfected by Kawabata’s Shimamura of Snow Country. The strategy of this attendant ghost has the added advantage of being self-protective, but, given the nature of time, only intermittently so. Ghosts (even critical ones) must “out.”

This distinction between author and critic (or shidai and performance in Noh) should not at all be like that between mind and body, insofar as flesh (as objective body) is always constituted for consciousness out of powers that are always-already tributary to the body. Consciousness, like the critical presence for Whitehead, turns out to have already called upon what it is only supposed to be constitutive of. Our original incarnations of thought can never be expressed objectively, but only in some synthesis prior to, because older than, all the syntheses resulting from noetic-noematic structures, a procedure which he refers to as copulation. Rather, as in the work of Merleau-Ponty, our knowledge must be part of a discovery of the felt (senti) as indistinguishable from feeling (sentant). The French phenomenologist’s familiar example is that of my left hand shaking my right hand: the co-presence of two hands belonging to the same body. I thus, “borrow” my “self” from the other and make him out of my own thoughts, bypassing such categories as analogical reasoning.[] Between the “touching” and the “being touched” is a structured community antecedent to another “other” defined by some gnosis of historical “touching” or its absence, as in say, the concept of virginity, made to answer for what constitutes it, impossible given that what constitutes it is an absence.




The absence of any spatial distinction between unity and plurality, the (only vicariously, which means not at all), detached critic might attribute to the “holographic imagination” in Whitehead’s oeuvre. The key to the mystery of holography is precisely that the entirety of an image is present everywhere over its surface, in every divisible fragment (including dream and archaeological fragments) of it: Traherne’s “the absolute felt in the least thing” or Blake’s “universe in a grain of sand” subvert the quest for transcendence that has been the project of Western metaphysics. As time and space are joined like the two halves of the DNA molecule, the physics of holography implies that time and space must be analogously structured, albeit not strictly convertible, as Bergson warned us against assuming. We could, potentially traverse time (as in dreams) as easily as we traverse space. All time would be present and accessible in every other fragment of time, the universal in the particular and vice-versa. Our experience is thus neither presence nor absence, but a holograph: “presence-absence”, “distance-non distance.”

Though neither time nor space, to launch a feeble pun, allows a full articulation of the misunderstandings that we form of their relationship, Whitehead’s holographic imagination may well have antecedents in Bergson’s notion that intuition presupposes duration. The primary Bergsonian division, it should be recalled, is between duration and space, as opposed to most classical philosophy—or for that matter, even nineteenth-century Uniformitarianism—which would align the two as a set.

The assimilation of time and space is for Bergson the fatal flaw in the history of western thought, for it creates the idea of a singular Whole. Time appears as a screen that prevents access to the Whole (a space/time imagined as happiness or forms of transcendence), showing us only successively or incrementally what God or transcendence would be if apprehended in a single glance. This Whole—as inaccessible cognitive hole in Bergson’s scheme—can be only virtual, unable to assemble its actual parts. Whenever life is divided into oppositions like plant and animal and the animal is further divided into say, instinct and intelligence, each side of the division carries the whole with it, Bergson’s élan vital (from one perspective) being the actualization of the virtual. There is a modicum of instinct in intelligence and a modicum of the plant in every animal. Differentiation would be the actualization of a potentiality that persists across divergent lines.

Duration tends to assume all the differences in kind, because it includes the continual re-adjustment to surroundings. It qualitatively varies with itself, like, to borrow Bergson’s familiar example, a lump of sugar (which having a fungible spatial configuration) is then dissolved in a liquid. Space never presents anything, but differences of degree (or phase) since it is quantitatively homogenous. When we divide anything up, we have a spatial dimension, by which a thing can only differ in degree from other things and from itself and by an aspect of duration which differs in kind from others, but also from itself.

In dividing what had been a composite in such a way that only one of them—duration—takes account of how a thing varies qualitatively in time, Bergson allows intuition to become a method insofar as it reconciles a methodology with immediate experience. Intuition becomes the method by which we emerge from our own duration, by which we use our own duration to affirm the existence of other durations, above us, below us, or co-incidental with us. Concepts ordinarily occur in pairs and represent antagonistic values, forces, or valences that ground the motion of the dialectic. Against dialectical agents like the “One” and “the Multiple,” time considered as duration is opposed to becoming precisely because it is already a multiplicity. It can never be reduced to oppositions like the “One” and “the Multiple” typically, on the condition that they are held at some extreme point of generalization, and hence abstracted from the reality of measure.[]While the real is representative of a possible that it might actualize, the actual obscures the virtuality that it embodies. The differences between the complementary lines (and between the virtuals that mark the beginning and the actual at which we arrive as pilgrims) generate meaning. It is the incommensurability that creates an economy of excess.

One suspects that Bergson’s project was an attempt to think of differences in kind independently of mutual negation, the over-determining driving force of post-Hegelian philosophy. It is a sophisticated critique of both the negative of limitation and the easy absorption of “general ideas.” Similarly Whitehead’s “holographic imagination” posits a fecund repetition (like his other repetitions such as mirrors, copulating snakes, plagiarism, De Quincey’s caduceus, the palimpsest) without ever involving negation: the mechanics of holography made into an explanation of existence.

