Author: Lumsden, Robert
Date published: October 1, 2011
"... thinking defies its own finitude, as if fascinated by its own excessiveness."
Jean- Francois Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime
On the matter of a missing bicycle Sergeant Pluck advises Mr. Gilhaney: ". . . put your hands in under [the bush's] underneath and start feeling promiscuously the way you can ascertain factually if there is anything there in addition to its own nothing" (O'Brien 80). Pluck doesn't say: start feeling about and that way you can ascertain, but: start feeling the way you can. His injunction rides a hypothetical whose possibility the sentence also eliminates: this is the way it would feel to ascertain the bicycle, if you could ascertain it. (But you won't be able to.) The bits and pieces of bicycle which are found initially- a bell, a lamp - are a mockery of completeness. That he pronounces the (very) partial first retrieval "satisfactory" confirms the Sergeant's suggestion concerning the bicycle's essential nature, brought back whole or not (in due course it is recovered). It has no existence, except as the nothing it is.
The search for the token bicycle occurs in one of several simulated landscapes, especially those described in chapters three and six (40-3, 80-3, 88-9) where "Mother" Nature's blandishments, despite the narrator's initial passing sense of being "on the right track" (42), prove as disturbing as a preRaphaelite elaboration, a gesture of disclosure as the sign of something not disclosed. Such passages set out the narrator's state of being, though not his state of mind. He considers himself bound for his desire's destination which is, he supposes, happily complicit with his destiny.
That this landscape seems at first to chime with de Selby's characterization of the friendly road that "will always be discernible for its own self and . . . lead you safely out of the tangled town" (38) makes its turn towards imitation the more unsettling when it comes. Apprehension is insinuated, settles, pervades.
The realization breaks upon us before it reaches the narrator: the world he perceives cannot be real, for a quietly devastating reason: it is too pleasant to be convincing. The beautiful degrades to prettiness. Pilgrim's Progress becomes Pleasantville. But O'Brien operates with something even deeper than disquiet at a hyper-articulated perfection; he strikes at desire itself. For if the beautiful is less than it seems at first sight to be, desire that takes the beautiful as a value sufficient in itself is compromised. There is a negative feedback from sense impression to affective predisposition which colours it distinctly. An infection of response passes from perception to whatever inclines us to arrange hierarchies of preference:
My surroundings had a strangeness of a peculiar kind, entirely separate from the mere strangeness of a country where one had never been before. Everything seemed almost too pleasant, too perfect, too finely made. Each thing the eye could see was unmistakeable and unambiguous, incapable of merging with any other thing or being confused with it. The colour of the bogs was beautiful and the greenness of the green fields supernal. Trees were arranged here and there with far-from-usual consideration for the fastidious eye. (O'Brien 39)
Subsequently, this landscape is revisited in a number of passages apart from the one the narrator enters with Sergeant Pluck in chapter six, and on each occasion plenitude reviewed is charged with a kind of sparkling vacuity. In the perspective of this novel, to see life steadily is to see it flawed. An idea of nature is mocked, and with that, something more: the perceiver's very sense of himself as a coherent individual begins to weaken:
Something strange then happened to me suddenly. The road before me was turning gently to the left and as I approached the bend my heart began to behave irregularly and an unaccountable excitement took complete possession of me. There was nothing to see and no change of any kind had come upon the scene to explain what was taking place within me. I continued walking with wild eyes. (O'Brien 52)
The narrator next approaches a house - the police station - which "astonish [es] " him in seeming both dimensionless and inhabited, "as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board" (52). When the house is revisited near the denouement of the story (198-9), part of its presentation is a verbatim recapitulation of the narrator's earlier description, suggesting a version of the Nietzschean recurrence with the significant addition that the narrator is joined by the justdeceased John Divney, and the surrounding landscape undermines his powers of comprehension even more thoroughly than it had previously:
It seemed ordinary enough at close quarters except that it was very white and still. It was momentous and frightening; the whole morning and the whole world seemed to have no purpose at all save to frame it and give it some magnitude and position so that I could find it with my simple senses and pretend to myself that I understood it. (O'Brien 198-9)
Though it should be conceded that no discursive critical framing is likely to prove adequate to a cannily told story, certainly not to this story, and that setting Parmenides and Flann O'Brien alongside each other should be done to look for lines of connection and disconnection rather than influence, the exercise does highlight enough of what might not otherwise have been apparent to make the imposition worthwhile. What becomes immediately clear is a fundamental point of departure from Parmenides in the novelist's text.
