Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revision 2: The Younger Peter Stillman: More Than Just Damaged Goods

The younger Peter Stillman is a very interesting character in Paul Austers, "City of Glass." When readers are introduced to him for the first time, they are bombarded with a speech that consists of made up words and short fragmented sentences. After Peter concludes his ramble about his childhood, one would initially believe that he is the result of a detrimental childhood that was spent in darkness and isolation. When his language is analyzed in terms of his life, however, it is evident that the younger Peter is not just damaged goods; he is rather a representation of a different kind of human potentiality than "ordinary" people due to the fact that his father performed a biblical language experiment on him as a child as an attempt to recreate the language of innocence. In the language of innocence, words correspond to the things they represent; therefore, related concepts must have related words and disjoined concepts must have disjoined words. This is the underlying reason as to why the younger Peter Stillman is indeed more than just damaged goods. This argument is confirmed in three occasions of “City of Glass:” Peter Sr.’s novel, the first meeting between Peter Sr. and Quinn, and in the younger Peter’s speech.

Peter Stillman Sr. became obsessed with the biblical language when the younger Peter was a young boy. Peter Sr. wrote several books on the matter, and Quinn came across this during his investigation. Specifically, in “The Garden and the Tower,” Stillman wrote about the significance of language in a reading of the Babel. Stillman proposed that, "If the fall of man also entailed a fall of language, was it not logical to assume that it would be possible to undo the fall, to reverse its effects by undoing the fall of language, by striving to recreate the language that was spoken in Eden" (Auster 76). Essentially, he was obsessed with this idea that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was the language of innocence and the only way to recreate this language was to completely undo the current language and teach the original language of innocence. Several parts of Stillman’s book highlight his obsession with corresponding and disjoined words. He dwells on the paradox of the word ‘cleave,’ “which means both to join together and to break apart” (Auster 39). To Stillman, however, this makes no sense. He did not comprehend nor agree with the fact that the same word could mean opposite things. Because of this disagreement, it seems as if Stillman is questioning the extent to which humans will continue, "to express [themselves], despite the fact that language, the only tool...for self-expression, falls miserably short of accuracy and completeness" (Worthington). Because, “a thing and its name were interchangeable,” Stillman believed a word only had one essential meaning (Auster 39). Stillman’s book continues to describe his ideologies with respect to the language of innocence, and it is at this moment that readers begin to develop an understanding as to why the younger Peter represents a greater human potentiality. Peter Sr. was strongly influenced by such beliefs because he believed, “If man could learn to speak the original language of innocence, he’d recover the state of innocence within” (Auster 43). He attempted to do this by experimenting with the younger Peter because he thought, "depriving a child of human language would provide that child access to the prelapsarian language of God" (Worthington). By isolating the younger Peter for nine years with no outside connections to the world or to humans, he attempted to undo Peter's language in order to recreate this language of God. The reason why Peter Stillman Sr. wanted to accomplish the original language of innocence was to, "recover, whole and unbroken, the truth within himself" (Auster 77). He believed that the language of innocence would emerge the innocence within him. His religious beliefs and loyalty led him to use his only son as a live experiment in order to recreate this religious language. As a result, he hoped Peter Jr. would speak as God did: "Actions to his words accord, his words; To his large heart give utterance due, his heart; Contains of good, wise, just, the perfect shape" (Auster 76). This is the underlying reason as to why the younger Peter Stillman speaks with what some refer to as "damaged goods" language. Although it is not in fact language that reflects damaged goods, it does reflect his father's attempt to undo and recreate his language in order to achieve the original language of innocence: the language of God.

After Quinn becomes familiar with Peter Sr.’s book, the two meet in person for the first time. During their first encounter, it is evident that Peter Sr. has a true obsession and dedication with the language of innocence. Stillman shares with Quinn that he is inventing a new language and furthers his assertion by questioning, “When an umbrella breaks and you get wet, is it still an umbrella” (Auster 70)? This reveals that Stillman recognizes the disconnection between an umbrella that functions properly and an umbrella that does not function properly. Essentially, Stillman is acknowledging that a broken umbrella should not be called an umbrella because it will not keep you from getting wet, which is the original and correct function of an umbrella. This is an example of a disjoined concept in the sense that a broken umbrella and a working umbrella should have different words because they are not the same thing. Stillman continues by commenting, “It has changed, but the word is the same. It is imprecise, false” (Auster 70). Once again, Stillman analyzes words in terms of what they represent. He believes related concepts must have related words and disjoined concepts must have different words. This is the only way words can actually and factually represent what they stand for. It is evident that Stillman is completely fixated with the idea that words and concepts must correspond to the objects they represent. This is confirmed when he reveals to Quinn, “I invent new words that will correspond to the things” (Auster 71). Because this is Stillman’s driving force, he attempted to prove the recreation of the language of innocence by experimenting on the younger Peter Stillman.

