So as the better to destroy him: time and moral onus in João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner — John Trefry

“The fact is that an act can no more be reduced to what it is than can a man: it transcends itself.” Sartre, Saint Genet

Since the Enlightenment the currency of allegory has devalued. The broader awakening to its alchemical processes has loosed its instruments as givens into our cultural consciousness. The veneer of metaphor and the causality of narrative have delaminated. Yet, as the secrets of allegory are denuded, its structures have remained tropically fertile. Like liturgy to the western atheist, the scheme of allegory serves the literature that acknowledges its obsolescence and applies to it the uncertain motives of decadent tricksters. In his book Allegory and Violence, Gordon Teskey says of this defrocking that, “What is coming to be in the midst of this passing away is not the symbol but the consciousness of history.” In Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press), first published in 1991, João Gilberto Noll has woven a strange hybrid of allegory and psychological realism, wherein the underlayment of familiar allegorical structures is used to prey viciously on the mores of the reader with the goal of manipulating the correspondence of the book’s interior spacetime with exterior world. What reveals the allegorical nature of Noll’s novel is not the clarity of symbolism, but the unreliability of its narrative veneer.

Involved in the Renaissance rediscovery and mathematization of perspectival representation, both Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer produced and utilized prototypes for “perspective machines.” The value of these instruments was less in discovering the true nature of vision, than providing the framework by which quantitative aspects of space could be made to exist in a medium that was not spatial. They functioned by establishing monocular vision at a fixed station point, and by manifesting the translatory picture plane as a transparent gridded frame. The vista frozen by a perspective machine desires stillness, lacks causality, and hence time. In the deep space still existing beyond the frame are secret structures to which the device is willfully ignorant. As with Renaissance cosmology and theology, the fixed and absolute nature of instrumentalized perception eliminated subjective influence, the capacity for the mind to be correct in seeing things outside their intrinsic ideals. Put another way, the instrument cultivated the dangerous notion that we can know definitively what we are seeing. A robust observation of one of these instruments and implications can be found in Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film, The Draughstmans Contract.

Works of literature, more than films, and in a different way than works in space, like painting, sculpture, or architecture, possesses the miraculous volumetric capability of duplicating conscious space through a series of time signatures, while still being ensnared in the elapsing time of the reader. This is true of any work of fiction, whether it is Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins, or it is Borges or Proust. Modern literature, in embracing the potentiality of these strata of time, has liberated its narrative structures to erase the direction and magnitude of time’s vector within the volume of the text, increasing the potential for the book to exist as a concurrent, yet malleable manifold. Simple devices can be used to effect the perception of narrative content, the flashback for example. Beloved or Sophie’s Choice are effective deployments in which the strategic use of the book’s temporal order effect their emotional content. Time concurrence at the opposite end of the spectrum, in Claude Simon for example, utilizes the granular structure of text to illicit an overall intellectual position that shapes the reading as it evolves and creates a smooth, monolithic time object. The most clear sense of time’s orientation in a text is legible causality. Even events that are timestamped, accomplished in a sense by the rotting horse in Simon’s The Flanders Road, if not linked via legible cause, create a manifold missing a dimension, which in turn seeks that measure from without.

My interest as a reader lies far less in what a text means than in what aspects of its composition catalyze the inquest for its meaning. This is a perennial question, one framed effectively by Umberto Eco considering the manner by which a chalk mark around a crack on a wall is able to turn the noise of the everyday into a signal with intention. The fruit of my reading is more frequently the nature of that chalk mark than the contents it singles out. Not every work of literature promotes the same curiosity. Even fewer works elicit a strategy for apprehension that takes dramatically different forms between reading and a posteriori reflection. Quiet Creature on the Corner understands the mutual equivalency in the equation. It allows the crack to determine the nature of the chalk mark. This is dependent on the complex manner that a work endeavors to position itself both in exterior time and space. The rhythm of or displacement of time in literature acts, as does Dürer’s perspective machine, to transpose its content into the physical space of passing time.

The characteristics of our concurrence with the time of a text is the instrument by which we orient ourselves to its content.

The perspective machine partitions and correlates a reality that exists inherently to a fluid and biased apparatus of perception.

