Scott C. Holstad
The Dialectics of Getting There: Kosinski's Being There and the Existential Anti-Hero
Numerous critics have referred to Jerzy Kosinski's Being There as his worst novel, and certainly the weakest of his earlier books. Jack Hicks, for instance, states that the novel "is a minor work in both conception and execution" (236). Yet, it seems quite plausible that Kosinski's spare-but-tight prosaic style appears to be deceptive in its apparent simplicity (especially when contrasted with works such as The Painted Bird). Being There is the ultimate Reader Response text. "What Kosinski seeks to do," as Welch D. Everman relates, "is to stimulate the reader's recreative and imaginative task by offering only the essentials and asking the reader to do his fair share of the work. Kosinski's style draws the reader into the incident by refusing to allow him to remain passive" (25). Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Being There is a major existential work following in the tradition of Sartre and Camus in which Chance, the main protagonist, mirrors Camus's Mersault in A Happy Death and in which Koskinski demonstrates the logical progression of the existential anti-hero.
An initial response to Being There often might be to focus upon the text as a type of Creation anecdote, or as a social satire, or perhaps as a political critique against mass media and the television generation. While all of these readings are legitimate, it seems that the starting point should center on Kosinski's protagonist, Chance, in order to understand the universal significance of the portrayal of Chance, and implicitly the reader, as victim. Chance is a contemporary innocent. Whether, as is often argued, he is mentally challenged or not is irrelevant. Rather, Chance simply exists. He watches television, is unable or unwilling to function within prescribed cultural paradigms, and finally, is simply a mirror, reflecting back to others sublimated images of desires projected onto him.
Chance is the American Everyman. The events which befall him could befall anyone. He, like all of us, has fallen victim to a huge cosmic joke: that of inherent meaninglessness. This meaninglessness is manifested, not only in Chance's actions, but in his very name. Chance has been given his name "'because he had been born by chance'," yet as Everman shows, "this is true of everyone, and so his given name is hardly a name at all....In addition, he loses this rather tenuous name early in the book..." and therefore "is without a real name" (63).
Furthermore, no one in the book exists without some type of tangible record proving existence. When Mr. Franklin, the Old Man's executor, interrogates Chance, he seeks commodified proof of Chance's existence; he asks for, among other items, a checkbook, driver's license, insurance card, tax forms. Chance, encountering the existential dilemma, the quest for identity, counters: "you have me. I am here. What more proof do you need" (18)? Of course, mere existence proves useless and Chance is excommunicated from his beloved garden.
Why does a writer who displays such brilliant technical skills and prosaic style resort to utilizing such a one dimensional character? Perhaps Koskinski has simply found the next logical step in the chain of psychological evolution. Yet, rather than the natural heir to Benji Compson, Chance is, instead, the natural descendent of Patrice Mersault.
After Nietzsche declared God dead, we spent the next half century in an angst ridden frenzy. Sartre, Beckett, and Camus best exemplify this condition in their writings. Camus's Mersualt (perhaps the predecessor to the character sharing the same name in The Stranger) exists in a state of being, searching for meaning. While, admittedly, there are greater differences between Mersault and Chance than similarities, the similarities are too great to ignore. The primary difference between Mersualt and Chance consists of Mersualt's determined search for any type of meaning contrasted with where we have since come: Chance's complicity in a generation of apathy and nihilistic mindlessness. As Everman notes,
the Kosinski protagonist lives his death, not in a morbid sense..., but rather in the mode which Heidegger has termed Sein-zum-Tode, being-toward-death. He lives toward death insofar as it is that death, that potential for no longer living, which gives his life meaning. An eternal life would not be life at all and, for this reason, the Kosinski protagonist cannot believe in or even consider an afterlife, for the very idea of a life after death cancels the significance of life here and now. To believe in an afterlife... is an attempt to avoid the radical individuality of one's life by avoiding the radical finality and individuality of one's death. (20)
While Mersault, however, actively seeks death in order to appropriate his own personal meaning, Chance's inherent (generational) listlessness has encoded an idealogy of pseudo-nihilistic apathy futilely covered by overt superficiality.
Kosinski initially, through his nameless young protagonist in The Painted Bird, picks up where the European Existentialist writers stopped. The boy searches for identity and meaning, in the process engendering his own moral code through a means of trial and error. With Chance, however, there is so such method. Everything has been pre-determined. Not only is freedom to form identity limited, but pointless. Chance, and again the implied "we," are content to simply act as receivers; to ingest non-existent imagery over and over in our rote acceptance of the status quo.
Both Mersault and Chance are raised by parent figures who are ill; both experience the death of these parent figures as adults. Mersault's mother, ill for ten years, finally dies. Mersualt, "only once [looks] surprised," and expresses his regret "that there were so few cars for those who had attended the service. That was all" (15). Likewise, Chance's Old Man with whom he lives (quite possibly implied as Chance's genetic father) dies. Chance sees him propped against the pillows, and "gazed once more at the Old Man, mumbled good-bye, and walked out. He entered his room and turned on the TV" (8). Mersault and Chance's apparent emotionlessness is a manifestation of the idea that we have lost our collective capacity to feel. We simply observe and exist, treading time's water.
