Tekhnema 3 / "A Touch of Memory" / Spring 1996

Pieces of Eight! Coquilles Saint-Jacques! Of Parrots, Parents and Prostheses

Dan Gunn

Whilst reading David Wills’s long, complex, formidably artic-ulate, and intensely anxious book Prosthesis1, which, as good as its word, for 350 tightly packed pages discusses everything its author subsumes within this title — which does amount in the end to almost everything, from his father’s wooden leg to Freud’s false jaw, from cyberspace to coitus a tergo, taking in along the way such broader phenomena as translation, writing, and indeed language itself — whilst reading this book, then, I surprised myself. I was admiring the way in which a discussion of Freud’s hostility to the occult had led to what psychoanalysis was unable to theorize; or I was trying to figure out how the fact that Wills’s grandfather was sent from New Zealand to France during the First World War linked to how conscientious objectors were shot “in some scenic spot in the Somme or Verdun,” then to how this spot was “no doubt close to Damvillers, where in 1552 Ambroise Paré performed his famous amputation,” and then how these all linked to “the idea that it is only ever the same war that has been waged all these centuries and that it is a war over amputation and the question of prosthesis”(151); or again I was struggling to rid myself of the sentimental assumption that there might be certain privileged moments or areas of human existence or interaction which could be extra-prosthetic, reminding myself that “human” was probably not permissible, nor “existence” either, outmoded essentialist tropes, and correcting myself with — “the first and last contrivance called the sex act.  It begins and ends with sex, and builds from there.  Sex is little else once you get down to it.  It begins with a coupling, a contrivance that is also fundamentally prosthetic.” (190)  I was busy admiring, as I say, or wondering, when the surprise hit me.  For when I turned to my life-long prosthetic paragon, intending to review him in the light shed by Wills’s inquiry, I found that — shiver my timbers — I had forgotten the name of his parrot!

And things were yet more serious than I had realized.  For I had also forgotten the parrot’s squawked refrain, if not its keenness to issue it.  I tried to reassure myself with the fact that it was more years than was reasonable since I had read Treasure Island, and I tried to see if I could not deduce either name or squawk from the elements which remained.  Whatever else had winnowed, I had no hesitation when placing the bird: firmly on the shoulder of my paragon, Long John Silver, he of the severed left leg and crutch.  As his vital appendage and supplementary voice-box, would the parrot not, I speculated, be liable to have a name and squawk tailor-made to confirm Silver in his disguise and his double-dealings? Something like “Royal Ensign,” with a squawk of “God save the King”? But though I ran the range of such half-probable appellations, I could not get it right.  And other questions came crowding in, questions provoked in no small measure by the thoroughgoing nature of David Wills’s book: why, indeed, when so many details, squawks, minor characters, names, had escaped me, did the image of Long John Silver stay so fixed in the mind? Why would he have been so much less likely to have haunted childhood and survived into adulthood had he been more complete? And, more broadly, in what ways does Stevenson’s novel present the divide between the natural and the mechanical, the natural and the unnatural, the single and the double? I was beginning to realize that I would have to make an excursion to Treasure Island to try to find some answers, and I already suspected that this journey might lead me in turn to Ireland, and to Hell (when these are one and the same).  Only, I feared, would this Wills-inspired trip not also amount to a case of Wills-avoidance? I checked my source, and “ex-cursion,” there I read, “a drift off course.”(269) My heart sank.  But then I read on, and back, and with relief realized that since prosthesis, as concept or practice (when for Wills the two are indivisible), breaks down borders, such most importantly as that between the human and the mechanical, then “as duality, as opposition, interconnection, and even interdependency of presumed irreducible opposites,” it would in turn imply that all such oppositions, as between life and writing too, “would continually digress or excursion into each other’s space, or repeat each other’s structural configuration, that of the contrived conjunction of difference that every difference entails.”(268-9) I breathed a sigh of relief.  For by quitting Wills’s shores I might, I understood, not only be able to explore the relevance of his ideas in relation to two texts which he happens not to discuss, but also thereby be giving myself a chance of finding him all the better.  And so, armed with this re-assurance, I set off, once again, for that island of my childhood.

If Long John Silver impresses from the outset, it is in part because, of course, he has impressed others before us.  Billy Bones, when he arrives at the Admiral Benbow Inn, though himself an intimidating seafarer, is terrified by the possible appearance of Silver, and hires our narrator, Jim Hawkins, to look out for the “seafaring man with one leg.”2  Though pleased to pocket the fourpenny piece, Jim in turn falls prey to visions of Silver, visions which are eloquent of the ways in which, in this prosthetic context, less can mean more:

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you.  On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house, and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions.  Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body.  To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares.  And altogether I paid pretty dear for my monthly fourpenny piece, in the shape of these abominable fancies.3

The two men who come searching for Billy Bones turn out to be otherwise debilitated: Black Dog, who is “wanting two fingers of the left hand,”4 and then the “dreadful looking figure” of Pew the blind man, who taps with his stick, looking “positively disfigured,”5 delivers the “Black Spot,” and finally is crushed beneath the hooves of the revenue officers’ horses.  And, as contrasted with these two minor mutilees, Silver, when Jim finally does meet him, in Bristol, gives the impression not of disability but just the contrary:

His left leg was cut off at the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with a wonderful dexterity, hopping about on it like a bird.6

Surprising, perhaps, that Jim does not make the connection to his nightmare, especially when Black Dog is seen in Silver’s inn.  Or rather, he does make it, then dismisses it, taken in as he is by Silver’s “clean and pleasant-tempered” appearance, by his easy prattle, by the fact that he does not deny the suspicious appearances but rather embraces them, as if to make his complicity so visible that it could not be suspicious — until even that bastion of hard-headed skepticism Captain Smollett is convinced.  And of course, Silver allays Jim’s suspicion above all with flattery, that special sort of flattery to which a boy whose father is recently dead is susceptible, which seems to say, “I recognize you, so surely you must me”; or as Silver will later put it to Jim, “I’ve always liked you, I have, for a lad of spirit, and the picter of my own self when I was young and handsome.”7 David Wills writes — and his words about filiation will be quite as true for Stevenson’s book as for his own — “prosthesis is inevitably about belonging, and paternity an unavoidable model of ownership.”(15)

Of course, it will not take Jim long, from within the apple-barrel, to realize that Silver has been a false father to him, though even as he hears the buccaneer’s plot hatching it is Silver’s recycling of what are seen now as empty phrases which most offends him, as if words themselves, having no longer a single addressee, could no longer be seen as trustworthy.  Yet even when he finds out, the switching does not stop, and Jim will be beholden to Silver again, this time for his life, and so have more substantial reasons for owing him a filial loyalty.  While Silver goes on mutating, nightmare into reality, subdividing again into nightmare, scourge into savior into scourge, so Protean that in the end it is no surprise that he escapes that mark of finality which would be the gibbet, and into the wilds of Mexico, to reincarnate himself in Jim’s mind, in his tale, and as it may be in later and yet more brooding of Stevenson’s heroes.