Philosophers of mind, being largely bound by the ratiocinative and discursive methods they favour, typically fall short of offering an experience of the "other" of language in describing it. Flann O'Brien's ability to place his reader in the midst of an experience of the unspecifiable, to put him or her affectively in the mix of the subject he presents, stands in sharp contrast even to such relatively recent of the metaphysical schools as the British idealists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even such fellow travellers as John M. E. McTaggart in his demonstration that our grasp of time is selfcontradictory, and F. H. Bradley, the litterateurs logician who took T. S. Eliot's attention for a while, cannot help but hold at a ruminative distance that sense of estrangement in the ordinary they set out to define.
The contrast between the experience of reading Parmenides and Plann O'Brien on the infinite is even more marked than it is with more recent metaphysicians, perhaps because, standing as he does at or near the beginning of ontological enquiry in the Western tradition, the outlines of Parmenides' thought are more summary than those who have tended to give themselves to the enticements of elaboration.
It is a curiosity about Parmenides that his work belies its reputation for striking little flares of mystical éclaircissement in his reader. To the contrary, a number of passages show him shrinking from all possibility of discursive close encounter with the beyond of language in any of its forms, and especially the possibility of rendering non-being in accounts of it, the very territory Flann O'Brien readily occupies in The Third Policeman. Here is perhaps the clearest of such passages:
Come then, I shall tell you, and you pay attention to the account when you have heard it, which are the only ways of inquiry that can be conceived; the one [says]: "exists" and "it is not possible not to exist," it is the way of persuasion (for persuasion follows upon truth); the other [says] : "exists-not": and "not to exist is necessary," this I point out to you is a path wholly unknowable. For you could not know that which does not exist (because it is impossible) nor could you express it. (Taran 32)
The author who stands behind the narrator of the novel knows as well as does the philosopher the intractability of not-being to language. Even so, he chooses not only to speak of the matter, but to try to convey it. The difference between the two metaphysicians- how little O'Brien would have liked the word; fair game for a paragraph in a Parnassian Cruiskeen Lawn- is that the novelist is able to create an enduring feeling of the unspeakable, which the philosopher can only discuss. The fictional sense sticks, as philosophic discourse might not. But that is the edge (some) fiction has over (much) philosophy: it is of its nature to strike at affective responses more deeply than the languages contrived to explain them. O'Briens text in this respect may be considered as a type of contra- Parmenides insofar as pressing against denotation is its principle means of creating a sense of experiencing not-being as both a paralysis and a tangible galvanizing interruption of ordinary life. We might at this point begin to think of the intelligence of the book as a thing apart, not only to distance Flann O'Briens from the narrator's opinions, but to underscore this persistent crumbling of the authority implied in any report or description offered in this text, however apparently straightforward.1
It is because The Third Policeman speaks so convincingly of the untrustworthiness of ordinary appearances that its references to eternity are uncommonly persuasive, however much, or little, we manage to mean by that word. A familiar house proves depthless yet contains what appear to be actual people. An unexceptional thicket in a picture postcard countryside hides an elevator to a hellish eternity. Boxes contain smaller boxes to a point beyond invisibility. When so many impossibilities are woven matter-of-factly into a relishable entertainment, can not-being be so hard to swallow?
But there is a price to pay for entering fairyland. The question of assent at its most fundamental is raised at every turn of the road or shift of attention:
I decided in some crooked way that the best thing to do was to believe what my eyes were looking at rather than to place my trust in memory. (O'Brien 26)
I am becoming afraid occasionally to look at some things in case they would have to be believed. (O'Brien 82)
His senses unable to provide explanation of the abnormal, and reason proving consistently incapable of offering an understanding of the inherently puzzling, the narrator's only recourse seems to lie with his instinctual sense. But throughout The Third Policeman the instinctual is closely associated with the uncanny, which is not only unpredictable, but always potentially, and sometimes actually, terrifying.
