Part 1 of a consideration of John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Some of the ideas in this essay were partly developed in conversation with George Daniel Lea and Elliot Chapman.
John Carpenter’s late – and last – classic In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is famously metafictional. In the final scene of the film, the ‘protagonist’ John Generic Name… sorry, I mean John Trent… goes into a cinema which is showing a film called In the Mouth of Madness, advertised as starring John Trent, and watches himself on the screen, watches the film we’ve just seen, essentially. He watches himself declaring repeatedly (in alternate cuts of the same scene, featuring Sam Neill’s varying line deliveries) that he is nobody’s puppet and that the surreal things he’s experiencing are “not reality”. Apparently overcome by the realisation that he is, in fact, a fictional character in a film, John Trent begins laughing. His laughter gradually goes from being hysterical in the figurative sense to hysterical in the literal sense. As he starts having a panic attack, the film – the one we are watching – cuts to the credits.
Carpenter does not put ‘Starring Sam Neill’ on the poster. He does not break the fourth wall directly. Within the frame of the text, the barriers between reality – the life of John Trent, the world in which Hobb’s End is a fictional town created by author Sutter Cane – and fiction – the world of Hobb’s End and the monstrosities that exist there – breaks down, and the two are shown to be essentially one and the same. But the text does not breach its own actual limits. The text does not depict the barriers between itself and us, the viewers, breaking down. The metafictional apocalypse depicted on screen does not seem to affect us, the viewers.
In the Mouth of Madness landed in 1994. In 1994 I was in my second year of an English & Philosophy degree. I was wading through Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Kristeva… It was the high academic fashion of the moment.
Lacan famously used topology as a source of metaphors and analogies, even if he himself denied that they were metaphors and analogies. He describes the neurotic subject as a torus or möbius strip – or as a cut on a torus or möbius strip. Putting aside the question of his actual knowledge of topology or mathematics more generally, we can appreciate the image of the circulating, edgeless, closed-loop shape as a way to visualise neurosis. At the risk of sounding like Zizek, we can easily apply this image to In the Mouth of Madness, in which a sequence of events plays out which is easily interpreted as the experience of paranoid neurosis on the part of an individual subject – indeed is so interpreted within the frame of the story – and which loops back upon itself at multiple points. Not only does the framing story provide an exactly symmetrical shape to the story – Trent is put in the lunatic asylum at the start; Trent escapes the lunatic asylum at the end – but the inner story, the picture within the frame, is recursive. Trent is a fictional character in a book whose task is to find the author of the same book, and to recover the lost manuscript of the book he himself is in, the book which is presumably about the quest of one of its characters to find the author and the manuscript, in the course of which, like Trent, he discovers that he is himself fictional, a character in the book that he is looking for. The film doesn’t belabour this point but, knowing itself to be cinema, brings the whole thing home to us by having the character discover that not only is he a character in a book, but he is also a character within the film adaptation of the book, which he then goes to see, watching himself on screen experiencing the very things he has just experienced.
Whether Lacan or his disciples want to see it this way, Lacan offers us a sometimes useful poetics of psychoanalysis. You don’t necessarily need to set much store by psychoanalysis to happily use the poetics. The problem lies in the insistence of substituting a poetic description for empirical reality, map for territory. Not only is Lacan a map, he’s a very abstract one which cannot be ‘mapped’ directly onto real space, much like the London Underground map, which privileges clarity over topographical accuracy. One might kvetch that Lacan sacrifices accuracy for nothing, since he rarely achieves clarity either. But we’re not actually here to evaluate his thought (you may have noted my scepticism), but to point out that in 1994, the conversation in Humanities academia was, at least in the Anglophone world (a little behind the French, lagging at the speed of translation and dissemination) very much concerned with these kinds of metaphors for neurosis, psychosis, and schizophrenia as wider symptoms of life in a society of texts and signs.