Long John Silver, then, from the moment Jim learns of him and his solitary leg, begs the question which is exactly that which David Wills alerts us to, about the limits or boundaries of the human, and in doing so raises a fear which he alone is man enough to be able to appease.  One hardly has to give Jim’s nightmare a Freudian turn, with its central, pogo-stick of a member, to see that what is horrifying and fascinating to Jim is the power of just such singularity.  Silver, after all, or rather before Jim even meets him, is the man who would eradicate the duality upon which we depend for articulation — now right, now left — a rhythm which David Wills will inspect closely in relation to his own father who also lacks a left leg.  Silver the unique, the monstrous, the super-man who has converted lessness into moreness, who contains within this singularity a double of “bird-like” agility, who will stride the deck in a storm, perform “work no sound man ever equaled,”8 launch his crutch as a lethal neck-snapping weapon.  Silver the singular, Silver the duplicitous; the human, the inhuman; the true, the false; the good, the evil; the loved, the despised; when such a list hardly begins to tap his power to question limits, highlight ambivalence, what David Wills will call, in prosthesis, “the sense and functioning of articulation between matter of two putatively distinct orders,”(10) and all of which together will lead us, inexorably, to none other than Silver’s parrot.

Far from being reduced by his disability, Silver is Long John.  The double is not some hitherto unnoticed addition, rather, in the nature of most of the cases which David Wills will analyze, it is a prosthetic extension of what is already very present.  And what is true of his corporeal self is, as we’ve begun to see, equally, if not doubly true of the rest.  His inn, far from repudiating a connection with the site of shame, proudly calls itself by one of Treasure Island’s landmarks, the “Spy-Glass.” All bionic bonhomie, Silver has a comforting word for every man he terrorizes: Silver in name, in tongue, in mercenary ambition.  And in case his followers, subjects, sons, opponents, enemies (these being of course interchangeable) were not to notice that he is a quasi-transcendent, bird-like super-man, what does he wear emblematically on his shoulder, counterweight, as it were, to his stump? What, but a parrot, and one with a name — at last! — which confirms its owner’s credentials: Captain Flint, name of the most ruthless and dreaded pirate on the high seas, of whom Silver is himself in some sense just the double or son.  No fear Silver can raise which that “‘poor old innocent bird o’ mine’” cannot allay; at the very same time as it mechanically squawks — yes! — of piracy, with its favorite “Pieces of eight!  pieces of eight!”, or sets to “swear straight on, passing belief for wickedness,”9 a more effective and paternal prosthetic support than ever his crutch could be!

Stevenson’s fascination with duplicity, explored here with Long John Silver, will of course not disappear, but only deepen, with the brothers in The Master of Ballantrae, or most famously with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  In this latter tale the prosthesis has turned from anatomical to chemical, but the mechanism remains much the same whereby the gates of a second life and of the other world are opened from within the first life and world, from within, here, the single-mindedness of Dr Jekyll, who, when he write his “Full Statement of the Case,” notes:

It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations, than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, served in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.10

The source of the problem and the solution being one and the same, Jekyll appeals to a higher authority, going on:

In this case, I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on the hard law of life which lies at the root of religion, and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.

Religion offering no quick relief, Jekyll will attempt to accept his dual nature, will even generalize it and theorize it too; yet after Hyde has clubbed Sir Danvers Carew to death, not with his crutch this time but with his cane, it will be to The One that Jekyll will again, belatedly and uncertainly, make his appeal.  “God knows,” he concludes wishfully, though he then immediately puts a prosthetic parenthesis round this, leaving the future uncertain and menacing by saying, “and what is to follow concerns another than myself.”11

Critics of Stevenson have, of course, pondered long and hard on the reasons, psychological, medical, religious, cultural, for the fascination evinced here with the duplicitous.  But, through David Wills’s deployment of the concept of prosthesis, by which the mechanical is at the heart or origin of what makes us human (to the extent that even the terms “heart” and “origin” would themselves have to be “prosthetized”), there is real gain to be made in a comprehension of the very ground of Stevenson’s world, upon which the psychological, medical, and the rest had to play.  Every time Jekyll or Silver turns, it seems some stability has been achieved.  But what stability for a man so single-minded or single-legged? They turn and turn, till the world turns with them: prosthesis, as David Wills often points out, has an exceptionally powerful capacity to “contaminate.” So Jekyll’s friend and skeptical colleague Dr Lanyon is destroyed by what he learns of Jekyll; the heroes on the island watch Silver as “he crawled along the sand till he got hold of the porch and could hoist himself again upon his crutch,”12 and not one of them is human or humane enough to help the cripple.  No surprise that soon we find, too, what Silver jubilantly calls “‘A Bible with a bit cut out!’” or that he should conclude, of that mutilation and redundancy of scripture, “‘It don’t bind no more’n a ballad-book.’”13  Silver does escape, of course, as he must, but not from Jim Hawkins’s mind.  And though Jim will return to England safely, the memory of those distant shores will haunt or contaminate him for ever, as he and the novel conclude:

Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight!  pieces of eight!”14

As David Wills convincingly demonstrates in all sorts of ways, the power of the prosthetic to open the doors onto the “other world” is formidable indeed.  Curiously, in the final text which forms a brief stop on my Wills-inspired excursions, which is all about the other world, the nightmare seems to be opened, in some barely accountable way, by pieces of six, or more precisely of seven.  Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman begins its alarming and side-splitting exploration of the relation between natural and supernatural, Ireland and Inferno, man and machine, by way of a prosthesis:

In one of the places where I was broadening my mind I met one night with a bad accident.  I broke my left leg (or, if you like, it was broken for me) in six places and when I was well enough again to go my way I had a leg made of wood, the left one.15

If this were not bad enough, things get worse, much worse, for our narrator.  He commits his life to devoted study of the sage De Selby, whose theories, such as that about motion being impossible, or the earth shaped like a sausage, are as if written by a Zeno on hallucinogens.  But when his money runs out, he is tempted to commit murder, only then to lose his name, his life, and even knowledge of the fact that he is dead (for only at the end of the novel do we learn what he never can, that the strange zone he has entered is that of death, or more exactly of a hell beyond death, in and through which he is being punished).  Who is the very first person the nameless narrator meets on his journey into hell? A “tricky man” who threatens first to rip our narrator’s belly open, until the latter raises his trouser and reveals his wooden leg, whereupon the “tricky man” reveals his name, Martin Finnucane, and declares:

I would not lay a finger on your personality.  I am the captain of all the one-legged men in the country.  I knew them all up to now except one — your own self — and that one is now also my friend into the same bargain.16

The promise will be welcome, too, since the narrator will be caught by the police, even though they were not searching for him, and, since they too seem unaware that he is dead, he will be condemned to hang, at which point our narrator will think to call upon his ally.  (This connection between peg-legs and hanging is one which intrigues Wills too, and when he talks of the child’s game of “hangman” it is almost as if he were recounting some scene from The Third Policeman.) Martin Finnucane will come to the rescue, saving our narrator from the noose, with what may, without any Irish chauvinism, reach the Guinness Book of Records for the maximum number of peg-legs between two covers: fourteen men, but now tied together, their prostheses temporarily discarded, “so that there were two men for every two legs,” a strategy so masterly that it leads Policeman MacCruiskeen to concede: “it would remind you of Napoleon on the retreat from Russia, it is a masterpiece of military technocratics.”17 A wooden leg, or a set of them here, again opens up the potential for humanity, as it does for the inhuman, supernatural, and hellish: for amazement, fright, and of course laughter, at the wondrous spectacle of the “hoppy men” tied heroically together.

