Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Primal Scene in the Public Domain: E. L. Doctorow's the Book of Daniel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Primal Scene in the Public Domain: E. L. Doctorow's the Book of Daniel

Article excerpt

Now, what counts in the primal scene is not that one has witnessed it but precisely the contrary, namely that it has taken place in the absence of the subject.

--Andre Green (159)

E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel is steeped in what I will call primal scene thinking. This thinking involves three elements that I want to argue are crucial not only to an understanding of this novel but also to an appreciation of its specifically postmodern form of anamnesis. First, the unresolvable status of the event in question (as Laplanche and Pontalis point out in their discussion of the concept, while Freud seems uncertain about "the respective dosages of phantasy and reality" in the primal scene, he insists that the primal scene belongs in some sense to the past of the individual). Second, the association of the primal scene with sexual violence (a violence that initiates, reveals, and repeats gendered difference), and third, the primal scene as the site (the peculiarly impossible site) of the subject's own origin (Freud writes of a primal scene in which the analysand recalls witnessing parental intercourse from within the womb [Introductory Lectures 370; Interpretation 400]). The primal scene, I want to insist, is an impossible scene (an unseen scene) because it is only witnessed as a repetition. It is also, therefore, in a quite specific sense, traumatic: with the primal scene, one is forced to accommodate an event which says everything and nothing about who one is. In the primal scene fantasy, one spies on the enigma of one's own existence. (1)

As The Book of Daniel makes clear, however, this fantasy can also include spying on the enigma of one's existence as a national subject. At the end of the 1960's, Daniel Isaacson Lewin, a graduate student at Columbia University, tries to reconstruct the story of his parents, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, who were executed for treason more than a decade earlier (Doctorow has asserted that the Rosenbergs, executed by the federal government in 1953, were the "occasion" for the novel). (2) At stake is the question of Daniel's inheritance: "I have put down everything I can remember of their actions and conversations in this period prior to their arrests. Or I think I have. Sifted it through my hands. I find no clues either to their guilt or innocence. Perhaps they are neither guilty nor innocent" (130). Daniel's desire to record, analyze, and construct the past follows from an encounter with his parents' death repeated in the suicide attempt of his sister. On Memorial Day 1967, Daniel travels with his wife and infant son to visit his sister, Susan, in a state psychiatric institution. Susan speaks briefly and enigmatically to her brother: "`They are still fucking us,' she said. `Goodbye, Daniel. You get the picture.' He listened alertly. He was not sure if she had said goodbye or good boy" (9). She never speaks again. Susan withdraws into a comatose state, becoming the self-sufficient "starfish" whose completeness is a form of death, but her last utterance functions as an enigmatic "summons" that Daniel cannot refuse. "They are still fucking us," says Susan, and it is not at all clear whether it is the U.S. government or their parents that Daniel's sister is referring to (or, indeed, the New Left in America who are also suspected of having betrayed the Isaacsons). She may also have meant very little; her remark could merely register the force of an exasperated expletive. Nevertheless, Daniel's story begins with this forcefully meaningless, or undecidably enigmatic invocation of political and sexual reproduction. It begins, that is to say, with the enigma of a personal and a national primal scene. (3)

The execution that forms the impossible center of The Book of Daniel marks the novel's doubled primal scenes in a uniquely unsettling manner. With its multiple electric metaphors ("her grey hair all uncombed, undone, the waves of it sticking out from her shawl, shockingly, like electric wire" [67]) and its numerous descriptions of forms of capital punishment, the novel's original traumatic event (the execution of the Isaacsons) is at once everywhere and nowhere. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.