The concept of alienation in S.J. Naudé’s The third reel and Of fathers and fugitives – a psychoanalytic and philosophical view

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In this article, the point of departure is that S.J. Naudé’s novels The third reel (2017) and Of fathers and fugitives (2023) can be meaningfully apprehended within the context of alienation. The article applies two diverging concepts of alienation to the abovementioned novels.

In the first place, psychoanalytic alienation is contemplated as it appears in The third reel. The argument is advanced that in The third reel we encounter primarily what Jacques Lacan called an alienation in the signifier. This is a kind of existential alienation that accompanies all subject formation in and through the symbolic order of language. It is, therefore, an alienation that functions as a condition of possibility for the constitution of the subject in its own right.

Lacan, however, in his theory of a necessary and fundamental alienation in the signifier, suggested that this kind of inescapable alienation can be driven to the extreme and that when alienation is driven to such an extreme, the result is foreclosure on the Name of the Father (the order of the signifier), which results in psychosis. For Lacan, the possibility of exaggeration of alienation can be prevented by a process that he calls separation. In the course of the discussion I will show how separation fails in The third reel.

I suggest that the main character in The third reel, Etienne, is the victim of this kind of exaggeration of alienation and that consequently we can detect psychosis in Etienne’s character. I further suggest that the foreclosure on the apartheid Name of the Father in Etienne is accompanied by a desperate attempt to adopt an alternative Name of the Father which I characterise as togetherness. Tragically, this attempt on Etienne’s part to adopt / be alienated in an alternative signifier of the Name of the Father fails miserably as a result of the circumstances that Etienne finds himself in in London.

Foremost in these circumstances is the relationship that he enters into with the enigmatic Axel, who is an installation artist that also does nursing as his day job.

I argue that instead of adopting an alternative Name of the Father, a different psychic process takes place in Etienne – he substitutes the anal father of the Real for the Name of the Father. Axel is the direct cause of this psychic process in Etienne – he adopts Axel as the anal sadistic father of the Real instead of adopting an alternative Name of the Father. This means that Etienne’s foreclosure on the Name of the Father and the consequent substitution of Axel as anal father of the Real, or Père Jouissance, constitutes Etienne as a tragic psychotic who follows the injunctions of the anal father as Axel until the bitter end.

In Of fathers and fugitives, by contrast, we encounter a different form of alienation, but it is a fundamental alienation nonetheless. I illuminate this second version of alienation with reference to the work of Hannah Arendt on “modern world alienation”. The article suggests that before enquiring into the nature of modern world alienation we first ask after Arendt’s concept of world. For Arendt the world consisted, first, of the things of the world – the so-called Dingwelt – or the artefacts of human creation which lends a degree of permanence to the otherwise fleeting character of earthly existence and is a first indicator of man’s alienation from nature. The second aspect of the world for Arendt resides in the space of appearance out of which arises the sensus communis or common sense. The space of appearance for Arendt is a space that is radically characterised by plurality – appearance is always the appearance in the midst of the plurality of the human condition. Out of this plurality arises what Arendt calls the sixth sense of the human: the sensus communis which discloses the world to us by fitting together the perceptions of the other five senses in the midst of a common sharing of the world.

For Arendt there are three significant moments in the constitution of modern world alienation: the discovery of America, the Reformation and the invention of the telescope. These three events had a profound impact on the world’s disclosive possibilities of the sensus communis. Arendt argues that the discovery of America had the effect of losing the world at the same time as the Earth was discovered. This was a result of the inevitable shrinkage of the globe (and the loss of distance) that circumnavigation inaugurated. “Men now live in an earth-wide continuous whole where even the notion of distance, still inherent in the most perfectly unbroken contiguity of parts, has yielded before the onslaught of speed” (Roessler 2022:12). As regards the Reformation, Arendt holds that the unintended consequence of the Reformation was the displacement of a vast contingent of the earth’s population with the concomitant exposure to only the most naked facts of biological existence. This alienation from world was accompanied by the “inner worldly alienation” that was advocated in the doctrine of Luther and Calvin about otherworldliness which was predicated on a turning to the self in which all experiences and events were to be evaluated in terms of man’s encounter only with himself. The loss of plurality and world with it therefore became inescapable under capitalist conditions. The third event of modern world alienation, the invention of the telescope, transformed human sense perception in the direction of the astrophysical point of view. “What ushered in the modern age,” Arendt writes, “was the astounding human capacity to think in terms of the universe while remaining on the earth, and the perhaps even more astounding human ability to use cosmic laws as guiding principles for terrestrial action” (Arendt 1998:264). The psychological effects of encountering the earth from the astrophysical point of view were evident to Arendt in the human being’s loss of confidence in the ability to apprehend nature according to his senses. This resulted in the predominance of the principle of doubt that became so central to Cartesian consciousness in the modern age. The consequence is that introspection becomes the central channel of perception in the modern age. This introspection is predicated on a turning to the self and the same and thus results in the loss of plurality and world that Arendt regarded as so fundamental to the human condition.