What chance the law, with such prosthetic perplexities? And indeed, what is the acme of public menace in this strange world, such that nearly all the policemen’s attention has to be dedicated to its eradication, or, when that proves impossible, its tireless curtailment? Policeman Pluck obliges with an explanation, the seriousness of which is equal to anything in David Wills’s book, even when Wills writes that “in its relations with the body the word loses its referential pertinence in favor of a series of poses that can only be called prosthetic” (137):

The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.18

Following a logic quite consistent with the views of the narrator’s mentor De Selby, the prosthetic supports are shamelessly absorbing and being absorbed by their owners, to the point where they risk becoming interchangeable.  Men are found leaning with their elbows against walls instead of in their beds at night; bicycles huddle round stoves and loiter wherever conversation is lively, while the last crime committed in the parish has required the hanging of the bicycle along with its criminal owner.  And worse is avoided only because, precisely, of the policemen’s vigilance, as they intervene with the strong arm of the law to steal their parishioners’ bicycles on a weekly basis.  Even when dead, O’Brien intimates, it is hard to be, or even wish to be, one hundred per cent human (a lesson others have taught before him, Dante supremely, his Inferno thronging with unregenerate prosthesis-abusers).  Yet where lies the route, perilous certainly, offering the sole hope of a return to full humanity? Not, of course, in obedience to the law, however much it does appeal to the narrator who has so blithely sought it out, but rather in an endorsement of the prosthetic, as in the scene above when the “hoppy men” become peg-legs for one another, or as here, in the novel’s closing chapters, when the narrator steals Policeman Pluck’s sadly sequestered bicycle, and so snatches a few minutes’ bliss.  In a novel from which women, and indeed all traces of the feminine, are ruthlessly excised (“‘Women I have no interest in at all’,” the narrator tells Martin Finnucane, “‘A fiddle is a better thing for diversion’”19), the following description is like a sudden escape into prosthetic paradise:

How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.  She moved beneath me with agile sympathy in a swift, airy stride, finding smooth ways among the stony tracks, swaying and bending skillfully to match my changing attitudes, even accommodating her left pedal patiently to the awkward working of my wooden leg.  I sighed and settled forward on her handlebars, counting with a happy heart the trees which stood remotely on the dark roadside, each telling me that I was further and further from the Sergeant.20

The bliss, unfortunately, will be short-lived.  For like some wild, dead, Irish Joseph K., the narrator who has flouted the law is drawn inexorably to it, and so will find himself searching down the higher authority of Policeman Fox, the “third policeman.” David Wills devotes many pages to architecture and to houses in particular, gathering them under the prosthetic umbrella.  And here is a dwelling, the third policeman’s private station, which amply confirms his thesis, since it create what Wills will call an “abyssal indistinction,” being not only inside a dead man’s home, but “inside the walls” of this home.  It is as if the artificial structures humans create, hold within them the human, which in turn hold the artificial within their very substance, within which the human, and so on infinitely, in what is again a perfect figural fulfillment of one of De Selby’s wilder hypotheses.  Not that the narrator will find satisfaction here, since Policeman Fox is no more able than his colleagues to reassure with the force of a higher authority — on the contrary, he admits he has his station here only to save on rates, and this law-enforcer’s head is exactly that of the man the narrator once murdered.  And so the journey goes on: as O’Brien puts in, “Hell goes round and round”21; and our narrator of the wooden leg will have to go round and round with it, or it will have to go round and round with him.  For though, as David Wills says, it may indeed be that “it is always death that one finds lurking behind a case of prosthesis,”(143) when the death is one’s own, the finding is liable to prove what that authority Policeman MacCruiskeen would call “a difficult pancake...  a very compound crux,”22 or Policeman Pluck “a conundrum of great incontinence.”23

I have, I hope, by now given an indication of how buccaneers and dead Irishmen, through their particular abilities and disabilities, can serve to confirm the importance and the ubiquity of what David Wills will call “the generality called prosthesis.”(268) Yet notwithstanding the Willsian principle of excursion and digression, it remains for me to give a clearer picture of Wills’s own abilities and disabilities, of what I see as the three main strains, axes, or trajectories in his own excursion, which will also take him far from home.  If we have lent an ear to Silver’s parrot, however, it would be wrong of us to neglect the bird on Wills’s shoulder.  The following extract, from an analysis of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, gives one of its preferred refrains, and will give some preliminary indication of why, in the search for this generality, it is not just the ubiquity of the object which, at the very moment it is stressing its own importance, is also causes problems:

It is no longer relevant to ask whether information systems or intelligences do in fact function like the human brain.  They become prosthetized to the brain at least in terms of this reading of a science fiction, in such a way as to insist that the brain is always already designed or destined for them, not just functioning like them but infected by them, always already an intelligence determined by the sense of the artificial, the detachable, the replaceable; always already the site of the prosthetic deconstruction of difference that it contains or produces and that inhabits or infects it.

The first of Wills’s trajectories, the generalizing of the generality, is, as he well realizes, bound to cause him difficulties, to be a problematic pancake indeed, since prosthesis is endowed not just with ubiquity, but with the traits of the “always already,” and this when by flagging “always already” one does not necessarily avoid establishing the sorts of priorities which Wills is very determined to avoid.  With such a refrain coming from such a bird on the shoulder, it is perhaps inevitable that Wills will forever be looking over it: “any text, any utterance, is always already abyssal in structure”(331); “there is always already a doubling of meaning, a bilinguality to language”(298); “the body always already expresses otherness.”(167)  Though out to show that most if not all attributes of what we think of as the “natural” are always already prosthetised, David Wills will turn to the refrain of the “always already” so unfailingly that it can come to see as if he is almost acting instinctively — as it might be, automatically, even naturally!  Or, to put this another way: with such parrots, who needs enemies! 

But, fortunately, Wills does have other allies.  And what I should like to call his second trajectory is devoted to and dependent on the principal of these, his own father, who himself has a wooden leg, who can certainly claim some sort of priority, and who will, as Wills explains, become ubiquitous too in his way:

Since I cannot promise that if I set out to talk about something like the effects of the mechanical in the artistic I will not ultimately or automatically be writing a story of a father’s wooden leg, then what better device than to let it come up where and whenever it will.(15)

Not, then, that the father or his leg will escape the refrain of the always already; but the appeal will be made to an identifiable and particular historical individual, who will, I believe, appease the nervousness of the look over the shoulder (even if he serves to exacerbate it as well).  The appeal will be made, and in the name of a son, a first person singular, David Wills.  It is this same David Wills whose own person (when this is, autobiographically, barely distinguishable from his own text) constitutes his own other major ally; and the passages on himself constitute what I am calling his third trajectory.  Here, in this willingness to speak of self, in the mixing of genres which it implies, Wills locates his own greatest “gamble.” A gamble he is convinced is essential to his entire venture, since, having taken its lesson seriously, he cannot describe prosthesis without enacting it as well.  This enactment requires “a conjunction or enfolding of discourses”(16) or a shuttling “between an apparent constative and a more obviously performative mode, in and out of fiction and autobiography.”(10) And it will, by a first conversion of necessity into virtue, encourage Wills to keep his eyes front, ignore the refrain coming from his shoulder, and look hopefully to the future in the deeply felt aspiration that this book, with all its “gambles,” will be embarking “upon the production of its own literary artifact.”(11)