The "astonishing piece of nullity" (101) at the heart of the narrative, the swerve from nihilism which keeps the book on the right side of whimsy, is often approached by way of a "rap" between a funnyman (Sergeant Pluck, in the quotation just given) and the narrator himself who is a "negative nullity neutralized and indeed rendered void" (102), not only in being measured against the death prepared for him by Pluck, but by everything, without exception, that happens to him away from Pluck's hangman's eye. The nurture-scape of the book has at its heart a tick that depletes speculation as surely and furtively as the invisible worm in "The Sick Rose" does celebration, and the novel in crowding both narrator and reader with wildly useless information feeds its appetite. Very soon, the expectation is well established in reader and narrator alike that the next piece of information is unlikely to do anything more than augment the mounting sense of irresolution that pervades the narrative. As Pluck might have put the matter, the bucolic traipse has become a plunge into cosmologie incomprehensibility rendered in prose of extraordinary exactness. The spirit of de Selby's footnotes has leaked into the text proper; a hyper-material enlightenment madness is brought to revelation's threshold by beguilement.
There is no nihilism in what the narrator proposes for himself in the larger part of his journey, however. The book's central, wicked, joke is that he continues to imagine himself a survivor as his world within and without falls steadily apart, projecting himself, albeit intermittently shaken, as one who expects to be brought, around the next turn in the road, to the box of useless wonders at the end of the rainbow.
The least of the novel's attempts to establish this "nullity" is by means of an apophatic exhaustion of names,2 but the method frustrates reason more than it challenges feeling. It has too much of the treatise about it, as though a page were torn from a neo-Platonist's Summa and grafted onto the twentieth century text. The figure of Policeman Fox is a better throw at reassuring substantiation, with his "massive rearing of wide strengthy flesh, his domination and his unimpeachable reality" (180), but unfortunately for the narrator's desire for homecoming in his inherited world, Fox's reliability is compromised when he swaps the head on his shoulders for Divney's, and also by Fox leading him into Old Mathers' house, whose distressing distortions the über- Policeman treats as entirely normal. Neither of these measures has the purchase of Flann O'Brien's use of the uncanny, nor of his deployment of reference, whose anchorage in the objective is often as uncertain as it is boldly proclaimed.
The Uncanny, Avoidance and Voidance
According to Sigmund Freud, the appearance of the uncanny marks the partial return of repressed material, which the subject is trying, not altogether successfully, to refuse entry into consciousness.3
The narrator's spectacularly porous memory extends most tellingly from the Freudian point of view to his attempts to ignore, not Old Mathers' murder, but the sense of criminal responsibility that should naturally attach to it. Even more significantly, in addition to claiming not to know his own name, the narrator has "forgotten" his death, the circumstances of which are implied, though not disclosed (from the reader's point of view) near the beginning of chapter two.4 Not until the novel's conclusion, after the reaction to him of John Divney, and his surprise at the appearance of the aged Pegeen Meers, does the narrator begin to recognize that his condition is in some fashion deathly, though not even at this point does he allow himself to admit what should be obvious: that as the living view such matters, he is, beyond all dispute and peradventure, deceased.
This is a repression so great that it holds even against the evidence of his coconspirator perceiving him as a ghost. Although the narrator goes along with Divney's explicit claim that he is dead, there is constraint, resistance, signalled in the flat tone of his report:
[Divney] told me to keep away. He said I was not there. He said I was dead. He said that what he had put under the boards in the big house was not the black box but a mine, a bomb. It had gone up when I touched it. He had watched the bursting of it from where I had left him. The house was blown to bits. I was dead. He screamed to me to keep away. I was dead for sixteen years. (O'Brien 197)
Two factors converge to bring the sense of the uncanny to a pitch: the narrator's denial of death, especially his own, and, as Freud predicts, the charging of repressed material with uncanniness, which occurs at the precise point that reality and imagination become interchangeable in experience:
... an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it resembles. (Freud 244)
The distinction between the imaginary and what can be said with confidence to be real is of course a major theme of the book. But Freud's comment applies more particularly in this final merging of the police station or house as symbolic of the abnormal uncanny and the (fictional) substantiation of that presence. Similarly, in the book's final paragraph, John Divney is suddenly "there," fully present in the narrative rather than distanced as an object of the narrator's account of him. It isn't that Divney and the police house become more real, not even fictionally speaking, than they were the moment prior to Divney 's death. Rather, these grounding opposites of perception show the very names they go by as insufficient to what we might be compelled to make of them. This, Freud tells us, is the proper setting and ambience of the uncanny.