As a consequence of the relativity of rest and movement, the contractions of extension, and the dilations of time, suspensions in simultaneity become reciprocal in such way that there is a plurality of times, with different speeds of flow—all of which are real, albeit peculiar to a system of reference. Such is the essence of the Noh Drama. In order to situate a determinate point, to indicate a position in both time and space, time could only be unified in a fourth dimension of space. But if we consider time as a fourth dimension of a space limited to three dimensions, then the fourth dimension (time) must, like the holograph, contain all dimensions of space. Since time can never be a fourth dimension of space—for Bergson regards their elision as the great error of Western metaphysics—there is a kind of unanticipated “effect” in its operational dynamics, a hiccup.

This hesitation, a positive non-succession, is related to creation for Bergson, and appears in Whitehead’s “world” with both ideological and stylistic impact, as a creative synapse. Freud’s legendary loss of consciousness during a meeting with Jung; interruptions in encrypted communications from the Nohzone that nonetheless communicate; the verbal pun (the co-incidental copulation of two effects in the same word); or the absence of a universal word appropriate to the concept embodied in the utterance “I’m coming now” or the abstraction, jouissance, in French, would all qualify. Unlike Proust’s notion of recoverable time, or Freud’s notion that psychoanalysis is dedicated to “making the past really past” in order to effect a cure, Whitehead’s work imagines the continuous copulation of past memory and future desire to give birth to the eternal NOW of the Nohzone.

Another, perhaps more familiar example, might be the alternating accretive verse represented in the tradition of the Japanese renga. The essence of renga is the idea of change (henka), though Basho described this as a perpetual newness (atarashimi), a kind of “refraining from stepping back,” surely one of Schlieman’s admirable strategies of engagement. At a social gathering a host (or the most senior member present) writes a poem with a hokku of 5-7-5 sound units on white, waterproof vellum and sends it down a rivulet or small stream to other seated guests. Not the drunken boat maybe, but an imaginable antecedent? The next person, as the poem in situ floats downstream, adds a second verse of 7-7 with the pattern repeated by each guest/recipient/author until the desired length is achieved, usually thirty-six verses in a sake-soaked evening. Antecedent rhythms and themes must be incorporated in order to keep the boat going. Everyone participates equally by taking turns until the abrupt end, or kyu. These are the last verses and in terms of content, should quickly incorporate the broken and interrupted conversations of the guests as they prepare to depart, gathering up belongings and memories, a combination of disturbance and honorific sayonara.

Narrative or chronological order is non-existent, but the form might be imagined as a continuous maintenance of interrupted, interrupting, and supplementary responses. There would be no difference between author and listener, for Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” is imbedded in every response. A western exemplar might be the 1979 sonnet-renga, Airborne, by Octavio Paz and Charles Tomlinson, with its allusion to origami, another instance of a floating vellum borne on the wings of discourse.

The structuration of Whitehead’s novels, like the Japanese Noh and renga, is musical rather than literary insofar as they frequently “play” with the synapses that develop between keeping time and its apparent (but only apparent) disruptions which are really the spacing of continuity. When you listen to music, you are accessing vertical parallel (Klages) links, harmonics which are to the aural register what the palimpsest is to the visual register. The entire composition must be maintained vertically in the present. Hence the interpretational code is there and not there, insofar as it resists access as a totalizing coda, (a map of understanding). What appears as markers or pauses or “breaks,” as in the glazing of oriental ceramics of which Whitehead is an accomplished student, is simultaneously restorative of a previous “time” as well as “anticipatory” of a future “time” which the plot (melody) has only incompletely foregrounded. Whitehead’s oeuvre perhaps more nearly resembles that of the equally under-rated Anthony Powell’s epochal A Dance to the Music of Time.[]




In contradistinction to holographic space or durational time, perhaps more closely aligned with trains, castles, and prisons—with which it shares the notion of a structural vehicle or edifice of controlled rationality—would be the international academic conference, like the one to which Dr. Schlieman is invited in Girl on a Train. Like the aforementioned dwellings of sociality, the academic seminar runs to a time-table of delivered or tabled papers, discussions, and visits to tourist sites with (often outsourced) but attentive care-takers, translators, and guides. One can escape, but at least politely only during designated coffee breaks or locally-organized entertainment or tours that invariably sanitize the non-existent, but putatively real Japan, insofar as it thereby becomes a consumable commodity (as in novels, ukiyo-e, and tourist brochures).

The various famous and infamous academic “nameswho deliver their scheduled presentations are usually always-already known to each other through a system of mutual esteem (or condemnation) and cross-referencing in published papers or various Festschriften. Time is loaded rather than interrupted, as in the synaptic imagination, producing a genuinely metaphysical boredom to which Heidegger has drawn our attention.[]This produces the oppositions, over‑familiarity/unfamiliarity, given that the snow resorts with their hot spring baths is to the locals, including Kawabata, a sexually charged destination. No wonder that, having been guided by his translator/chaperone to the anonymously international-style hotel, another variation on the hotel-of-the-world, Schlieman’s first gesture is the wish to escape the venue, to visit the familiarly exotic, at least to the author of critical works on the Brontës, a snow-covered cemetery. Bad infinity (as infinite regress) shares comparable environments: the hotel-of-the-world of the permanently dead (a nearby cemetery) or a similar “hell of gossiping academics” (Ch. I) sited in a totally westernized venue. Spiritually, this is a “Starbuck’s moment.”