The “putatively distinct orders” mentioned above, in which the “generality of prosthesis” is exemplified for Wills, are many and varied and include wherever two distinct elements or practices are joined: “father/son, flesh/steel, theory/fiction, translation/quotation, literal/figurative, familiar/academic, rhetoric/medicine, rhetoric/cybernetics, French/English, nature/artifice, public/private, straight/limping.”(10)  Nor are these the only orders, and, for example, in the very interesting chapter on Freud, to these are added distinctions about progression/regression, superstition/religion, science/superstition, past/future, belonging/exteriority, single/double, as well as many others.  And perhaps this chapter on Freud may serve here, as well as any other, both to give some indication of the complex ways in which Wills argues his case for the centrality of the prosthetic, and of why these ways often trouble me.  Here he moves, characteristically, through various levels of discussion in which the generality of prosthesis is never lost from sight: through details of a particular prosthesis, on Freud’s palate, to speculation about some of the founding texts of psychoanalysis, to consideration of what these texts seem to be leaving out or avoiding, to consideration of his own father and his religious heterodoxy, to consideration again of lacunae in psychoanalytic theory, to an invocation of some of the real-world impli-cations of these lacunae.  From Freud’s suffering and how it highlighted the question of “accommodation,” Wills draws a double strain in psychoanalysis which he will pursue throughout this chapter: between an attention to the past, a scientific or archaeological inspection of ruins and traces on the one hand; and a nervousness about the lure of the future, of telepathy and of apocalypse on the other; or between, as it may be, proposition and projection.  “The gist of my whole argument,” Will writes, “is that Freudian theory projects more than it knows, even to the point of contradiction.”(98)

Wills deftly tracks the contradictions through various prosthetic moments, as for example in the distinction which Freud tries to draw between religion and superstition, then between the archaeological metaphor of the unconscious and Wills’s fascinating idea that there is no reason why the metaphor should stop with today, since all we now inhabit will one day soon be ruins — in other words between a need in psychoanalysis to turn to the past and a fear of opening up the future.  Concentrating on Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and its Discontents, Wills neatly traces the ways in which Freud’s notions of the super-ego and repetition, which appear to foreground legislation and return, are in fact inhabited by the need to accommodate the uncanny, by doubles which constantly disrupt the attempt to keep the mechanical and “futuristic” elements out of the theory.  Wills’s argument is detailed and complex, as it turns around the figure of telepathy, turning it gradually into a mechanical or prosthetic other which haunted Freud’s work.  Taking the example of the castration complex, Wills very effectively indicates ways in which castration might not just be a fear arising from what has been seen as once lost, but rather a fear of what prosthesis might be imposed in the future as replacement.  Or, taking the notions of the parapraxis and the dream-wish, Wills shows how these evident repetitions from the past in fact also constitute “a more arbitrary projection of desire oriented towards the future.”(117) Or again, taking the repetitions of the child, he demonstrates how these too accommodate the future even as they seem to be abolishing it.  The question of accommodation leads Wills to consider what can be contained within any orthodoxy or body or sect; and after first briefly considering some key moments in the history of psychoanalysis itself, he goes on to several pages in which his father’s position as an apostate to the Plymouth Brethren Church is described — moving pages indeed in which the child’s sense of solidarity is cut across by the desperate desire to be free for ever of all such codes and rules as dictate what can and cannot be accommodated.  However, it is only when approaching the end of his chapter that Wills appears to get to his really central point, before he then concludes the chapter with a speculation on the apocalyptic future which was awaiting Freud and the Jewish people (during which he cites D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel), then moving into a long speculation on the Holocaust, and on violence and “the compulsion to kill and die that waits beyond the reach of knowing and saying.”(129)

What is this central point? At its most direct it is, again, that there inheres in psychoanalysis a series of contradictions which its own theory cannot theorize.  But behind this manifest point, I believe there is a more important one, one which is stated explicitly here but which in fact informs the whole of Wills’s work.  At its simplest it is that: given that Freud could not make clear the forces at work in his own ideas, by implication, he who does make these clear will in some sense be going “beyond” Freud (even if, as Wills points out, all theories will be haunted by their own double).  Or, to put this perhaps a little less simply, and certainly less explicitly, what appears to be being intimated here, if tacitly, is that by pointing out the contradictions in Freud’s theories, it might be possible also to go beyond some if not all of the complexes or dynamics which these theories attempt to describe.  The work of Derrida on Freud is invoked, and it is described as having “laid bare” the “mechanism at work in Freud’s work on telepathy.”(122)  Wills is quite emphatic: Derrida’s notion lays bare the mechanism, and so “removes from Freudian theory the comfort of a kernel of truth, namely the idea that a message can reside and belong in a particular place, and that it can return home to where it belongs and be accommodated there.”(123) The argument is as complex as its central axes are clear: psychoanalysis has failed, perhaps inevitably, to theorize or accommodate its own contradictions; it has tended to elide its own prosthetic future; and it has taken the work of Derrida — and now of his followers or epigones — to tease out these untapped prosthetic potentialities.  The question being raised, however, here conceptually, but everywhere else by the very tone of Wills’s book and the timbre of his prose, is whether it really is the case that, by exposing certain of the contradictions in Freud, one does escape the affect which binds these mechanisms or complexes to the human, which affect was, as much as the mechanism itself, the object of Freud’s attention and the mainstay of psychoanalysis.  It is a question which will be particularly pressing whenever issues of paternity, filiation, and recognition by authority are raised — and Wills’s book is raising them continually.  And it is a question which haunts Wills’s book, in ways which, for this reader at least and as I try to intimate below, have the unfortunate consequence of enlisting the author’s intelligence into the service of a force which emerges sometimes as great fear (the nervous look over the shoulder), sometimes great desire (the often exalted claims and the grandiloquence); but either way directed, I believe, to a figure who might, as a father might, in fantasy at least, recognize the child and make him whole — and this despite or even because of the knowledge which prosthesis gives of the impossibility of this wholeness. 

Returning now to the “putatively distinct orders” Wills proposes under the aegis of prosthesis, the large range of couples and odd couples they throw up will allow the author to play them off against one another.  And in fact to the list cited above Will will append an “and so on,” an addendum which might be seen to offer any number of hostages to fortune.  Only, in case the reader might begin to be flippant or take liberties, there is never far away the ballast of a weighty and ready-made theory of how “a logic carries its own double within it,” which “is also — it goes without saying — the idea of Derridean deconstruction.”(115) Wills is, if in ways which I shortly intend to inspect more narrowly, content and even proud, with the bulk of his theoretical exposition, to suggest that “these are things that Derrida has made very familiar.”(301) Not that the philosophical support in any way relieves the author of the need to find the generality, and there are at least as plentiful abstractions here as there are examples, with the notion of prosthesis itself being strongly inclined to attach itself to the verb “to be”:

Language inaugurates a structure of the prosthetic when the first word projects itself from the body into materiality, or vice versa; by being always already translation, constituting itself as otherness, articulation of the othernesses that constitute it, language is a prosthesis.  (300)

Writing, as Wills has it, “after Derrida,” the inclination to abstract, theorize, and generalize is strong, and if that “and so on” does not yield hostages, then it is perhaps because whatever couple were added, it would rapidly be shown to contain a series of “abyssal indistinctions” within its apparent duplicity.