Thus my reading of Quiet Creature on the Corner became intently focused on the nature of its time signatures and its organization of, or attitude toward events in time. Though it is not even the most remotely disjointed narrative, something feels terribly off. Its structure appears diaphanous. It is not. The book maintains a structural fragility that relies far more on the reader’s perception than it does actual discontinuity. The first reading of the book is troubled by the sense that its narrative events do not add up. The narrator, who escapes any specific conventional punishment for a sexual assault we are forced to witness, is shepherded around the countryside of Brazil by a host of associates and functionaries. The passage of time is primarily visible through the narrator’s boredom with the passage of time. The act of describing his whereabouts and activities seems to be an intermittent distraction from that boredom, surfacing whenever he rises to self-consciousness. In the intervening space he reflects on the poetry he hopes to write, but shares little to none with the reader. The events of this gaseous and avoidant sequence occur on a biased, but not oriented, surface with one another, something like a panorama more than a stacked sequence. It is not that sequence is disrupted. Upon this surface there is still adjacency. There is still smoothness of medium. It is the vector component of causality between the events that is eliminated. This ultimately has the effect of distending time, even if its actual passage in the book is rendered with rather conventional phrases: “I, if I stopped to take note, would no doubt find myself a man and not the boy that Kurt pulled out of jail.”

To flesh out the volatility of organization and its effect on time is it is worth considering an extra-literary example in the “Black Paintings” of Francisco Goya. Even the most benign of Goya’s portraits bears a haunting emptiness, an odd acknowledgment of its flat falseness. This stands contrary to his Rococo contemporaries: the frivolous ebullience of Fragonard, the ornamental morality of Hogarth and Greuze. Painted in isolation at the end of his career, the “Black Paintings,” represent a shift in attitude from his similar series “The Disasters of War”. Both are inextricable from the political strife of the time in Spain. “The Disasters of War” maintains a representational, though partisan, journalistic mode, while the “Black Paintings” adopt the allegorical, the diffuse, the uncanny to veneer a sense of hopelessness. Volumes of critical work exist about the symbolic logic of each piece and the symphonic space schematizing the meaning in both bodies of work. Yet the bodies of writing are distinctly different in tenor. “The Disasters of War” have cultural and historical meaning illuminated through them. The “Black Paintings” require the interpolation of meaning from cultural and historical contexts. “The Disasters of War” are representative of somewhat given historical scenarios. The “Black Paintings,” with the exception of Saturn Devouring His Son, depict, if not quotidian, at least known scenarios. Absent is the overarching historical tissue of “The Disasters of War.” The scenarios are offset by a few truly bizarre conducting bodies (to borrow a term from Simon), including a witches’ sabbath presided over by a he-goat, the aforementioned filial cannibalism, and a dog sinking into quicksand. The lack of historic landmarks in the corpus, and the presence of these conducting bodies, demands the works’ interpretation as a strange heterogeneous body. Robert Hughes says in his survey, Goya:

“Clearly he did not care about creating a unified allegory or a coherent story. The images of the Black Paintings do not cohere, or not in that way. One cannot even be sure of the apparent links between them, although their original spatial relation to one another is known from old photographs taken while the paintings were still in place.”

This alchemical mystery fosters the ineffable quality of asking its viewer to establish an internal logic, an organization of meaning from detached events, potential causes in space, the physics of their liturgical impact. But the contents of the paintings do not exist in time. They do not urgently establish a hierarchy.

But more critically, although lost forever, is their original unity as a body on the walls of the “Deaf Man’s House” outside Madrid, where (arguably) Goya painted them. These painting in-situ transcend the ecclesiastic fresco or the trompe l’œil. The space of the painting is inextricable from the bodily orientations inside the house. The house is used as a device to construct orientations to the work and between the works. Different than the aspirational space of the trompe l’œil, it is an organizational space. The fixity of the elements, the intractable disposition of the imagery in relation to one another, establishes the expectation of intention and meaning for the tissue of space between. This tissue is more akin to the meditative invitation of the bespoke Rothko Chapel (also home to black paintings) than the transitory curation of paintings in a gallery. The “Black Paintings” were arrayed with an understanding of space because they existed as definitions of space. In their anachronous flatness, they were not extensions of space, but thresholds. The images lie strangely on the surface. The dense juxtaposition of the works architecturally recalled the image mosaic of the Parisian Salons in which the single work is subjugated to the constellation of images. The election to concentrate on a particular image is controlled by its relationship to the surrounding content. The organization of meaning is without. The unspooling of, and organization of time exists in the space of the reader.