Duration, for Peter Whitehead, is more akin to the notion of shukumei in Japanese, the potentiality of many incarnations (the vulnerability to gossip), yet as in Bergson’s famous illustration of the inverted cone with its circular stages, the collective points of memory are always cumulative: they reach “all the way down,” inseparable from the flow of experience.[10] One example might suffice. In both Girl on a Train and Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts one of the peripheral characters, Michel Webster, fears that he is HIV positive, given a sexual history of multiple partners. One of the ways of describing the condition might be at least symbolically imagining any kind of detachment as impossible; one would be constituted (temporally) as a palimpsest of the sexual history of all his partners and each of their partners (sexual reincarnation), deconstructing traditional autobiography as the product of a sincere, “private” self. Potentially, no partner could ever be forgotten. The persistence of the “forgotten,” though less than historically effective in our wars on poverty, in the case of sexually- transmitted diseases creates a hypertext link between Bergson’s thought, the recurrent obsessions of the British Romantics, and Schlieman’s dreams: nothing is forgettable…

There is an analogous continual and accumulative durational flow between lives in literature and lived (“natural”) life insofar as they live each other’s life and die each other’s deaths, the winding and unwinding of Yeats’ threaded bobbins of A Vision, so that antithetical and primary are never in opposition for long. Perhaps for no writer since Oscar Wilde has there existed in English literature such a transparency between art and life. Having absorbed the trope of the aged, infirm man with a gorgeous pre-pubescent companion who may be daughter, caretaker, or lover, Dr. Schlieman becomes obsessed, like Roland Barthes in The Empire of Signs, with the “real” Japan, which he has experienced only in his reading. Japan itself remains virginally inaccessible, yet tempting to foreigners.  

That too is a strategic myth of the country dating from a rape, the rather forced “opening” commanded by Commodore Perry’s “black ships.” Both the real history of the country and its history as reflected in its visual and written narratives seem similarly highly sexualized, in such a way that the derivative and the “copy” cannot be distinguished with certainty, like the alleged original and its plagiarisms. How to account for the apparent hypocrisy between the respect for purity and virginity on the one hand and the assigned “pleasure quarters” which offer an escape from the boredom of everyday life in the country, for which an academic conference at a Corbusier “style” hotel, a boring albeit elected imitation, might be a wonderful simulacrum? For Peter Whitehead, as for Peter Bürger, it is the social status of a particular art form that generates meaning. Japan gives the final lie to “organic” notions that permeated European romantic literature.[11]

Miyako, Dr. Schlieman’s very Westernized, English-speaking guide, assigned to a foreigner who, sharing Forster’s Adela Quested’s wish in A Passage to India, to experience the “real” Japan in five days, constructs a familiar myth for her student/guest. Japan was “once upon a time”—hence a myth of divine origins—a country where sex was an art form. But the art has now entered a decadent phase in which common prostitutes, street artists as it were, “pretend” to be part of a school of performance art surrounding the movements of the geisha. The mysterious “girl on a train” with her aged and infirm companion is really a plagiarism, an art form gone to seed, with her imitation leather skirt and peculiarly western posture. As the work of Claude Levi-Strauss perpetually reminds us, every myth never merely describes, but participates in the myth it narrates.[12] The entire thrust of Girl on a Train is the inclusion of myths within myths, a continuous re-writing that is never separate from its putative foundations. There can be no “outside” to any myth.

Miyako’s ideological edifice is no exception. Not unlike the “vulgar Marxism” of William Morris, her “Japan” was initially (imaginatively) a place where there was no difference between art and life, until they became separated by the commercialization of the country as a set of easily reproduced “images.” This myth of decadence is more than symmetrically accommodative to an aging British don wedded to the notion of British Romanticism from De Quincey through Ruskin as a long study in the imagination as an induced (artificially stimulated) affection which is then interrupted. Initially interrupted by social repression because the sacred Other was forbidden by virtue of birth or some lower caste status; then later by recognition that the image had been artificially induced by drugs; by the time of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, the unfinished Gothic in which collective belief, faith and everyday life were united, has been reduced to the commercialized “copy,” against which Hardy railed in condemning the “Gothic Restoration” movement. Commercialized decline defines the mythic just as the myth is that of commercialized decline. Girl on a Train goes upstream, as it were, and brilliantly so, to explore the creation of this myth which has always been Whitehead’s interest.

The decline endemic to Miyako’s myth of Japan is related to the enhanced role of the “copy”: the girl on the train of whom Schlieman is so enamoured is believed to be or advertised as, a mimetic copy of the acquired skills of the geisha. And though capitalism depends upon the reproductive copy and an ever-enlarging consumer base for success, the displacement of this mimetic economy by a scapegoating economy implies that certain people are sacrificed for engaging in the same exchange of copies that everyone else is manufacturing and selling. Before questions arose as to the legitimacy of downloading images or music from the internet, Whitehead was already envisioning this “crisis” in the operative assumptions of capitalism as a kind of synapse. This is to say that our obsession with the “copy” emerges when, out of the multitude of objects produced by a commercial economy, those that do not fit into the existing system of controlled distribution are scapegoated as “outcasts.” And myths necessitate the sacrificial outcast of that which potentially infects a non-existent “authenticity”; only the outcast can maintain the myth. So that myth maintenance needs decay to maintain itself, a feature of myth that creates a system of mutual dependency in a differential sharing, much as do parasites. Throughout his career, Peter Whitehead has embodied a resistance to the mimetic economy by eschewing the traditional channels of artistic production: commercial publishers, film production companies, and, until quite recently, established critics.