In his nine chapters, Wills deals with quite a cast of writers and artists, from diverse fields and disciplines.  The opening chapter is devoted to a line from Virgil which his father used to utter to ease the pain in his leg.  We move then to a long discussion of a painting by Charles Conder, A Holiday at Mentone (1888), in which a man lying on Mentone beach in Australia, severally described by Wills as “on his left side,” “prone,” and “supine,” adds to this surprising ability to spin the capacity to suggest, by dint of what Wills suggests is a severed leg, that this entire painting is “a function of prosthesis.” The painting conjures distance and nearness, and this when “prosthesis is about nothing if it is not about measuring distance.”(40) A further chapter takes us into the “postmodern economic simulacrum” of William Gibson’s science-fiction, in which “principles of nonintegrality, detachability, and replacement”(71) are seen to prevail, and which are thus seen always to have prevailed.  Freud’s palate, as well as his interest in and wariness of occultism, allow Wills, as we have seen, to show some of the ways in which psychoanalysis outstrips the theoretical models by which it would seek to contain and institutionalize itself.  Offering his following chapter in both French and English, in “parallel text,” Wills argues for an understanding of the body and of translation as a doubling with no original, “the doubling through articulation that is always already in operation and which means that there is no pre-prosthetic moment.”(149) Peter Greenaway’s film The Belly of an Architect opens on to a long discussion, next, of architecture, film, decrepitude, and the city of Rome, which is seen as the quintessentially prosthetic city.  Developments in medical science in the sixteenth century, in the following chapter, are examined as not coincidentally linked to developments in rhetoric, and to the introduction of the crucial term into surgery and into the English language.  Raymond Roussel’s poetry and prose are studied, penultimately, in the light of his death, which is viewed as “an act of language whose structure of catastrophe amounted to not just a fall but a push into death by suspension.”(278)  Then, finally, and with a magnifying glass rather like Policeman MacCruiskeen’s in The Third Policeman, which magnifies so closely that “there is room in the glass for only the smallest particle of it — not enough of it to make it different from any other thing that is dissimilar,”24 David Wills scrutinizes a bracket which is purposefully left open in Derrida’s La Carte postale, to show how prosthetic is punctuation, and how “every utterance is always already citation and always already translation.”(296) In my schematic run-through I am not even beginning to do justice to the highly complex arguments, and I risk omitting many admirable elements: the persistent drive of a committed intelligence, the quality of the erudition, the excellence of the edition (in a book this size, these days, it is extremely rare to find only a small handful of slips).  And if I err in my overview, I also risk erring, as it were, in the opposite sense, by seeming to indicate that Conder or Freud or Greenaway are the subjects of Wills’s chapters.  For they are, rather, instancings of the larger argument about “generality,” or alternatively, points of departure for the author’s discussion of his father, of himself, or of his own writing (what I’ve called his second and third “trajectories”). 

And the Wills excursions, made in support of the “generality,” often do set off from the most uncertain, not to say contentious, points of departure!  A characteristic Wills argument will start with what is unabashedly a piece of speculation or hyperbole: such for example as the passage cited in my opening about how “it is only ever the same war”; or a slip from Roussel’s pen converting “Mentone” to “Menton,” which it turns out may not have been from Roussel’s pen at all but from his editor’s; or indeed the idea that the man on the beach in Conder’s painting is missing a leg (which, given the smallness of the black-and-white reproduction we are quite unable to confirm or contradict).  It will rarely then try to reduce the unlikelihood of the opening, but will rather “up the ante” and resolve the issue in one of two ways, both of which have important implications.  Either the initial bravura is supported by an often rather peremptory invocation of a founding text from deconstruction; or it is pulled into one of the two other axes or trajectories — a strategy which I shall discuss below, but of which I cannot resist giving a couple of foretastes here.  Take the case of Menton/Mentone.  How does Wills know the slip is Roussel’s and that it is significant? There is some internal and literary evidence given.  Yet it pales when he then says: “We know, for we have ourselves been on the beach there.”(267)  (One may wonder how such an appeal to experience will go down with the parrot Wills keeps on his shoulder, which might be tempted to squawk, inopportunely, “What?  Always already?”)  Or take Rome, which offers a more complex and more highly charged example of the autobiographical turn.  What supports Wills’s claim that “architecture needs to be read in terms of desire,”(194) or the “idiosyncratic or architectonic contention” that living cannot be separated from defecation and that “in Rome sex is defined by the curve of the buttocks?” What but the winning statement that it could not be otherwise, “at least not in Rome, not in the Rome I know.”(195)  A statement which will then be supplemented by pages of Willsian reminiscence about “hot white nights” in “the Rome he knows,” during which he addresses himself in something between exhortation and lament: “you fuck and shit with unfailing regularity, you sit there with a burning colon to match an aching cock.”(204)  (One hopes that Wills’s parrot is snoozing, since this is a condition one would not wish upon anyone!)  And so the Roman chapter ends with Wills’s tears falling on his lover’s buttocks, which “cry out any number of times” (in Romano, one imagines) “for this to end and never end in urgent gentle dilapidation.”(213)

No one would wish in the least — this is far from my purpose — to deprive Wills of his tears, his Rome, his buttocks, or his fun — and good clean fun it could be, despite all the defecation.  But rather one wishes he did not have to interrupt it so often to get back to his generalizing purpose, to remind us that all that shitting and fucking is “producing couplings that obey the logic of prosthetic contrivance”(212); and, correlative of the interruption, that he did not take himself quite so seriously, rushing on the way he does, in fear as it must be of the interruptus, with sentences reaching to pages (and unsustained, alas, by the rhythmical pulse of a Molly Bloom or a Malone).  It is not just, then, that the switching of register or trajectory never quite recuperates the opening bravura, nor that the generalizations obtrude rather like interfering parents at an adolescent orgy.  It is that fun is in fact rarely on Wills’s agenda at all, or that his very tone is “contaminated” by the need to be constantly looking over the shoulder, even when the parrot is momentarily silent, a look which translates itself into all manner of portentousness.  Never a laugh, I fear, when a wince could serve; Wills’s prose is fired, at its most desiring, with what I would be tempted to call a “high moral purpose.” At the end of the long chapter on Conder’s man on the beach Wills reveals that we have been taken in by the poor reproduction, and that his leg is merely covered by a book or newspaper.  Pulling our leg? Perhaps.  But Wills prefers to play it straight, inciting himself with “it is time therefore, perhaps, for a certain play of hyperbole to come to a close.”(61)  His text abounds with admonitions of the variety “Let us not” — fall into this or that temptation.  Discussing the sixteenth-century rhetorician Thomas Wilson, responsible for introducing the word “prosthesis” into the language, our author seems about to crack a good joke but instead turns rather vatic in his genealogising:

Four hundred years later, about the middle of the twentieth century, in 1953 to be precise, another Wills son is born, born to a man who some fourteen years earlier had his left leg amputated.  (232)

Of a missing and evidently sacrosanct Derrida bracket: “And it comes to pass once the parenthesis opens, once such a bracket is hung.”(307)  Or, on the final page, when Wills speaks of “the event that I am here.” Though again, it is not that one begrudges an author, after 318 long pages (not including notes) and who knows how many years’ hard work, a little drama, and Wills even hedges his bets with “I don’t want to overdramatise.” It is rather that not even when he is being his most histrionic, or his most pious, can he quite cover over the impression that more than the Rome he knows, more that the enthusiasm for the “generality,” more even than any zeal to put the “prosthetic” where the “human” once qualified “condition,” it is an anxious version of a strong appeal which is driving the prose, the debate, the twisting turning argument of a twisting turning head.  The parrot may at times be hooded, but perhaps it is like Kafka’s sirens, and only squawks all the louder when it is silent.