Once readers are familiar with Peter Sr.’s fascination with the language of innocence, it is apparent that the younger Peter is merely a representation of his father’s obsession. Take for example, the part of younger Peter's speech to Quinn when he reveals his father's loyalty towards God: "She says the father talked about God. That is a funny word to me. When you put it backwards, it spells dog. And a dog is not much like God, is it? Woof woof. Bow wow. Those are dog words, I think they are beautiful. So pretty and true. Like the words I make up" (Auster 33). Although one would initially feel as if that is a statement from a man who is significantly impacted by his childhood isolation and misery, it is learned that he is actually speaking that way due to his father's language experiment. The nine year isolation experiment undid younger Peter's language and recreated his language to represent the language of the Garden of Eden. His sentences are short and fragmented with many made up words. It is also very technical in the sense that he depicts words as they are spelled. If dog spells God backwards, then that certainly makes no sense to him because God and dog are two completely different things. He does not understand this and finds it absurd. He would rather create his own words. His father was interested in the fact that the first man created, Adam, had the ability to look at things and name them whatever he desired. Like younger Peter stated, the words are, "pretty and true. Like the words I make up" (Auster 33). He is essentially his father's son in the sense that he depicts language and often creates his own words so that the words correspond to the things they represent. In this case, the younger Peter expresses the words “Woof woof,” which demonstrates his knowledge of related concepts having related words, even if he made them up. Words such as “woof” often relate to dogs because of the noises they make. However, the word God is completely different than the word dog. According to the younger Peter, this makes no sense because it is a disjoint concept, so they should be disjoined words. Because the younger Peter was molded by his father’s experiment, he speaks the language of innocence, and in that form of speech, the two words ‘dog’ and ‘God’ represent a disjoint concept, and thus should have disjoined words.

After analyzing Peter Sr.’s, “The Garden and the Tower,” the meeting between Quinn and Peter Sr., and the younger Peter’s speech, it is proven that the younger Peter Stillman does not speak a language of damaged goods. The fact that his language was experimentally undone in order to be recreated as the language of innocence proves that he represents a different kind of human potentiality. He had the potential to adapt to a completely new language and furthermore, make sense of the language and why it is spoken as is. He was exposed to a long term nine year experiment that essentially erased his original language and enforced the language of innocence. So the broken sentences, short phrases, and made up words are not a result of a horrific childhood tragedy; instead, they are representations of his extreme human potentiality to adapt to a new technical and biblical language that reflects innocence. Because words correspond to things in the language of innocence, Peter Sr. was convinced that he could recreate that. He believed that the invention of words in the Garden of Eden reveals the essence of the things name. He wanted to recreate this state of innocence and prove that related concepts must have related words and disjoint concepts must have disjoined words. The result of this experiement was the younger Peter Stillman: Not damaged goods but a representation of the language of innocence.

Works Cited:

Auster, Paul. "The New York Trilogy." Penguin: 2006.

Worthington, Marjorie. "Auster's City of Glass." The Explicator 64.3 (2006): 179+. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 November 2011.

Original Link:



  2. I think your take on the language of innocence in the first paragraph is perfectly fine, although your argument seems a little diffuse. If Peter represents a new form of human potentiality, for instance, what *is* it? Where does his potential take us? There are several questions along those lines which appear for me in the first paragraph. The second paragraph emphasizes the diffuseness of the argument: it's very close to being a summary of the relevant parts of the novel. Now, there's no doubt that you needed to go over some of this material - but this doesn't have enough guidance for the reader: I'm very unclear on where you're going with all of it.

    The third paragraph continues this trend. We talked as a group about the whole umbrella thing, and what it stands for. I like the way you explain the disjointed character of language, and I'm not saying this *couldn't* take us somewhere good, but again, your argument as such isn't clear here.

    This might sound silly, but your extended discussion of Dog/God/woof actually did a lot for me. Woof and dog should sound alike; Dog and God should not. What you're doing at this moment is digging through some relevant details, with some care, to demonstrate that PS Jr. is, in fact, following his father's design and speaking God's language.

    You *almost* could have gone straight from the introduction to Dog/God/woof. Doing so would have clarified your argument and gotten straight to the text. I'm not saying everything in between was useless; I'm saying that this part is much better than any of the intermediary material. Arguing simply that PS sr's experiment was a success is, at least, a clear argument (although ideally I'd want to see more about what its success *means*). If that's your real argument, a lot of the intermediary material wasn't really necessary. Remember, you're writing for this class: people have read the book!

    Now, let's turn to a conceptual question. Here's some material from your conclusion: "After analyzing Peter Sr.’s, “The Garden and the Tower,” the meeting between Quinn and Peter Sr., and the younger Peter’s speech, it is proven that the younger Peter Stillman does not speak a language of damaged goods. "

    I think what you've proven, or come close to proving, at least, is that PS jr. speaks exactly the kind of language which PS sr. intended him to speak. This is an important point! But I am not at all convinced that it follows that PS sr. is *correct*. In other words, to go there you need to buy into his belief that the language of innocence is one in which words correspond to things, and disjoint concepts are not described through like words.

    In other words, you're showing that his experiment was a success. But I don't think you're doing anything to show that it means what *he* thinks it means. And here is where some of your weaker material - where to my eye you were basically summarizing Peter Stillman sr.'s arguments - comes in. If you mean what you say, you needed, I think, to make the argument that PS sr's argument is *correct*.

    To me, then, you're engaging well with the *experiment*, but not with the *theory* upon which that experiment was based.

    Putting it that way makes me like the essay better, incidentally, because even though I struggled with a big part of the middle to see it as more than summary, I think I have a handle on what you were trying, and it's a good project, even if only parts are well executed.

    p.s. I'm not crazy about the research. Different research might have helped you clarify your argument faster.