All these theories of decay have as their operative idea an innocent or at least un-inscribable origin, a middle journey, and a fatigued arrival (decay)—a progression that Bergson’s notion of continuous duration (but not the linear train journey) refutes. The virtual does not necessitate realization, but only actualization and the rules of actualization are not those of resemblance or limitation, but rather those of difference, diversion, and ultimately, unique forms of plural creativity. As Schlieman’s vulgar reading of a Zen koan would have it: “absence copulates with presence and produces time” (Ch. II). In our increasingly legally-encoded economy these days, such easily obtained abundance and reproduction (the department store, the internet, the musical “cover”, the downloaded CD) provides a challenge, a kind of hiccup to the singular.

Copies proliferate and are labeled as such precisely because they cannot be accommodated by the existent politico-economic system charged with the governance of surplus, even as the market (desire) creates these temples to the ancient goddess Copia.[13] We worship the “untainted” original (an impossibility) while demanding these variously plural “pleasure quarters,” in an armature that generates the energy needed to maintain the system. In short, we create, as did the Edo Period Japanese gentleman and Victorian nightly “cruisers,” a market of oppositional values. As with athletics, the professional and the amateur form a continuous, plural market, in which subversion from either side is a continual threat. From one perspective, only re-incarnation (re-inscribing by purifying the “marked” for a new, virginally unanticipated use) might acknowledge the need for both the untouched original and the proliferating parasite that needs, no less than his host, the copy. Had Christianity done that with Mary rather than Jesus of Nazareth, where might be we? “No, let us not go there…” as Schlieman might say to Yoko. 

“Our” familiar re-incarnation from previous novels—the re-incarnated and re-cycled, even in literature, often suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome unattached as they are to any idea of decadence or decay—once safely (or not?) bedded by his intellectual chaperone, but still dreaming of the girl on the train, watches a tourist board promotional video in his hotel room (Ch. II). It is the equally endlessly looping visual narrative of the life of the Chijimi weavers, a traditional Japanese art form. Whitehead’s reading in Japanese culture has obviously given him knowledge of this cultural practice that is unique to Westerners. Spread on snow before being washed in ash water, this white fabric (vellum) is historically woven only by young, virginal women of the snow country and only in winter. Once married, so the history of the production of the fabric would have it, the skill is lost, apparently vanishing with the loss of virginity (HIV in reverse?). Hence the art form dwells in a winter mode, between harvest and planting. Weaving is here intimately, perhaps too intimately, tied to the history of sexual experience, especially so etymologically, given that the Japanese word for the physiological membrane known as the hymen is actually ami (weaving, knitting, netting, the crazed surface). Hence, the film he watches at the conference hotel would seem to support Miyako’s assertion of some originary, in the sense of mythical, relationship between art and sexuality, totally compatible to the lost tradition of the geisha, at the hands of the commercialization of both body and the “fake” attire of the girl of Girl on a Train.

Whitehead has captured a particularly unique feature of Japanese art: notably, its attempt to embody contingency within its formal dimensions through the establishment of the negation of negation which produces an illusion of emptiness. Whereas western art typically “plays” with the relationship between universal and particular or the timeless realm and a realm bound to the mutable (a kind of “exchange economy”), Japanese art takes its effects by superseding this dichotomy. Universality exists only incarnated in—and subverting—some particularity. And, conversely, no particularity can ever become what we might term “the political” without becoming the locus of a universalizing effect. In western art, typically, the elimination of all representation is the illusion which enables a notion of emancipation (or transcendence). This is of course achieved in too many ways to mention, but among them is literary criticism itself which always transforms an “event” into some reducible or expanded “meaning,” by stringing together contingent events into an allegedly “unified” or self-consistent whole that denies the contingent. Jacques Derrida’s later work reminds us of the “negativity” of the contingent event in Western thought:

     An event is always exceptional, an exception to the rule. Once there are rules, norms, theories to evaluate this or that, there is no longer an event.[14]


If the reader of an introduction will allow me to digress for a paragraph in order to illustrate how what we would term “representation” tends to become constitutive in such a way that (to borrow from Saussure) the signifier does not entirely subordinate itself to the signified, but rather, as Lacan would have it, is subject to displacements, a kind of slippage. In Edo Japan, a poet/painter, Gion Nakai, was asked to design a kimono by a patron for his secret paramour. When laid flat, the kimono appears to represent a bamboo grove. But when worn, breaks (synapses) appear in the silk fabric: distortion occurs in such a way that the bamboo grove appears as if it were reflected in water. Such is the illusory nature of love, clothed. Sexual relationships bend, dissolve, are re-constituted differentially by exposure to the light of day, but it could be argued that it is unique to have these contingencies, not represented, but actually, like the holographic imagination, woven in to an object that becomes in effect at least, a diary of the continuing fragility of a contingent relationship that remained socially hidden.