Take now the instance of the various phenomena which might be grouped under the term “natural.” It is not just that, naturally, Wills will wish to show how they are always already prosthetized.  Rather it is that, as in his account of Roman sex above, he will catch himself as it were beginning to suggest, for example by his endeavor to catch in his phrasing the rhythms of breath or panting, that there might indeed be some natural; and then have to hit the suggestion or intimation on the head — or buttocks — with a concept (the “logic”) or a prosthesis (“contrivance”).  Or, as he gets going on his discussion of Freud circa 1919, and has to interject: “But this is no psychobiocriticism I am advancing.” Or on his autobiographical venture more generally: “autobiography, as much as translation, reveals itself here as an exercise in indirection rather than the transcription of a supposed fixed original, a personal life, a foreign-language text.”(316)  As if the more urgently personal the statement, the more rigorous the body-search.  Dropping one’s periods is one way of trying to outstrip the police, and it is the one Wills prefers, along with paradox, aporia, self-qualification, and tireless explication of his own purpose and strategy.  Wills is not at all an obstreperous or aggressive writer, and is usually content to take it, as the saying goes, “out on himself.” Yet, in the way of worried folk who cannot comprehend why others are not sharing both their intensity of worry and the power of prophecy with which they are convinced this endows them, he does occasionally turn upon even his elect prosthetic subjects, and then upbraids them for not having read their futures in the tea-leaves of their own concepts.  William Gibson is rounded upon for having missed, momentarily, how deconstructed is the “status of the individual subject” in his own work.(84)  Freud is given a dressing down for not having seen in September 1901 in Rome — “He might have foreseen as much”(100) — his own subsequent ruination through cancer.  Wills’s father is cautioned for, among other things, not extending his understanding of prosthetics to his grasp on his own religion.(109-110)  Peter Greenaway is chastised for trying to read his own film “in favor of the domain or sphere of the natural, or idealized, noncontrived, prior, and privileged space.”(193)  And even Derrida is informed that he should have predicted his sprained ankle from his “tussle with Rousseau” some twelve years earlier (302).  We have all known, I suspect, what it is to keep the world on its course by the intensity of our own concern, and how maddeningly frustrating it is when others do not ease the burden by sharing in the concern.  But not all of us would know how to express the frustration so boldly!

Though in fact David Wills does, I believe, have ample grounds for feeling let down.  “Non-canonical” would be a kind term for the writers and artists he chooses; but, if one sets aside the theorists Freud and Derrida, I can think of less complimentary appellations for those who are left.  One page of the implacably bland prose of William Gibson, with its insistent reiteration of “in terms of,” and I start feeling let down too.  Try and squeeze some necessities or verities from the inflated projects of a Greenaway, and it will not just be the aleatory nature of film production which jeopardizes the attempt, I suspect; and so Wills has to rely heavily on the book-of-the-film, where one hand at least runs the show, but where the inflation is only all the more apparent.  Let down, then, not by these artists’ inabilities to read their futures, nor by any conceptual inconsistency on their parts, but by the fact that they are just so clever and accomplished as to tempt the critic to try to outsmart them, not clever and accomplished enough — or as one might prefer, not stupid and accomplished enough — to permit him to see that this is not quite the point, to stop his rushing, looking over the shoulder, forget that last paroxysm of self-qualification, and relax, knowing he is in safe hands.  A single example, where any number of others would do.  As noted, Wills publishes his chapter on translation in parallel French and English versions.  Never losing sight of the “generality of prosthesis,” he glosses his previous contention that “there is nothing but translation when it comes down to it”(3) with, here, “could we tell, together or separately, which is the original text and which is a translation of some other?”(131) Yet had Wills been reading and commenting the greatest self-translator of modern times, Samuel Beckett, would he have been moved to suggest that all such questions of priorities are “nonquestions”? I suspect not.  For, as Beckett teaches us, they are the most compelling questions of all, even if — unless it is precisely because — we shall never find adequate answers to them.  The issue is not whether or not we can “tell” which is original, which translation.  What matters is that, even in the case of a writer who maximally exploited and distorted the resources of two languages, who so encouraged the two to interfere with one another, this or that text was, none the less, written indisputably in this or that language.  Not just because Beckett or his publishers tell us so, but because his words, his texts, tell us so through the absolute authority of their singularity.  Even a speech like that of Nagg’s joke about the English tailor in Fin de partie is telling us this; or rather it is telling us this by the very fact that it is doing in French what should never have been possible in French.  There is an original, Beckett’s texts seem quietly to assert: while against the fact of “translatability” which structures all language, here are the resources of French or English (of French and English) so exploited and renewed that the texts end up being, of course, strictly untranslatable.  Which “untranslatable” Beckett will himself, through arduous labor and no small measure of genius, refute in his second-language versions; which will then be, however inadequate the term, and however brilliant, metamorphosed, or drastically cut they emerge, translations.25 Wills writes in French and English, certainly, but not, I suspect, with a Mont Blanc in the left hand and a Parker in the right, this despite his claims, personal or theoretical, about bilingualism.  And then, had Wills been reading Beckett, perhaps he might have recalled that when publishing his early texts in French even Beckett was nervous about his grammar.  All languages may indeed be foreign, but some are more foreign than others, and what strikes me about Wills’s French is just how conventionally French it sounds.  I would be willing to wager that despite the “generality of prosthesis” which implies that stumbling is inevitable, Wills has had his French checked by a native speaker (the suggestion is hardly disparaging, an already experienced Beckett did the same).  And this when, being Stevenson’s compatriot, I am not given to gamble lightly!

When Wills moves from the general to the local, and concentrates on his father’s wooden leg, memory surges forth, driven by longing, regret, and resentment, and produces some moving and beautiful writing, his nervousness not contained but rather focused now, for example, on the way, that when he was a child, his fear of his father was always mitigated, infuriatingly, by his fear for him:

I wait for him to fall asleep and don’t even know any more if I am fighting to sleep myself or to stay awake, but if he falls asleep and I wake him again he will not repeat the exercise but will issue the invitation I have been waiting for, waking for, the invitation to follow him back to their bed.  My only regret here is possibly his greatest, the fact that he cannot carry me when he is relying on his crutch, and so as we retrace steps holding hands across the house I am in a sense carrying him, walking for him, translating his failure to walk right, standing in for the leg he lacks, he robbed of his strength and I of my weakness.  (29)

Doubling, or ambivalence, perhaps starts here, in the way the father’s disability frees the son, but at the cost of his own childhood helplessness.  The sense this gives the child of his own difference, for example when on the beach and having to wade into the sea to retrieve his father’s leg, or the way in which vulnerability is prematurely learned through the father’s attempts to conceal the stabbing pain, or again the way in which the mother, in sympathetic emulation, has herself become a limper — all these are acutely observed, and written without sentimentality or cruelty.  The gift of a son (and the book is dedicated to what I take to be Wills’s parents) to a man whose courage is so admired, but whose disability is determining for both father and son, for better or for worse, or rather for better and worse.  No more touching moment than when the son’s absorption of the father’s pain is seen as inclining him to books he cannot understand, as if in confronting difficulty and foreignness he could, if masochistically, relieve the father of the uniqueness of his pain.  Writing somewhere between Oliver Sacks’s A Leg to Stand On and Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude, in such passages Wills, at his best, traces the ways in which the body matters, and the frightening and fascinating way in which, as Stevenson confirms for us, the less there is of it, the more it matters.