A fictionalised reality substitutes for a sense of the real which the novel shows to be illusionary. Or the other way around. It doesn't matter, because the difference in The Third Policeman between these polar opposites of our waking state is only representational, the line between phantasmic and concrete not as fast as we suppose it to be when our minds are not meddled with by such iconoclastic slices of similitude as Flann O'Brien's book. In this fundamental matter, Freud might have said, had he been more postmodernist than eighteenth-century scientist, all fictional texts are uncanny. (For this, much thanks; had Freud chosen a less well-trodden path we would not have his account of the uncanny by which to illuminate such novels.)
Not even the uncanny is as useful in bringing intimations of the unknowable to bear in pursuit of "oppressive" mind-meddling as Flann O'Brien's sport with grammar and reference.
The gap that keeps opening in The Third Policeman between anaphoric and cataphoric reference (anaphoric: a phrase that draws meaning from other references within a text; cataphoric: a meaning yet to be identified within the text) continually denies the reader grounding within the text or even beyond it. That this displacement is done humorously should not take attention from the fact that it is, continually, done; that it is a powerful strategy which undermines the confidence we prefer to maintain that something said, if we but follow the thread of it diligently, will lead in due course to an object-thing whose substantial existence can be trusted.
Here are three typical examples of deictic shift, and the defensive laughter it compels. In the first, Sergeant Pluck is quizzing the narrator; in the second, the narrator declares tactically insincere sympathy with MacCruiskeen. In the third, Sergeant Pluck provides a thumbnail sketch of MacCruiskeen's character:
"What is your pronoun?" he inquired.
"I have no pronoun," I answered, hoping I knew his meaning.
"What is your cog?"
"I have not got that either." (56)
"Such work must be very hard on the eyes," I said, determined to pretend that everybody was an ordinary person like myself. (74)
"He is a comical man," said the Sergeant, "a walking emporium, you'd think he was on wires and worked with steam." (76)
In the first excerpt, pronominal reference is assailed where it seems most secure. Undermining the pronoun as a referential lynchpin has been foreshadowed early in the plot business with the narrator's ignorance about his name, but here O'Brien moves against nominalism altogether in mocking first person identity openly, the nearest we can come in a written text, as in existential encounters, to the security of estensive definition. In the same stroke, a bridge is made with the central figure of the absurd, the wondrous trans-corporeal bicycle, so that grammar and lexis converge in the narrator's inability to lay claim to anything -of the categories on offer - that might be said to be essentially himself.
In the second excerpt, the phrase such work is anaphoric because MacCruiskeen's business with the ultimately invisible sequence of boxes has been described- "explained"- at some length previously. Because that earlier description has been ridiculous, this later reference to it is void of sensible meaning. Seemingly anaphoric, the phrase awaits- and waits- substantiation. The comedic-earthy, so often a solace in uncertainty, remains suspended. A similar consideration holds, more subtly, of "eyes" in the phrase [it] must be very hard on the eyes, since eyes capable of working with invisible objects cannot be eyes in any sense we can find for the word. The term is referred, (apparently) anaphorically, to the figure of MacCruiskeen whose previous appearance might be expected to anchor this extra-logical sense, but what MacCruiskeen has been shown doing with boxes makes him an unconvincing agent of a new order of seeing. The two phrases throw hooks back into anaphoric reference, but the text is glacial to them; they find no purchase in reference.
Of the third passage, the reader wonders which of the three descriptions accurately represents MacCruiskeen, given that the terms divide into two groups, the first of which refers to human characteristics, and the second to a machine which only appears human.6 And wonder is what we have and what we are left with. Neither intra-textual referencing, nor referencing by contextual knowledge, nor travelling in hope of the shaft of light from above, will be sufficient to rationalise this MacCruiskeen.
