Decoding the Self through Auster’s City of Glass | The New York Trilogy Analysis
What does it mean to be yourself? Is the self merely a collection of the physical parts which constitute one’s body? Surely not, for that would imply a continual death and rebirth as one’s body regenerates and rebuilds over time; it would imply that cosmetic surgeries or operations fundamentally change a person from one to another and would imply that a person continues to be themselves even after death. No, the self is more than the physical, rather, it is a collection of narratives and stories that one creates. At the heart of it all is language, and in no other work of literature that I have read is this theme better explored than in Paul Auster’s City of Glass.
City of Glass is an illusive work, posing as a mystery story but transcending the theme of mystery entirely. The cover contains a slight clue: ‘A Penguin Existential Mystery.’ Contained within its pages, narrated in third person by a former friend of the author, Paul Auster, is the story of Daniel Quinn, a thirty-five-year-old widow turned mystery writer who, as the result of ‘a wrong number’ which rings three times ‘asking for someone he was not,’ quickly becomes enmeshed in the life of Peter Stillman — a child abused and locked up by his father of the same name, the result of a terrible experiment. It is this strange series of events that kicks off the death and rebirth of Daniel Quinn, first as Auster himself, through whom he becomes a Private Detective and agrees to ensure the safety of Peter Stillman junior, then into a series of characters unrecognisable from the original Daniel Quinn.
Daniel Quinn is Daniel Quinn; except he is not. ‘Although in many ways Quinn continued to exist’ after the death of his wife and son, ‘he no longer existed for anyone but himself,’ notes the narrator only two pages in. This deeply tragic and personal loss is what kicks off the first change of Quinn’s identity — he throws his life into the production of mystery novels, which he ‘produced at a rate of about one a year,’ under the guise of a man called William Wilson. In first becoming Paul Auster when he picks up the telephone and accepts to meet Peter, then in his attempts to understand Stillman Sr., Henry Dark — a seventeenth-century disciple of Dante who we later learn was a figment of Stillman, then Stillman’s son, we are forced to reconsider what it means to be a person. That Quinn takes on these characters’ names is not merely him pretending to be these characters, by internalising these different narratives, Quinn fully becomes them in every sense of the word — the narrative he tells himself is transformed every time, and he fundamentally becomes them from the perspective of the self.
Language is the key to understanding the self, and I would posit that one cannot truly develop as human without language. This is best exemplified by the case of Peter Stillman, who at the age of two, is locked up in a dark room for nine years without any contact. Though many explanations exist in the mind of Quinn, the most plausible is that Stillman’s father, a philosopher of language, was using his son in an experiment to create a new universal language where signifiers and signified terms would perfectly align. Stillman Jr. is the tragic result of this experiment — though he has recovered and is now able to speak, he is described as having an ‘invisible’ quality to him. Stillman Jr. is full of contradictions, a shell of a person. ‘I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.’ he continually repeats. Stillman’s case is not unique — Quinn notes that he had ‘heard of cases like Peter Stillman before’ — in Herodotus, who discusses a case whereby the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik had isolated two infants as an experiment, as well as in the case of Frederick II who had repeated a similar experiment, and in the case of Peter of Hanover. Each of these individuals failed to become fully human as a result of their isolation from language, even if they had later acquired the ability to speak. Language is a fundamental factor in the creation of the sense of self, without it, there can be no narrative and no self.
In creating a novel about the relationship of language to the self, Auster is not afraid to use language to accentuate his point. The novel is self-referential, bringing Auster in as a character on two counts, first as Auster the detective, then as Auster the writer — former friend of the narrator, and Auster seems to be making a point that although this is a novel, it is also far more than that — it too has a role in shaping and framing the mind and the reader’s sense of the self. By bringing himself into the novel itself, City of Glass straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.
Additionally, the book is littered with references to other works: the Book of Genesis, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and many more which I am sure even I did not spot. Indeed, Daniel Quinn has a realisation in the final few pages of the book, after he has lost all semblance of his former self and becomes one with the world around him as a result of his loss of a coherent narrative, that he shares the same initials as Don Quixote. ‘He wondered why he had the same initials as Don Quixote’ — perhaps the most famous novel to explore the theme of literature, narratives and identity.
This leads to one final question, not explored in Auster’s brilliant work. If the self is just a narrative that we create, and it is possible to create multiple narratives for one’s body and therefore have numerous selves, should we? This is not a purely abstract question — I was baffled at an article I read a few weeks back which noted that there has, in recent years, been a marked increase in individuals self-diagnosing with Multiple Personality Disorder. This brings up another, related question. Ought one instead to strip away their sense of self, as happens to Quinn later in the novel, and merely become one with the world? My answer is that both are useful in some contexts, but it is generally important to maintain a unified sense of self. Although it is very important to recognise that the self is an illusion and we are, in fact, one and inseparable from the world, no individual can live meaningfully without having a unifying narrative. A lack of a coherent narrative makes it impossible to plan in the long run, to form relationships, and to form dreams. Quinn’s ultimate, disastrous fate, which I will not spoil, illustrates this point very well — he goes from having many different selves to none at all. At the same time, creating multiple, unconnected narratives has the same effect and makes it impossible to live in a coherent and meaningful way; to shape one’s actions toward a set objective that one can achieve. In addition to providing countless insights (and raising many questions) on the central role of language in mankind’s existence, perhaps the most significant takeaway is that without language and the narratives that language helps provide, there can be no self at all.