Mersault and Chance both resort to escapist activities in order to cope with the environment around them. Mersault enjoys sleeping; he spends much of the novel asleep. His life consists of existence and observation; he prefers to remain the outsider: indeed, he has no choice. He paces the city, walking "through the streets in the evening," (22) and goes to the movie theater. Chance, likewise, spends an inordinate amount of time asleep. Interestingly, sleep seems to be a natural extension of watching television. The novel virtually begins and ends with Chance watching TV and falling asleep: "Chance ate a simple dinner, watched a TV show, and went to sleep," (11) and "Chance watched TV until he fell asleep" (97). Andrew Gordon refers to this pattern as part of Chance's "oral Triad: the unconscious [desire] to devour, to be devoured, and to fall asleep" (4). Chance spends much of his waking hours ingesting television images which lead to his ability to sleep. Yet, as Gordon shows, "just as he devours images from the screen, so he wishes to be devoured by and merge with the machine" (4). Early in the novel, Chance sinks into the screen (5). Later, we are told that he "wanted to see himself reduced to the size of the screen; he wanted to become an image, to dwell inside the set" (50). Ironically, Chance has been reduced symbolically to a miniature version of himself and he does indeed become an image. As Byron L. Sherwin contends, Chance "is a reflection of the reflections of images he has seen on a television screen. When Chance himself [later] appears on television, the ultimate voyeur becomes his own subject of observation" (38).
Thus, Kosinski traces the movement of our psyche from a conscious escapist mentality as a collective whole to a self induced vegetative mental and emotional condition. We no longer have the capacity to exert our will; we no longer have the ability to choose escape as a tenable option. Mersault operates "mechanically" (58) but at least is aware of his condition: "when I look at my life and its secret colors, I feel like bursting into tears.... I'm all... things at once.... Extreme in misery, excessive in happiness-I can't say it" (40). While Mersault may act the part of a robot in many ways, Chance is a robot. For Kosinski, Chance, like millions of Americans, is a "'videot,' an incurable television addict whose vision of reality and of himself is a product of 'televization'" (Sherwin 39). While Chance may be in some sense of the word free, he is a victim of an ideology preaching self-imposed awareness deprivation. "He moves through the world," as Herbert B. Rothschild, Jr. argues,
with no care for it..., able to do so because he cannot in any meaningful sense be said to have a world. That reality has for him existed only as images on the television screen, a flow of discontinuous segments each of which lasts only as long as he pays attention to it. (60)
Both Mersault and Chance meet women who fall for them, yet neither are capable of reciprocating emotionally. Marthe appears, for Mersault, at a moment when he "was ridding himself of everything, of himself as well. A craving for freedom and independence is generated only in a man still living on hope. For Mersault, nothing mattered..." (25). The existential frustration from which Mersault suffers has engendered within him an inability to realize his capacity for human emotion. Mersualt's "heart pounded with an emotion he almost took for love" (26; my emphasis).
Chance is incapable of even knowing love. Chance's Adam needs an Eve and Elizabeth Eve Rand, EE for short, serves as his counterpart. When she comes on to him, Chance is a basket of sensory perceptions lacking the ability to both analyze and emotionally feel. He "felt her fingers pressing feverishly into his skin.... He felt her trembling... her wet thighs" (94). He passively listens, uncomprehending, as she "cried out brokenly, uttered ruptured sounds, spoke in phrases which barely began, making noises that resembled animal gasps" (94). Since Chance has not been exposed to televised sex (cable obviously did not exist in 1970), he has no means of relating or responding to this experience. Instead, he tells EE, "I like to watch you" (95). To the humor of readers who can understand that Chance's earnest, linear statements display an utter lack of ulterior meaning, EE misinterprets Chance's statement as a kinky desire to watch her masturbate, which she promptly does. Ironically, EE finds a type of freeing personal fulfillment in this act (which Chance has been unable to comprehend or appreciate, watching television as she writhes before him). She tells him, "I am so free with you.... You uncoil my wants: desire flows within me, and when you watch me my passion dissolves it. You make me free. I reveal myself to myself and I am drenched and purged" (96). While the implicit irony of this passage, in this passage, might seem humorous, there are some serious implications.. Masturbation can be viewed as a self serving act which perpetuates a diminished need for human contact; as an emotional and physical act, reductive in both origin and closure. This reading, then, shows the scene to be emblematic of where humanity has come. Mersualt, at least, was capable of the love act with another being. In Being There, sex is reduced to a series of isolated incidents, devoid of emotional depth. EE's statement that she reveals herself to herself is similarly disturbing. EE has already marginalized Chance in stripping him of his identity (although the notion that he originally had an identity is debatable) and creating a new one in renaming him Chauncy. This pattern of violation is repeated throughout the novel, yet Chance must shoulder some of the blame. As Everman articulates, the Rands and others violate his integrity by refusing to allow him to be himself, but this is only possible because Chance passively accepts it, even wants it. Chance is violated repeatedly by himself and others, and the fact that these violations result in fame, power, and wealth is beside the point. (62)
Paradoxically, EE finds freedom in the image of herself through the violation she initiates and the subsequent erasure of Chance's very questionable identity.