Quiet Creature on the Corner, although lying strangely on its surface, is not without the sense that one thing leads to the next. It is more that one thing does not lead to the socially appropriate next thing. The uneasy waves of the act of sexual violence that occurs early in the book exacerbate the existing, but not overly groundbreaking methods for devaluing the passage of time. One wonders how fine the book’s temporal weave would feel comparatively if the awful crime on page 12, touted in the jacket text as a narrative linchpin, were located much later in the book, perhaps swapped with the consensual, though still horribly objectifying rendezvous on page 90, even if it still went ostensibly unpunished. These are truly the book’s two conducting bodies. Would the structure of the book still feel as diaphanous were they swapped, their moral implications transposed? The existing lack of appropriateness in response to the crime would not disrupt the story. One would not question why the narrator suddenly found himself in a country manor. But the way in which our impressions of causality affect our temporal sense would likely not be as psychologically manipulated. In this way Quiet Creature on the Corner becomes a modern version of the psychological novel. It is not familiar to the causal pantomime of Henry James or Stendhal. Its psychological tenor, or portraiture is used to create the spatial quality that structural conceits have sought in other modern works. Its moral lethargy demotes the latent, and chronological temporal structure so that readerly space premiates. Readerly morality arises in lieu of narrative adjudication. Causality exists outside the book, and the book becomes temporally subject to our own strange rhythms. Because the object receives no noticeable stain, the stain bleeds onto the subject. The object, the narrator, is behind a clear-coat, Scotch-guarded. Beads of putridity run downhill onto the reader.

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In his book, Saint Genet, Sartre said, “Genet began to write Our Lady of the Flowers. He is going to discover little by little that he must prefer the reader to himself, if only so as the better to destroy him…” Genet, and especially Our Lady of the Flowers is a wonderful opportunity to compare and scrutinize the above hypotheses. It is a book that endeavors to do what I have outlined above, yet maintains direction and balance. Its events and its characters follow the fast and loose model of the picaresque. Sartre asserts that Genet had, “no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is concerned with finish, with formal perfection: for him beauty lies elsewhere, in the ceremonious splendor of sacrilege and murder.” In Quiet Creature on the Corner, there is no effort to portray these depraved acts as beatific, but there is a capitalization on their radiating contribution to the book’s “finish.” Our Lady of the Flowers exists in very similar conditions, written in prison, functioning as a distraction from the passage of time. And although there is a wandering quality, an improvisational indulgence, an intermittent surfacing of the self-conscious, the narrative is complete, its effects foreshadowed. It is fraught with violence and sex (though allegedly less so in its contemporary publications), but the acts contain narrative consequences. It is in keeping with its own identifiable hermetic morality. And although Genet’s narrative lavishes more on the moral transgressions, it is done with love. The murder Our Lady of the Flowers commits is heralded. But so too is his execution. Just as much love is present in every act of violence, whether it is just or unjust, whether committed against a stranger or a treasured saint. This love is expressed by the narrator. The book is pregnant with those feelings so that we do not have to feel them. In the end, Genet has not been able to foist this dispassion upon us. Written before the fruits of mid-century rhetorical experiments, the result is that the narrative remains in Genet’s cell with him. “In my cell, little by little, I shall have to give my thrills to the granite.” Our Lady of the Flowers is a fable. By allegorically displacing the moral onus onto the reader, Quiet Creature on the Corner is more the book of imposed trauma that Genet aspired to craft.

The everyday becomes the allegorical in the body in which it doesn’t fit. Genet writes of the youth Culafroy in Our Lady of the Flowers:

“It is magnificence seen from without. Though it may be wretched when seen from within, it is then poetic, if you are willing to agree that poetry is the breaking apart (or rather the meeting at the breaking−point) of the visible and the invisible.”

The asynchrony of perceived narrative time with actual narrative structure is the key source of the uncanny quality in Quiet Creature on the Corner. A closer rereading, or active reflection, reveals that the presence of narrative causality is not actually missing, it is just unsatisfying in a way. It is the (hopefully universal) dissatisfaction with the narrator’s culpability for the sexual assault he commits early on, culpability and lack of contrition, that colors the manner in which we perceive the tissue of narrative causality through the rest of the book. Our dissatisfaction with the narrator’s psychic penance shades the purgatorial surface between narrative locales. This schism provides a more geologic view of time passing, seemingly slower and more sporadic than it actually is. In the prose is not the description of space, but an impression of space upon the time of the reader. This promotes a significant difference between the gestalt interiority of the content and the exteriority of reading, where it blooms like mold in the lungs.


João Gilberto Noll is the author of nearly 20 books. His work has appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he has been a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of over 10 awards in all, he lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Adam Morris (translator) has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.

John Trefry is the author of PLATS and THY DECAY THOU SEEST BY THY DESIRE, proprietor of Inside the Castle press, contributor to entropymag.org, architect with the work.group @ sisyphean.com. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas. @trefryesque

Image: goya dog, David Flam, Creative Commons

Author and translator bios courtesy of Two Lines Press.