Yet, alas, even these passages and this heroic figure of the father, once beset by ambivalence, are not quite free either from the nervousness this produces.  And so the son will feel compelled, in the midst of his account, to give what in the context I might call a “knee-jerk disavowal” of the “received idea” that his talk of his father derives in any way “from a natural source, from real life,” and to insist rather on “the discovery of an artificiality there where the natural founds its priority.”(16) “Knee-jerk,” I say, because, as I have suggested above, Wills’s impulse to deny the natural is so strong that it quickly comes to seem automatic; the affect which is driving the disavowal appearing so instinctive that it threatens to reinstate the very “natural” which the initial impulse was trying to refute!  And so the son’s instinct appears to invoke some higher resolution or authority; while the father’s pain, to which the son would none the less bear witness, becomes at times just another station on the cross of the long and arduous climb of the concept.  A pain no longer unique, but not exactly shared either; rather absorbed, into the pre-primordial condition of dividedness which besets us all, if we are but vigilant enough to notice it.  And so, after explaining how his father mutters to himself a line from Virgil to keep him on balance when the pain bites, Wills, fearing we may yet have missed the point, instructs: “the relation between this text and my father’s wooden leg should obviously be read as akin to that between a line from Virgil and a phantom pain.”(10)  Obviously? That “akin” is, I suspect, a little more than kin and less than kind!  And the deflating conflation tends to work in both directions: the general case, as I’ve suggested above, is not really supported; and, more unfortunately in my judgment, the singular is flattened.  The result is that the transitions between the general argument and the invocation of the father are not just “uneasy,” as Wills pretends, but downright awkward, and even at times offensive, depending as they almost invariably do upon a version of that “akin.” Again and again we read that X is “like” Y: “like an amputee,”(47) “like the top of a cigar,”(51) “like the line from a hymn,”(127) when the analogy is not just tenuous, but coercive.  One comes to dread these transitions, not, I suspect, because of what Wills calls “the strictures of academic discourse,”(16) but because one cares not to watch this father, so reduced, being reduced yet further (or elevated, depending on one’s estimate of “academic discourse”) — to the point where he becomes a piece in the overall argument, like any other piece, “like my stories of a Menton... an academic automaton that sets the words in train through a series of bodies, my father’s, my own.”(271) One comes to dread the indifference which makes of prosthesis, “variously a memory, fantasy, or fiction of a father’s infirmity, an exercise in writing, a set of ideas that explain and allow the latter, and so on.”(47)  One dreads that “and so on,” and one begins to wish that it would offer some hostages to fortune.

I am not suggesting that David Wills is unaware of such indifference as I am imputing.  Nor am I suggesting that he is alone, since the mixing of genres he is attempting has become something of a hallmark of much theory today, of strains in feminist criticism in particular.  Rather I am suggesting that here the “unease” is in fact minimized by what I have called the “indifference,” or converted perhaps into the reader’s skepticism at what is claimed to be a deeply unorthodox practice, when it appears to be sustained by what amounts to a rather orthodox anxiety or ambition — to be seen to be taking risks, and to be seen to demonstrate that nothing is being forgotten.  If it is in the passages on the father that the indifference is most troubling, then this is because the evocation of the father is Wills’s greatest success.  Turning now, finally, to his evocation of himself and of his autobiographical writing, the edge is taken from the trouble, and the dread mellows into amusement or embarrassment, since Wills fils is that much less compelling than Wills père, and since his own writing about his writing about himself is that much less compelling still.

Though again, and let me stress this, Wills is aware of what he is about, and in many ways is his own best and most severe critic.  He sees our embarrassment coming, and attempts to head it off at the pass, quoting approvingly from a recent academic volume which pretends to be eroding boundaries between “personal” writing and “critical writing or Theory,” and which suggests that since “personal writing theorizes the status of its own performance...  the embarrassment produced in readers is a sign that it is working.”(322)  As if serious writing had ever done otherwise (even if it would ever shrug off the formulation)!  As if great writing were ever, ever, embarrassing!  When David Wills writes in a long autobiographical passage of “hot white nights” in Rome, it is, I fear, not the fact that he is menacing or loosening the “strictures of academic discussion” which is liable to strike the reader.  Rather it is the intention to do so, or the desire to be acknowledged as doing so, which by a law of inverse effect may leave them all the more secure.  It is not just the odd infelicity which matters in this context, such as that which has Ernest Jones “recounting it like a faithful dog,”(126) or makes a sentence “a prelude to the surgical falling of the ax.”(144)  It is — though it would take sustained examples to demonstrate this, and even then the demonstration would be necessarily subjective — that when it matters most, such as in Rome for example, or when recounting his reaction to a friend dying of AIDS, the language, for all its abandonment of stops, cannot rise to the urgency of the occasion.  Nor does it, as I’ve suggested, reap any ironic or humorous residue either, for fear this impair the high seriousness.  And so we have pages of “hot white nights,” indeed, or of “burning like a brief star across scented skies,”(89) or of “an inferno that evaporates oceans.”(91)  Wills is himself convinced of the urgency, no doubt: “it has to be said, all of this has to be said, although I am not sure whom I am talking to.”(88) But he is not Molloy who merely wishes himself so, still less The Unnameable; and there are galaxies of “scented skies” dividing Wills from the “insuperable indigence” of a Beckett.26 And indeed, I can’t help but think that, even without aiming quite so high, Wills’s prose could, while resting from its “hot white nights,” profit from a prolonged exposure to one such as Stevenson, who everywhere demonstrates qualities in which Wills is rather lacking, qualities which Italo Calvino, one of his finest readers, admired so eloquently, and which he listed as “lightness, quickness, precision, visibility, multiplicity.”27

Once again, though, I am not suggesting that Wills is ignorant of his own writing, and he even at one point gives a suggestion as to why it is he feels the need for streaming sentences with enormously deferred periods.  And, of course, as I mentioned above, he does not neglect to inform us, more than once, that his autobiographical “I” is in any case a prosthetic construct.  Indeed, he reserves some of the most severe warnings for any who might be sentimental enough to imagine otherwise:

The use of the first-person pronoun has consistently served as the excuse for arrogating all sorts of privileges to one’s discursive position.  As a corrective here, the oft-repeated “I” should always be read as a prosthetic “I.” (19)

The strange thing being that, even as we tip our cap and beg for mercy, by a further inverse effect, we cannot help but note: that it is just when a person disavows his “I” that it often comes on most strong.  There is an authority being represented by that warning; but even more forcefully than that, I suspect, there is one being invoked, being summoned, as it were, from its snooze on the shoulder.  It is not simply by eschewing vestiges of sentimental humanism that sentimentality is automatically avoided.  And while this twist is only somewhat preposterous when Wills quotes his colleagues on embarrassment, it becomes much more worrying when it leads him, as I mentioned above, to cite approvingly that most ostentatiously anti-sentimental of writers, D. M. Thomas, whose account of violation at Babi Yar contains a hard-hitting violence which is but a scant alibi for what turns out to be the most prurient and sentimental of appeals.