The word text is derived of course from tex-tile, a reminder that our books were once written on fabric which due to its high cost, was re-used to produce the palimpsest, so crucial to De Quincey’s career. Such a device inaugurated the confusion between text and commentary, as one had to read through one to the other with an attendant confusion in the midst of historical maintenance. Does the text somehow, à la Bergson, contain its potential commentary rather than merely suffer it? What finally happened to Nakai’s kimono which more nearly resembles a talisman than a traditional work of art? Sadly, it is so light- sensitive (as is Whitehead’s Yoko during her dance performance in Girl on a Train) that its recent public display along with other objects from the Packard Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will likely be its last according to curators. It, like the relationship it clothed, cannot apparently stand the light of day! Such is a self-abasing representation (not unlike plagiarism) with a difference.

The kimono’s “timelessness” is not at all in opposition to its “temporality.” Rather the production of tendentially “empty” signifiers maintains a striking commensurability between the universal and the particular which enables the latter to take up the representation of the former (and vice-versa). A country which takes great delight in wrapping empty bodies or gifts with elaborate palimpsests, layers of differential fabrics to be unwrapped (e.g., Issey Miyake’s clothing for the female body) is of course vulnerable to the pornographic: the recognition that the body is a gift to be unwrapped slowly rather than merely possessed. One well-known late Heian Era kimono design was the so called Hito no Tsunagi (“Gathering of the Seven Treasures”) in which miraculously a group of circles is aligned so as to create the octagonal lozenge (arcs being not at all incommensurate with lines) which just so happens to be the symbol through which Schlieman’s Nohzone missives can be accessed, in Whitehead’s novel. How has Schlieman’s reading led him here? Neither the artist formally known as Prince’s squiggle nor Pynchon’s horn of The Crying of Lot 49, but the lozenge is an historical synapse, a code in kimono design, but also a code known only to initiates.

     Japan being a culture of the necessary “arrangement” and “introduction”—part of the machinery by which rejection is avoided and selflessness thereby maintained in the culture—Miyako is ideally situated to act as the nakahodo, the go-between who “wires” (as MI6 agents “wire” informants) the date with the girl on the train, the reputed prostitute, Yoko. One never simply drops in to see a doctor or lawyer, nor is there servant or factotum to announce a guest, as in Europe. But the first meeting must be “assisted” by a referent or at least the presentation of a referee’s name-card, the ubiquitous meishi, and perhaps a gift that is often either an “empty” signifier or is emptied by being re-distributed into the general economy of whatever establishment. The word for prostitution in Japanese is enjo kosai, literally “subsidized dating.” Given an earlier easy night spent with the translator/guide/nakahodo, the barrier between professional geisha and ordinary student seems flexible, as flexible as the warped image of Yoko, the “girl on the train,” through a copulation of refraction and reflection.

For in Japan all dates, even business contacts, a more accepted form of prostitution, begin with an exchange of gifts, surrendering your name-card and hence a “self” which innocent gaijins fold up and write upon to produce a “text” in an act that is culturally frowned upon in Japan, as a deforming palimpsest. The loss or abject diminishment of the self has the practical effect, unnoticed as far as I know in the numerous sociological studies of Japanese cultural practices, of removing individual responsibility (with identity) save by its miming double: that radical abasement of the self, ritual suicide a la Mishima or more recently, the shacho’s (CEO’s) of troubled large financial institutions. In so many ways, as Peter Whitehead’s work (like that of Roland Barthes in The Empire of Signs) comprehends, the country is more than “half in love with easeful death.” Obeisance to the group is not at all different from suicide if you believe in burial in family tombs or the combination of metempsychosis and re-incarnation, the persistence of the death-in-life, unique to Buddhist “life” in Japan. There is no escaping the past (to which, like the future) we belong. Unlike “the end of the line” for trains, occidental mortals, and most novels, nothing can ever be posthumous in the Land of Wa, given that history itself is a virtual, collective continuity. Some luxury sushi purveyors specialize in serving their patrons fish in the cusp between life and death (like Yoko’s mask), so that a patron, as with the Noh Dance, devours the “motion” of the (barely alive) fish wiggling between one’s chopsticks. And in the case of the expensive fugu (Pacific Globe Fish), any remnant of the fish’s liver (the consequence of an improper cleaning) brings death to the consumer within two minutes. Such are risks and rewards writ quite familiar in Japan. And you never know until you try it. Then, as with gossip, it’s too late now, a phrase that Bergson would comprehend as a metaphysical proposition. One is constantly reminded in Japan that we living are merely on temporary home leave from somewhere else.

Girl on a Train ultimately reveals a relationship between opposites, only one reversed from what the plot of the novel leads us to expect. The adopted half-breed, Yoko (whose natural father is an American military “occupier”) initially appears as the professional woman (in the discourse of her real half-sister, but sexual rival) and in the stereotypes of relationships between young women and old men in the literature of Japan. She is an “adopted” daughter (the female yooshi) who maintains a contaminated family reputation (the step-father a dealer in nuclear waste, as the natural father was a representative of its original deliverer) by a reversible posture that escapes redemption or transcendence because delivery and distribution of the residue, in opposition, drive the system. In Whitehead’s imaginative faux fini, (what else is a “Coda”?) the elusive Yoko reveals herself as having a different status than what either a community’s gossip or Schlieman’s active imagination—which it informs—might lead the reader to suspect. Her narrative, generated by the needs of a rival and the desires of the tourist trade subsidized by the rival, had appeared as the “real Japan,” insofar as it corresponded with an image always-already constructed in the gestural life of the country.