Mersault and Chance's relationships with others are dominated by a series of miscommunication, misunderstanding and apathy. Marthe does "not understand Patrice's vocabulary," (26) presumably because his rhetoric is reserved and fragmented. Chance's discourse is linear, yet so devoid of meaning in its earnest simplicity, that it lends itself to misreadings by others (e.g., the masturbation scene).
Mersault, in watching the streetlamps glitter, has "never felt so close to Marthe" (31). So too, Chance's ability to find closeness (what little he is capable of) is directly related to his watching television. For Kosinski, then, television serves as the vehicle, as Madeline Chu states, in which he "illustrates the limitations of sense perception and portrays it as a source of danger which destroys the true self" (235).
After sex, Mersault "would smile at [Marthe] and say, 'Hello, image'" (26). Mersault practices what all of Kosinski's protagonists learn: that, as Paul R. Lilly, Jr. explains, "there are no other options open to the victim: he must seize power... or remain powerless. Divesting one's self of the identity of victim means assuming the identity of the oppressor" ("Vision and Violence" 390). The boy in The Painted Bird learns this lesson and those around Chance know it well. EE appropriates Chance's image as her own in their sexual episodes and Chance is reduced to a violated non-entity.
While Mersualt and Chance are victims each in their own right, neither are quite as innocent as they may initially appear. A Happy Death opens with a scene in which Mersualt murders an older acquaintance, Zagreus, for his money. Mersualt, the spiritually oppressed, subverts and reverses the dominant power structure in his act. While there is no real physical violence in Being There, the tension, as Lilly argues, "between oppressor and the victim still holds" ("Vision and Violence" 394). While Chance is the victim of television, among other things, he, as Lilly notes, is
also the un-witting deceiver of the consumer society that looks to television for meaning: news center commentators, newspaper editors, the FBI, the KGB, the President-all are gulled into thinking that Chance is what they want him to be. ("Vision and Violence" 394)
As a result, Chance is a willing participant in violating through deception those around him.
While all he meets convince themselves that Chance possesses a unique and powerful language, Chance is by no means unwilling to assume the style they think is his. Invited to appear on television, Chance not only readily agrees, he takes the first step that would demonstrate to millions of viewers that he is a style. (Lilly, Words in Search of Victims 63)
Being There can be read, then, as Lilly asserts, as a fable about a perfect language, one that captivates the listener while revealing nothing of the identity of the speaker.... Chance is [simply] an embryo of potential speech, suspended, as if before birth, in the vegetable world of his garden. (Words 60)
The characters in Being There all violate one another and, in the process, the reader is similarly violated. The reader is forced to read closely, filling in the gaps in order to maintain a semblance of objectivity.
Chance is, in many ways, the unwitting heir of Mersault and other Existential protagonists. While Mersualt, and characters like him, served as the voice for a disjointed angst ridden generation, Chance, as Barbara Lupack submits, is a "product of [current] society's self-willed brainwashing... [and] is thus the voice of his generation" (147).
Chance is the logical extension of those suffering from the existential predicament. For Mersault, "the very monotony of the journey satisfied him" (73). For Chance, there is no such need for a journey: there is no point. Television takes him on any journey he desires and monotony is not satisfying, it is inscribed.
In The Stranger, Mersault struggles with the concept of guilt and with his own guilt for having been a (passive) participant in a murder. Mersault, the Twentieth-Century Everyman, is guilty, not so much because of murder, but, as David Sprintzen contends, because "his guilt seems to lie precisely in his not having willed anything" (36). This same sense of guilt should apply to Chance as well, and, implicitly, to we as a culture. Chance, the victimized innocent, is guilty of existential apathy: this is where we have come. Sadly, this lack of desire, this self-imposed superficiality, is--has to be--a pre-existing condition. TV is simply the medium Kosinski chooses to express his point. As Sherwin relates, for Kosinksi, the innocent victim [such as the boy in The Painted Bird] of society is to be empathized with and to be protected against victimization. However, the individual who denies his own individuality, who permits society to pre-empt his own freedom of action, is a "dead soul" deserving of disappointment and regret rather than pity. (36)
Mersualt, unlike Chance, is capable of coming to a realization. While his realization is finality, he learns how to have a "happy death." Chance, as a walking image, never existed and never will exist in anything other than projections of wish fulfillment fantasies. Chance, and the implied we--if we do not learn our lessons--has less ability to think and feel than most animals. Chance is the new Mersualt--the antithesis of our potential and the manifestation of our increasing reality. As Kosinski tells us, when Chance leaves (both his society and the book itself), "not a thought lifted itself from [his] brain" (118). Chance, the image, the name, is simply serving as a substitute for the person whose name could, and in Kosinski's perception perhaps should, be there: ours.
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