Fortunately, it is a benign variant of what is odious in D. M. Thomas to which David Wills appears committed in his autobiographical prose, as are, I’d like to suggest, many other writers from the deconstructionist tradition who are writing on literature today.  The variant might perhaps best be summed up in the child’s familiar expression of fright and delight which gives — “Look, Mummy!  No hands!” Only that it is usually rather “Look, Daddy!” The question being inevitably raised — and it is my final one: who, now, or which, is Daddy? In writing a book which conjoins theory, literary and film analysis, descriptions of a father, autobiographical accounts of sex and defecation, it may indeed be that Wills is running risks.  But is he running more or less when he is forever reminding us of the risks he is running (and when it’s not “risk” it’s “gamble” or “gambit” or “liberty” or “renegade”)? Wills’s claims about risk are omnipresent, and hence the sub-claim about “the difficulty — the impossibility finally — of distinguishing, here or anywhere else, among autobiographical text, fictive text, critical text, and theoretical text.”(169)  Or again, transferring the claim more fully from the writer’s to the reader’s camp:

to claim to be able to preserve the unity of a single reading or of a single level of reading — historic, allegoric, parodic, and so on — claims which are made either implicitly or explicitly by readers and writers in general, would in my opinion be a far more egregious case of obfuscation that what I am practicing here.  (171)

By disclaiming naiveté, however, does Wills effectively avoid it? Or, to put this question another way, to which ideal reader are all such claims and disclaimers directed?

Interestingly in the context of “Look, Mummy!”, when speaking at the general level, Wills chooses to call “the writer” and “the reader” not “he,” or even “(s)he,” as has become common, but “she” tout court.  And perhaps there is more in this than a genuflexion to the altar of correctness, since what is certain, and what creates much of the tension and excitement of his book, is that when Wills looks over his shoulder to check that his risks are being recognized, it is with an intensely eroticised gaze.  Between the two passages I have quoted above, about the indifference of genres and the levels of reading, there is inserted a lengthy quotation, and it is from the hand of the one to whom Wills looks to take all his anxious necessities and turn them, by the change of a letter, into virtues, transmuting the indifferent into the always prior “condition of differance.”(268, italics mine)  Faced, we saw, with the way in which his encounter with the prosthetic opens up a plethora of doubles, Jim Hawkins none the less turns to its emblem, Long John Silver, in his dreams, his nightmares, and to his prosthetic parrot Captain Flint, in whom he will trust his life.  Dr Jekyll, theorist of the double, will appeal to The One in the final moments before he either dies or becomes forever Hyde.  And the narrator of The Third Policeman will always be running into policemen in his search to escape the law and find a meaning to his own death.  What surprise, then, if in the final chapter of his book Wills should turn directly to the one who for him has revealed Freud’s contradictions, and who has theorized more fully than any other how the natural is haunted by the prosthetic, the single by the double.  Wills here takes Derrida’s theory of how “every utterance is always already citation”(296) and turns it, quite explicitly, into that most elevated appeal which consists in incorporating the viaticum of the master-text within his own without having to hive it off with so much as quotation marks.  It is hardly surprising that here his writing should be almost paralyzed with self-censure and auto-correction.  Or that here the word “naive” should crop up so regularly and be repudiated so vehemently.  And given that naiveté is such a fear, little wonder that a MacCruiskeen-sized magnifying glass should be used on every comma and every bracket, even if this threatens to make everything disappear into sameness. 

Each time sentimentality is disowned and naiveté chastised, each nervous glance at and over the shoulder, seems to invoke some supererogatory authority and recognition, which would be more complete than what a conceptually wounded Freud, or an anato-mically wounded “real life” father could ever offer.  When Wills finally utters it, it is, ironically, in the context of the French word coquille (which covers both a shell and a typo), and of a discussion of slips which others have made and corrected.  Yet despite the ironic hedgings, and because of the urgency of the search for authority, the force of the name resounds: “Saint-Jacques.” Not theory, then, nor fiction, nor biography or autobiography, or at least not these alone, but also: hagiography.  If I were to give Wills’s book a subtitle, I think it would have to be: Against Naiveté.  Only, as I say that, I ask myself what it is that induces the narrator of The Third Policeman to travel through hell for us in the company of the law he has broken, or Jim Hawkins to journey to Treasure Island with the figure of his nightmare, or the parrot on his shoulder to squawk out its “Pieces of eight!  Pieces of eight!”, which then lodges permanently in Jim’s mind.  And I find the answer: what, if not the very quality which, as the best of modern writers, from Calvino to Celan to Beckett, have stressed as indispensable: naiveté.  Though perhaps David Wills has his moment here too.  For, given that for him and not only in the case of Freud, “it takes Derrida...  to lay bare,”(122) and given that, in the chapter on this same Derrida, Wills writes so excitedly of “the fear that this or the next slip will catch us with our pants down revealed in the nakedness of our prosthetic dependencies,”(303) perhaps the desire to be found and recognized does escape the ban on naiveté.  I am glad that I am not called upon to judge if David Wills’s “fear,” and all the intelligence deployed in sustaining it, are in the end a match for his naiveté and the quite unexceptionable desire to be uncovered and discovered which it quietly lets slip.  But I shall admit, however, after Jim Hawkins, with my tongue firmly, perhaps prosthetically, in my cheek, and pulling whichever legs are still following me: that oxen and wain-ropes would not drag me back through his book one more time, and that among the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming on his prose, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of his Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: “Always already!  Coquilles Saint-Jacques!”


1  David Wills, Prosthesis, Stanford: Stanford University Press, Meridian series, 1995.  All future references to Prosthesis will be placed henceforth within the main body of the text.

2  Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 3.

3  Ibid.

4  Ibid., p. 7.

5  Ibid., p. 16.

6  Ibid., p. 42.

7  Ibid., p. 150.

8  Treasure Island, p. 182.

9  Ibid., p. 55.

10 Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979, p. 81.

11 Ibid., p. 97.

12 Treasure Island, p.108.

13 Ibid., p. 161.

14 Ibid., p. 191.

15 Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, London: Picador, 1974, p. 9.

16 Ibid., p. 41

17 Ibid., p. 142. 

18 Ibid., p. 74.

19 Ibid., p. 41.

20 Ibid., p. 150.

21 In “Publisher’s Note,” The Third Policeman, p. 173.

22 The Third Policeman, p. 94.

23 Ibid., p. 107.

24 The Third Policeman, p. 118.

25 I am indebted to the work of George Craig on Beckett for this point.

26 From “Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit,” in Martin Esslin, ed., Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965, p.18.

27 These are the qualities upon which Calvino expands in his Lezioni americane — Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Milan: Mondadori, 1993.