This is frequently true historically with uncontaminated objects of worship in the history of mythology. Yoko is thus vulnerable to belief-formation (of which gossip is a modern descendant, our new religion), a goddess in situ. In the Philebus (58c), Plato likens philosophical truth, as opposed to belief, to a small piece of white paper lacking in all intensity in its humility; renga or the paper shapes made into origami that on occasion are, waterborne or airborne. Yoko’s vellum constitutes the resistance to multiple re-inscriptions, the chance encounters of artists, critics, characters, and antecedent texts, that de-constructs the Nohzone post “post-age,” while re-establishing it as a no-zone. False belief and truth share the same holographic space.

Heir to her stepfather’s ill-gotten fortune, Yoko has been compromised not by acts, but by discourse, to which her dance (accompanied by nary a word) gives the lie insofar as she induces/entrances the silent participation of the Other. As a kind of detective (on secondment from academia), Dr. Schlieman gropes toward the non-mystery at the heart of every mystery (a primary absence) inadvertently. Her dance performance will use an imaginative “eighth veil” which Schlieman engages (as non-engagement) in an act of transcendent “touching” that would have made Merleau-Ponty proud insofar as it intimates the Sacred while leaving it in-tact (untouchable).

Girl on a Train (absent the definite article, thereby enhancing the generic quality of Yoko’s dehumanized narrative existence) thus concludes with a “Coda” which de-constructs all that precedes it, while falsely determining critical belief. Having the same root as “code,” the Coda is a supplement to the “concluding” chapter, the attempted restoration of a constructed, temporally emancipated (and hence fictional) unitary meaning (virginity) in a novel that otherwise celebrates the plural and perpetually virtual. The restored “order” is a collapse of the sexual order that has informed the novel. The “Coda” surely qualifies as an instance of Hegel’s notorious “bad infinity,” or as Whitehead termed it in the outline to a screenplay, the “omni-absent,” insofar as it is infinitely regressive. It is a fake summary, like plagiarism and the “knock-off” western clothing of the novel, a last, strategic attempt to make the plural (genuine inter-corporeality), singular. The Coda satisfies the reader’s quasi-addiction to coded resolutions of plot; the arrival at the railway terminus; the blank vellum of transcendent meaning—in short an encompassing explanation that mimes the death of the text (which is what any Coda really is), to the exclusion of the contingent, trans-finite event which should escape inscription much as does Yoko and the text of her body in Girl on a Train. Her unresolved secret is a resistance to inscriptive encoding, even Peter Whitehead’s. But it resembles the supplement to Pauline Réage’s L’Histoire d’O.

The Coda, likes all codes, intentionally falls short, fulfilling its role as an abbreviated explanation (as totalization). For the Coda too is prey to time and the inconclusive circulation of fugitive narratives and interference in a country that eschews endings in favor of the ubiquitous “sayonara” (“bye, until next time”), “shittsurei shimasu” (“pardon me; I am disturbing you by my premature departure”), or the most common phrase in the Japanese language, “gomen nasai” (“pardon me; but we are not yet finished”) routinely uttered as an apology indistinguishable from an introduction when inadvertently striking a fellow shopper in an aisle, or shaking hands after losing in tennis. Nothing is ever finished and the apology partakes of the palimpsest of expected (even if fictional) layered renewals. If contingency is inseparable from history and history is always contingent, ghosts have a field day, just as the Platonic Forms, a different ghostly presence, do in the philosopher’s notion of anamnesis! They always communicate in code, but never can be codified or otherwise embodied as a Coda. The ghostly shidai (the ghost as a virtual and hence real “I”) is a recurrent contingency in the Noh, so recurrent as to elide contingency and necessity, as in the demands renga makes of its participants.

The contingent fire, an allusion to the conflagration that devours the home of the geisha at the conclusion of Kawabata’s last novel, Yukiguni, is repeated as a speculative Coda in Girl on a Train. The wooden house where Yoko’s Noh performance (before her sexually-charged audience) takes place has been ravaged by fire previously, yet in historical narrative doubly re-c(s)ited (plagiarized). Yoko’s conventionally discursive Coda is a kind of narrative conflagration that would purify a highly contingent narrative foregrounded in other narratives, a requiem of sorts, the attempted erasure of all narrative palimpsests. Often in the Noh, wood (in a culture which treasures the graining of various woods and the recurrent palimpsests of lacquer artwork which is layered atop it) is a symbol of life itself, at no time more than on Thursdays (Mokuyobi, or “wood day”,) and Tuesdays (Kayobi or fire day) in Japanese. Thus, the relevance of a Japanese proverb: “fire consumes wood and time consumes us.” Dying in Japanese is most often expressed as naku narimasu: or in my translation, life “ran out.” But the same is true for toilet paper or an empty wine bottle. Buddhists live and die for the refill/supplement. There is alas, always more (time and bodies) to be inhabited in a plural economy, but no guarantee of terminal rest in Whitehead’s haunting plural achievement.