Speaking of schizophrenia invokes Deleuze and Guattari. In Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus – a two volume work with the shared subtitle ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ – they used the word ‘schizophrenia’ to describe a kind of haunting desire, or type of desire, that is unassimilated by the structure and institutions of capitalism – structures which include, crucially, psychoanalysis, and even structuralism itself. Overturning these structures and institutions, by rejecting their codifications and narratives, can lead to a material overthrow of capitalism because capitalism relies on them. They claim that “schizophrenia is the exterior limit of capitalism itself or the conclusion of its deepest tendency”, making schizophrenia sound like the proletariat in Marx, either as replacement or subjective consciousness. Rerouted past the capitalist social/body structures that limit the ability to represent them, such schizophrenic desires, as opposed to capitalist desires which may be themselves schizophrenic but are also regulated, are “not the identity of capitalism but on the contrary its difference, its divergence, and its death”. Again, we are not here concerned with evaluating the value of such ideas but rather with mentioning their presence in the academic discourse in the early 90s, and with the ways in which In The Mouth of Madness mirrors them. The film very decidedly shows us the death of capitalism – via the death of society itself – and shows this death arising from within capitalism, from within a belief structure that is generated and propagated via capitalist mass cultural production. It depicts the manifestation of desires that destabilise the regulated desires of capitalism manifesting in mental illness which is specifically likened to the more mainstream of understanding of schizophrenia when Trent speaks of his ‘Them’. He is depicting himself as falling outside the understanding of paranoid schizophrenia but then goes on to give an account which tallies with the usual establishment characterisation of this form of mental illness.
In Baudrillard we have the famous account of the crisis of simulation, in which the simulacrum – implicitly a capitalist media phenomenon – becomes so indistinguishable from the simulated that the actual distinction breaks down. In its depiction of the manifestation in ‘reality’ of the characters and topographies of a fictional book series, In The Mouth of Madness shows us this process literally taking place. The line between the fiction, the real, and the representation becomes blurred to the point of ceasing to exist, at least within the frame of the narrative. Trent is a fictional character, depicted as a fictional character by the narrative which depicts him (the film) in the midst of its own representation of him as ‘real’ using the standard aesthetic and ideological language of cinematic realism. In this he is but one aspect of the same process emerging from the world of Sutter Cane’s novels and engulfing the world – crucially through the transformation of the textual fiction into visual media. The book is made into a film, and Trent watches his own simulated self on the screen, and thus realises that he is a simulation. He is a system of simulations but a tautological one. At this point he is not simulating – let alone signifying – anything but himself, the fictional proposition that is ‘John Trent’. And yet the simulation of which he is one aspect has entirely subsumed the reality it simulates, even while it still plays within that reality as a simulation – a terminus we saw prefigured earlier in the film when Cane tears himself – and the fabric of the world – open, revealing the tattered edges of a page of text around the gap in ‘reality’ thus created, through which gap we see a black void from which visual manifestations of the fiction erupt. The irony in the Baudrillardian inflections of the film is that whereas Baudrillard sees the processes of media spilling into the world that it simulates, In The Mouth of Madness shows us the process entirely contained within its own media frame.
The invocation of a reality made of text leads us inexorably to Derrida who famously declared “There is nothing outside the text”. Often travestied – much to Derrida’s annoyance – as a claim that exterior reality has no objective existence, the actual claim is that we humans cannot know or speak of this exterior reality except via texts and contexts, via interpretation. There is a value to this when linked to the need to historicise and contextualise all claims, but it also risks reducing analysis of claims about reality to analysis of linguistic construction. There is an unfortunate relativising effect whereby fields such as History are reduced to forms of literary criticism. (This is the root of Derrida’s famous punning on ‘ontology’ to create ‘Hauntology’, and thus to create a discourse of the textual uncanny and its relation to the historical and social world… itself an innovation with applicability to In The Mouth of Madness, which depicts a world consumed by an immanent global belief in a textual uncanny which leads history to stop and society to break down.) But to claim that Derrida is denying the existence of reality is not only wrong, it makes a nonsense of his actual claim. In a way, the statement is radically positivist, since it implicitly insists upon an objective reality in order to further claim that humans have no objective way of knowing it, no way free of interpretation and construction.