The article then turns to an analysis of Of fathers and fugitives against the backdrop of Arendt’s explication of modern world alienation. In the first place, the argument is that, via the characters of Daniël and Theon, Naudé resists the conclusions of modern world alienation by rendering nature as a kind of eternal oasis that would absorb all of the human’s experiences and attempts at escape and would finally prevail. This resistance to modern world alienation is particularly acute towards the end of the novel when Daniël lies down amidst a patch of pumpkin plants and the plant is described as “predatory” and a vision given of how, in time, it would devour the human artefact. The article offers criticism against this view of Naudé’s in the context of the current debates about the Anthropocene and the newly discovered capacity of the human to act, as Arendt would term it, into nature, not upon nature.

The article then suggests that Naudé doesn’t present the resistance to modern world alienation as an absolute. In other places in Of fathers and fugitives nature is presented in sharp contrast to the human’s capacity to destroy. This is particularly evident in the presentation of the 72 Japanese calibrations of the seasons which is presented in the context of Tokyo as a modern world city that desperately tries in so many ways to escape the earthliness of existence, particularly through technology. Daniël and Theon’s visit to the multi-storey karaoke bar renders particularly concrete commentary on the loss of plurality and the turning inwards to the self. The article suggests that the presence of the city and the conditions under which Daniël and Theon visit it, also has a relatively alienating effect on the relationship between them. The alienation wrought in the person of Daniël by the modern city during the visit to the Nakagin capsule tower is driven to a climax when Daniël tells Theon that he has learned a new Japanese word: kodokushi, which means to die alone and unnoticed. The article suggests that Naudé works with two sides of a dialectic at once: First there is the inescapable given of modern world alienation, but, second, there is the human’s capacity to find togetherness (and tenderness, perhaps) in isolated moments of closeness and intimacy.

The article proceeds to a closer look at Daniël in the context of modern world alienation and suggests that Daniël is a quintessential version of the kind of person that is produced under conditions of modern world alienation. Indeed, the novel’s title’s reference to “fugitives” is a clear indication of Daniël’s unsettled status throughout the events. Again, Naudé presents resistance in the character of Daniël when he moves to the Free State to be with Theon and live on the farm in a kind of exception to his fundamental alienation. Already early on in the novel, in the events surrounding the Serbs, we can detect Daniël’s desperate attempts to escape his alienation and find a sensus communis. Tragically, these attempts repeatedly fail and we see how Daniël loses the inbetween which is, of course, a condition of plurality and, therefore, world disclosure. This loss of a sensus communis is also particularly acute in the second part of the novel in which Daniël cares for his dying father and their relationship is characterised by one-sided communication that fails to establish anything akin to a space of appearance.

The conclusion that follows from the analysis is that Naudé presents to us a world in which modern world alienation is fundamental but never absolute. Throughout, Naudé’s narrative is punctuated by instances in which the characters resist alienation and attempt to disclose a world. It appears, then, that Naudé’s prosaic message is that disclosing a world in the context of modern world alienation is hard, but it is not impossible. In this, Naudé is close to Arendt, who also argued that the human being is endowed with two faculties that can resist modern world alienation. These faculties are forgiveness and promising. Both these faculties are, in Arendt, tied to the uniquely human capacity for natality – beginning something new. The article concludes by briefly considering the oblique references to forgiveness and promising in Of fathers and fugitives. Promise, on the one hand, resides in Naudé’s rendering of the character and actions of Hein in relation to Daniël and Theon’s baby (as symbol of new beginnings). Forgiveness, on the other hand, is reserved for the end of the novel via Daniël who contemplates forgiveness for Hein’s responsibility for the death of the child. In both instances, however, the occurrence of these two faculties in the novel is attended to with tragedy and is, therefore, a grim reminder of the inescapability of alienation.

Keywords: alienation; Hannah Arendt; forgiveness; Jacques Lacan; modern world alienation; S.J. Naudé; promising; psychosis; sensus communis; signifier; “world”; worldlessness


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