                                   DE-CODA (Kyu)


As I quickly conclude this introduction-cum-de-settling setting to Girl on a Train in late evening, a familiar sound reaches the shoji (sliding doors) that open to our verandah and garden in Kyoto: that of the hyoshigi, a pair of wooden mallets struck by hand together to emit the nocturnal “clacks” familiar to Japanese since the Edo Era. They are held and clapped together by the yomawari, literally the “pilgrim/wanderer of the night,” usually an aged fire department employee in the cusp between shittsurei shimasu (sorry to disturb) and complete retirement (in two senses) and no longer able to climb heights: like we critics. The yomawari warns us, even modern city dwellers, to extinguish all fires, a message that had acute relevance in an age when hibachi’s filled with charcoal warmed rooms, the sunken ryori used to cook the evening meal could emit dying embers fueled by paper doors and lanterns, or the fire-bombing of Tokyo made fuel of wood and paper houses. But the yomawari is also time, an evening clock. The aging pilgrim, is a ghostly residue of the Noh, our guardian waki, a nightly reminder of conflagrations that accompany our dreams, like antecedent and ensuing texts—the train of literary history—as we prepare for flames of passion and cremation at the other, recurrently plural and holographic secret sharers: night and death.


                                               Jan B. Gordon/Kyoto/Autumn 2012





[] In Japanese, the shidai denotes the entrance music for the Noh performance. Depending upon the historical genre of the Noh, this music might be performed on a horizontal drum in combination with a number of reed or wooden wind instruments such as the shakuhatchi or koto. This highly evocative music typically accompanies the arrival of a pilgrim at some “sacred” shrine, the site of an imperfectly understood betrayal or often, some aged retainer or self-appointed guardian of the shrine, the waki or deuteragonist functioning as a kind of spiritus loci. If the Noh Drama is considered as a kind of lyrical/dramatic tone poem in which the text functions similarly to the libretto in a Wagner or Debussy opera, then the shidai should both settle and unsettle an audience, one definition of the “introduction” to a literary text. 


[] Bataille’s notion of a “general economy” would contrast it with the traditional exchange economy which invariably seeks an elision of identification through the dissolution of monetary denomination. My watch is therefore approximately equivalent to my shoes, as both would be “dissolved” within say, the same one-hundred pound note (or imaginary value). Whitehead’s novels resist an economy of equivalence in favor of one that re-directs mimetic energies, i.e., the way in which a particular form arises out of groundless, infinitely excessive multiplicity. This multiplicity depends upon a differential repetition as in say, the Buddhist mantra. See Georges Bataille, “The Use Value of the Marquis De Sade,” in Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 91-102.


[] Peter Whitehead published a photo journal entitled Baby Doll in the late 1960’s consisting largely of black and white photographs of various stages of bondage with a woman inside of what appears to be (a distorting) mirrored room of a castle in France. Who is doing precisely what or to whom in these “acts” or poses of acts is unclear. The entire record of a luxurious bondage, a photo diary of a “relationship”, which (like most diaries) must be continued in order to avoid death, explores the relationship between artistic continuity and physically “keeping it up.” If the diary ceases, as with the example of Anne Frank, death would be temporally contiguous with art, so that difference would disappear in a shared identity/ negation. Orgasm, like art, can be faked (or plagiarized from “how to” guide books). The photos in Baby Doll among other themes, explore a relationship between intimacy and imitation and the potential for either freedom or imprisonment “posed” by both in terms of placing, i.e., “positioning,” the participants in a dance, in sex, or in a photographic diary.


[] Whitehead’s impressive oeuvre—be it in film, novels, photographic journals, or ceramics—often deploys sophisticated use of “spacing,” the creation of gaps or seams in what seems on first glance, to be a continuum. The same object or “track” (in a film) reappears as if a repetition, only to be vulnerable to visual “containment” within the previous frame or version. Hence, the difference between repetition, co-incidence, and the merely contingent accident is obscured with a quasi-spiritual impact (“it can’t be; yes, it is”). In medieval Japanese literature, two people who say, happen to rest under the same tree or drink from the same river at the same location, are assumed to have had a relationship in a previous life. In the Noh drama, Sanemori, there is an illusion to the universe as a wide ocean in which swims a turtle lacking eyes, save but one opening in its stomach and a floating plank with a hole through it. If the turtle should find the plank and attach it to its underside, universal enlightenment would occur. Co-incidence (in space and time) is the path to understanding, as opposed to logic.


[] The British Romantics were of course great plagiarists, as Sir Walter Scott discovered when his popular novels were pirated by German writers and re-imported into Britain as very good forgeries (one of which was actually detected in a review of a supposedly Scott novel by none other than De Quincey himself). More obvious has been the shrinking volume of work previously ascribed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One might wonder whether the unfinished or provisional nature of the “romantic project” (with the provisional “Complete Works” considered as one of the unfinished long epics) does not constitute a strategic questioning of the very notion of originality, a notion advanced both by Harold Bloom and Thomas McFarland.


[] M. Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1964), p. 201. Merleau-Ponty was clearly attempting to locate another realm between transcendent Nature, naturalism’s being-in-itself resistant to access, and the immanence of mind in the passage of sensible qualities (bound to carnal subjectivity) toward the objective qualities of the real in intersubjective agreement on sensual content. In order for this to occur, the concept would have to be expanded without compromising the content. Oriental re-incarnation would be entirely compatible, but so would the metaphysics of the holograph.