In The Mouth of Madness seems to show us a supposedly objective exterior world being infiltrated and altered by a fictional one. As the film progresses, our attention is brought back to the implicit fact we acceded to forget at the start: that the ‘real’ world of the narrative is of course itself a fictional one, and that the fictional world of Sutter Cane is no more or less real than the equally fictional ‘real’ world presented by the film. Moreover, the film shows us that we have in fact always been watching one fictional version of reality, in that Trent – the main character, supposedly originating in the outer ‘real’ world – was always a character within the ‘unreal’ one. The events of the film, therefore, do not actually depict a real world being corrupted and infiltrated by a fictional one. We are actually watching a fictional world in the process of being written and rewritten. The character Styles disappears, and Trent finds that nobody but he remembers her, and concludes she’s been written out. Trent is thus a holdover from the first draft encountering things in the second draft that naturally do not accord with his experience. And yet not so, because the disappearance of Styles with the rewriting of the story is actually a deliberate part of the story. And yet the film insists upon the continued existence of an exterior reality that is uninfected by fiction when it takes the trouble, as mentioned above, to not break the fourth wall, to not bring us, the audience, into the story. It very carefully shows us a crisis of reality that is contained within its own fictional text. Even where the film seems to come into close contact with our exterior reality – as when Trent ends up, like us, sat in a cinema watching a film called In The Mouth of Madness – it is actually our reality infecting the narrative rather than the other way around. We are not watching the proposition that reality is made entirely of text, of discourse, of subjective arrangements of language. We are not watching a dramatisation of the popular misprision of Derrida. Instead we are watching something closer to Derrida’s actual intended meaning, in that we are watching a dramatisation of the claim that a text can only be interpreted from within, that is consists of an internal system of texts and contexts, and that insofar as it is a representation of exterior reality, it can only be so second hand, across a gulf, no matter how convinced anyone within the text is that they are in direct and objective contact with an exterior reality.
All this obviously reflects Foucault’s (sometime) claim that discourses of knowledge are inextricably fused with assertions of power, and that social reality therefore consists of competing structures of language which arrange knowledge according to power claims emanating from the concentrations of power they represent. In the film, the hermetically sealed discourse of Sutter Cane’s fiction – emanating from the structures of power that are corporate publishing and authorship, consumerism and belief – manages, in the near total absence of any meaningful competitors such as religion, to accrete such hegemonic reality claims that it, a system of language, acquires total social and material power. It is the nature of the power/knowledge claims of this predatory discourse that it entails the end of the world in a general chaos of mutation.
There is, in my view, no way for a confluence of meaning and implication such as this – a sharing of ideas and inflections as seen in a mass media text and the niche theoretical texts of fashionable academia – without a shared underlying historical context. In this case, the historical context was the nearing of the millennium in the wake of the fall of the Communist system and the apparent triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. The quintessential text of this moment is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Much as H.P. Lovecraft was unconsciously a literary Modernist behind his own back (see the self-contradictory textuality of his later work, starting from The Call of Cthulu, which is arranged as a collection of disparate narratives), so Fukuyama’s book – consciously a wary conservative attempt to resurrect and transform historical teleology and classical virtues in the context of market-capitalist triumph and triumphalism – is a ‘postmodern’ book without realising it. This is not least because many of the ‘postmodern’ or ‘poststructuralist’ authors (with all the caveats in the world applying to these blunderbuss terms) are consciously or unconsciously reactionary in their pronouncements. I see Foucault, for instance, as thoroughly neoliberal and one of the most important and influential anti-Marxist thinkers – at least outside of economics – of the twentieth century.
We will take a little look at why this historical context engendered this response – in theory and in fiction – next time.
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