Such "descriptions" wear away assurance that the formal quality of statement and its semantics are square with each other at the point of delivering information, and this matters, greatly, because such categories represent compartments of experience with which we feel comfortable, inscribed in grammar and in mind. Representation in The Third Policeman is continually unsettling at this fundamental, pre-verbal, level.
There is no deictic origo in The Third Policeman. But it is not sufficient to say that about the book and no more, since alongside the evacuation of common sense from reference there is a growing feeling that the language of the novel itself coincides with the substance of the objects and events it reports; that the language of the book overlaps exactly with the absurdities and the instances of non-being it describes so that it wears the appearance of a sort of plenitude, finally. The Third Policeman is strangely filled with the impossible to talk about, in talking about it.
Reference without foundation and laughter at the brilliance of it, but not comfortable laughter, if we are aware of what Flann O'Brien is doing in this great book. There is no resting place for us in comedy, once we see that he is busy about what Parmenides thought inconceivable, which is to offer a convincing account of something that in good reason can only be experienced unmediated, if at all; to persuade his reader of what it would be to stand on the edge of the unutterable and see a little beyond it; if that were possible.
1 This "intelligence of the text" cannot be O'Brien/O'Nolan because the originator of the impressions and opinions of the book and in potentia of numberless others cannot be represented by aggregate or by a line drawn through them. (This might be called the "bard is myriad-minded" argument for the freedom of the text.) The speaker- narrator of the novel is also unlikely to be one with its author because the text often stands in a superior relation to him, mocking his opinions and aspirations. There seems to be another narrator- call it Nl- antecedent to the first-person reporter, and, on that account alone, a surplus of meaning impossible to ascribe either simply to the concept narrator, or to Flann O'Brien or to Brian O'Nolan in any of the versions we might settle around those names. In this case it makes best sense to think of the text as a hovering of meaning between or among origins rather than a settling upon any one of them.
2 Pluck reports, of MacCruiskeen's mantelpiece box: "MacCruiskeen says it is not smooth and not rough, not gritty and not velvety. It would be a mistake to think it is a cold feel like steel and another mistake to think it blankety" (O'Brien 156). The method, of god-seeking by god-voidance, which has become associated in western metaphysics with the neo-Platonic Christian theologian pseudo-Dionysus, is redeemed by O'Brien's side-stepping of obvious choices suggested by the previous items in a sequence. In this quotation, for instance, "blankety" saves the sentence from bravura performance.
3 "... for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (Freud 241).
4 "... Most likely our fear still implies the old belief that the dead man becomes the enemy of the survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him" (Freud 242). In the last few lines of the novel, it is Divney who is "carried off" by the narrator, not the narrator who is taken by an always about to be specified imminent invasion, which is what he has feared.
5 "Pronouns, whose shifting reference relates to participants in the speech act, and demonstratives, whose shifting reference relates to spatial location . . . (are) 'deictic,' effectively 'pointing' at some person or thing" (Dixon 189).
6 Commenting on this passage from Jaentsch, Keith Hopper sees the uncanny as being generally at work in most of the characterization of The Third Policeman (Hopper 99). While this is certainly a valid and evocative reading, in my view much of the effectiveness of the uncanny in the book depends on the suddenness of its intrusion into the lives of characters previously established as comically exaggerated, 'flesh-andblood" presences. This is not only true of MacCruiskeen in the passage cited, but also of the unnamed narrator in the first dozen or so pages of the book, where the circumstances of his engagement with Divney, in particular, are given a realist presentation. The business between them in its early stages has an undertow of the sinister about it, but it is not yet uncanny, in my view. Hopper's description of the general application of uncanniness applies, I think, more to the presentation of landscape in The Third Policeman than to O'Brien's characterization.
Dixon, R. M. W. Basic Linguistic Theory 2. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.
Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Psychological Works Volume XVII (1917-19): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. Translated and edited by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.
Hopper, Keith. Plann O'Brien: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Post-Modernist. 2nd edition. Cork: Cork Univ. Press, 2009.
O'Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. London: HarperCollins, 2007; Normal, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999.
Taran, Leonardo. Parmenides: A Text with Translation, Commentary, and Critical Essays. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965.
ROBERT LUMSDEN has taught literature at the National University of Singapore and the National Institute of Education in Singapore. He is the author of Reading Literature after Deconstruct/on (Cambria Press, 2009).