[] Bergson’s theory of memory elucidated most clearly in Matter and Memory (London: 1911) is perhaps the least understood aspect of his underestimated achievement. For Bergson, “recollection preserves itself” regardless of the individual perceiver. Because we confuse Being with being-present, we humans have great difficulty in understanding the survival. For Bergson, the present cannot be, but is pure becoming, forever outside itself. Although it has only a virtual existence, it nonetheless acts. The past has ceased to act, but it is in every sense of the word. The past is identical with being itself, for it is the form under which being is perceived in itself. Because the present is—to borrow a sexual metaphor—consummated in itself, it always lies outside singular Being. Hence, the presence of Whitehead’s synaptic reversals, so synchronous with Bergson: at its limits, the present always was and the past always is.


[] As Anthony Powell’s under-rated twelve-volume tableau, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975) exists as a kind of written fugue upon the painting of the same title by Nicolas Poussin, so Whitehead’s Girl on a Train is part of a series foregrounded in Japanese cultural practices from which it is detachable. Like the bits and pieces of Japanese myths which constitute its prosthetic existence, the novel seems simultaneously part of a “family” of novels and yet apart from that agglomeration. Like so many of his half-breeds and waifs, the novel itself exists in some half-way house between a “series” (a family) and the lost individuality of the typical romantic fragment/flâneur.


[] Heidegger addresses boredom in a number of his works including Sein und Zeit, but created a distinction between Geilangweiltwerden von etwas (“being bored with something”), and Sichlangweilen von etwas (“boring oneself with something”). And, though boredom can be experienced as an excess of time—as say, occurs when a flight is delayed for six hours at an airport—it might also constitute an introduction to freedom in a third type of boredom, es ist einem langweilig (“it is boring”). I would in this third category be bored by boredom, a kind of second order (derivative) fatigue of the will, self-consciously recognized. The second leads to the possibility of plurality (a copy) on which any self-reflexive knowledge depends: “I could be another person in a different time zone.” But again, only when past and future mutually displace each other, does the question of freedom arise insofar as the slowing of time liberates me from any illusions of my “situatedness-in-time” (the error, which would, as in Bergson, erroneously make of time and space a composite).


[10]So far as I am aware, Bergson’s metaphor of the inverted cone initially appears in Matter and Memory, p. 152. In that diagram in which an inverted cone is divided into concentrically descending platforms or levels, Bergson goes one step beyond the mere positing of the co-existence of past and present. In that diagram, all of our past co-exists with the present. Each state or level (marked A-A’ , B-B’, and C-C’ in the horizontal bisections of the cone) reveals that in the past there appear all levels of profundity, with no obvious exclusions; hence the levels are not levels of memory, but assimilative of previous “levels” which come to exist as collective, interpenetrative incorporations. Each of the sections includes the totality of the past, not particular elements of the past. Hence, in Bergson’s scheme, as in Whitehead’s, ontological Being is constituted by all of the past, which exist in general insofar as they co-exist by repeating each other. Bergson’s inverted cone bears a remarkable geometric kinship with Yeats’ cone-like bobbins and certain features of Whitehead’s “holography.” The connection between Yeats’ cones and those of Bergson might not be fortuitous given Bergson’s connection with the Order of the Golden Dawn through his active in-law, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, who held an advanced “order” in the esoteric cult.


[11] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), see especially pp. 35-54. In contradistinction to Burger’s notion of the avant garde as the product of the social status of artistic production within a particular culture at a particular time, Whitehead sees the age of Baudrillard’s spectacle wherein all is forever new as threatening the avant garde. For example, he has (in notes) queried what a cinematic preface preceding the nouveau film, be, if not both beyond and subversive of representation. If what is new is powerless in a culture defined by an ever present new-ness, what would the avant (of whatever) be ? See “La Cinema Critique” in Travaux de L’ecole Doctorale Histoire de l’Art (Universite Paris: Pantheon-Sorbonne UFR 03), sous le direction de Nicole Brenez et Bidhan Jacobs, 2010.


[12] In an unproduced film script provisionally entitled Tiresias, Whitehead aligned the mythic figures of Tiresias and Oedipus, imagining them as “twin” blind men sharing similar contested sexual identities, so that one is a virtual re-incarnation of the other, but as a “negative” rather a “positive” print. See my essay, “The ‘Janus Interface’: A Meditation on the Cosmology of Peter Whitehead,” Framework 52.2 (Autumn, 2011), 836-864.


[13] The goddess, Copia, mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, began as a victim of Hercules who broke off the horn of an ox, which the sympathetic naiads filled with sanctified fruits and sacred flowers—hence the Horn of Plenty (another familiar Yeatsian image!). Copia (who lends us the word “copy”) was the divinity charged with abundance, plenty, multiples, and, for all we know, the beginnings of mass production. By the Renaissance, “copia” had become a rhetorical device, the faculty of varying the same expression or thought in different ways by means of different forms of speech and a variety of figures and ornaments: of saying the same thing slightly differentially (as Whitehead does in the film, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts.) One has the feeling—in my case a highly subjective feeling—that Whitehead’s work privileges the oral over the written. He would be aligned with the more oriental Plato who criticizes the human tendency to think that wisdom resides in writing rather than in the mind’s engagement with the world and with the repetition and mis-representations of other minds to which the Dialogues testify. For the Oriental love of the “copy” see Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press), 2009.


[14]Jacques Derrida, “A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event,” translated by Gila Walker, Critical Inquiry 33 (winter 2007), pp. 441-461, 457.




<-- Back