Academic journal article ARIEL

"Nothing, Not a Scrap or Identity": Janet Frame's Vision of Self and Knowledge in A State of Siege

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Nothing, Not a Scrap or Identity": Janet Frame's Vision of Self and Knowledge in A State of Siege

Article excerpt

Centring on a lone woman whose "quest for creative revelation [results in] death" (Mercer 108), A State of Siege (1966) has so far proven obdurately resistant to any attempts at attenuating its bleakness. The prevailing critical consensus concerning Janet Frame's sixth novel indeed is that it represents a "culmination of despair" (Delrez, "Eye of the Store 126) in the author's career. It is possibly related that, as Marc Delrez argues, "the novel supports, if only at the level of metaphor," the view that the main protagonist, an amateur painter who retires to the island of Karemoana to seek some artistic and social independence, "dies to her long-harboured vision of the world, concomitantly with the onset of the quest" (130). Concurring that "death is foreshadowed from the time of Malfred's arrival on the island," Judith Dell Panny observes that "the bach she moves into is described as a 'deceased estate', where she is 'alone, in charge and at rest' (91). Dell Panny's impression that the words 'at rest' have an "ominous ring" as they are "familiar on tombstones" (91) is surely not attenuated by Delrez's reflection that the task of carrying the luggage for travellers such as Malfred Signal falls "rather ominously [on] the undertakers of the island" ("The Eye of the Storm" 131). Capitalizing on the notion that Malfred is already dead when she sets out to explore her "New View" (State 10), I argue that, in fact, the Tibetan Book of the Dead forms the backdrop to A State of Siege and that an awareness of this intertext potentially sheds new light on the much discussed, yet still tantalizingly mysterious, topic of an afterlife in Frame's work. My analysis will show that "nothingness of identity" (Delrez, Manifold Utopia 133) is not meant to translate into "a shape beyond dissolution" (99) and, if a shape exists, that it is one that possesses in fine no self-essence, no "core of distinction" (194), but an accretion of emptiness. In contrast to exclusionary shapes which, artistic as they may be, entrench all sorts of dualisms, "empty shapes," as Frame calls them in The Edge of the Alphabet (269), allow a free circulation between inside and outside, the living and the dead, the self and the world. Such extreme porousness, appropriately enough, is not simply a characteristic of the author's alternative aesthetic. For instance, when Zoe, a character in Edge, declares, "let us be empty shapes of people" (269), she suggests that emptiness is at the heart of an authentic condition of both being and memory, since it is only when Zoe's own ontological barriers are dissolved that she is able to commemorate the dead (Edge 133). To arrive at the dead, then, it is not sufficient to die; one must also become akin to an empty shape, albeit a deceased one.

This certainly validates Delrez's statement that "Frame typically tackles immortality as a form of being that bypasses the strictures of the thinking/dreaming ego" (Manifold Utopia 133) although, in his view, to survive is to be remembered by someone else, preferably an artist, who has yet to face his or her own merging into the undifferentiated whole. A State of Siege, however, may well suggest that it is quite impossible to apprehend the world and truly see other selves just as they are (or were) in a state of non-dissolution--that is, so long as the self-world dualism is maintained. Therefore, I do not think it is a mistake to approach the Framean afterlife "with an eye on the fate of the individual consciousness" (Delrez, Manifold Utopia 133), for only then can we consider knowledge (including memory and sensual perceptions) and nothingness of identity--or, to use the Buddhist terminology, a non-dual condition of being--as two facets of the same coin. Likewise, if, as Delrez maintains, the role of the artist is to salvage lost memories and if, as I argue, dissolution is a prerequisite to genuine commemoration, one wonders to what extent the final breaching of Malfred's fortress of self is an attempt to halt her search for the New View, or if it is itself constitutive of the New View. …

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