Thursday, November 3, 2011

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 attempted to perform a language experiment on his as a child.

Peter Stillman Sr. became obsessed with the biblical language when the younger Peter was a young boy. Peter Stillman Sr. wrote several books on the matter, and Quinn came across this during his investigation. Stillman specifically 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. He decided to experiment with this theory in mind, and chose his son as the participant. 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 the language of Christ. The reasons why Peter Stillman Sr. wanted to accomplish the original language of innocence was to the, "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 Christ 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 Christ.

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.

Younger Peter's language, and the fact that it was experimentally undone in order to be recreated as the language of innocence, prove that he does not speak a language of damaged goods, but instead 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.

Auster, Paul. "The New York Trilogy." Penguin: 1993.

1 comment:

  1. Side note: I'm about 98% sure that Christ isn't mentioned where you mention him; it's God's language, not Christ's language (which makes sense, given the book's obsession with Genesis, not the Bible as a whole.

    The moment that impressed me: "If dog spells God backwards, then that certainly makes no sense to him because God and dog are two completely different things." I had to work on this for a while, but I think I understand what you're saying. If words correspond to things (as they do, in the language of innocence, apparently), then related concepts must necessarily have related words, and disjoint concepts must have disjoined words. This is good.

    The problem: Rather than further unpacking what I had to unpack above, you spend a lot of time repeating your *claim* (and, to be fair, some relevant passages from the text), rather than providing *evidence* for it. Young Stillman's problem with dog vs. god is a great piece of evidence, once I understand it (although you made me work a little too hard for it). Where are the others?