Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" in the Tradition of Detective Fiction: a Psychoanalytical Analysis

Bachelor Thesis, 2012

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Lacanian Triad
2.1 The Imaginary
2.2 The Symbolic
2.3 The Real

3 The Development of Quinn’s Character
3.1 The Constitution of Quinn’s Different Identities
3.2 Quinn’s Attempt to Live in a Detective World
3.3 The Deficiency of the Detective Methods
3.4 Quinn’s Complete Loss of Self

4 City of Glass in Contrast to Traditional Detective Fiction

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

The topic of this paper is to examine the detective novel City of Glass, published by Paul Auster in 1985, from a psychoanalytical point of view. This analytic approach, combining both detective fiction and psychoanalysis, is more natural than might appear at first glance. After all, the modus operandi of the psychoanalyst and the detective are quite similar. A close contemplation of details, a search for hints and finally a development of a theory that unites the small signs in a big picture are crucial steps in both fields. Sigmund Freud laid out the common importance of details as following:

And if you were a detective engaged in tracing a murder, would you expect to find that the murderer had left his photograph behind at the place of the crime, with his address attached? Or would you not necessarily have to be satisfied with comparatively slight and obscure traces of the person you were in search of? So do not let us underestimate small indications, by their help we may succeed in getting on the track of something bigger.[1]

Furthermore, Freud emphasized how psychoanalysts are practicing a kind of detective-work as well: “We have to uncover psychic material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices.”[2] Due to those parallels, “psychological studies of mystery and detective narratives have a long and varied history.”[3] Most of these approaches have analyzed traditional detective fiction. Auster’s very untraditional detective novel, however, plays with the conventions of the genre and creates its very own detective universe, a confusing play of constantly changing identities. This universe shows parallels to the world-view of the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, as:

Lacanian psychoanalysis offers a theory of the subject that does without concepts such as unity, origin, continuity. It goes from the assumption of a fundamentally split subject and thus comes up with a model of subjectivity that grounds itself on a constitutive lack rather that wholeness.[4]

These parallels are not a pure coincidence as Auster is familiar with Lacan’s work and quotes themes of Lacanian psychoanalysis.[5] Also, Lacan himself applied his theories to detective fiction, such as The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe.[6]

In this work, the central question that shall be the focus of investigation is: From a psychoanalytical point of view − how does Paul Auster position his main character Daniel Quinn in the context of traditional detective novels?

In order to answer that question, Lacan’s theories of how the human psyche is organized shall be presented, and then applied to Quinn’s development throughout the storyline. There is a clear set of basic rules traditional detective novels are based on, which create a very specific detective-world. From a Lacanian perspective, the analysis will show both why Quinn wants to live in that world, and why he ultimately fails to do so.

Finally, considering the analysis of Quinn’s development, the specific role of City of Glas s within the genre of the detective novel will be spelled out. Here, the central topics of analytical interest are how the unconventional progress of the main character violates the basic rules of traditional detective novels and how the author thereby puts in question and contrasts the conventions of those novels.

2 The Lacanian Triad

Lacan separates between three basic psychic spheres which coexist in our minds: the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. Here it is important to mention that the Imaginary is not, as might be assumed, interchangeable with imagination, the Symbolic with symbolism or the Real with reality. The meanings of these notions go much deeper than the terms initially suggest − as the exegesis in this chapter will show.

According to Lacan, the constitution of the three spheres begins in the Mirror Stage. From birth to the beginning of the Mirror Stage, the baby only sees parts of its body, and thus experiences itself as a fragmented being that lacks in coordination. When it recognizes itself in a mirror for the first time, however, it sees itself as a whole being. This wholeness is new and unknown, so at first, the baby feels a rivalry with its own image. But as this rivalry causes a stressful “aggressive tension”[7], the infant eventually begins to identify with its image.

The moment of identification, when the subject assumes its image as its own, is described by Lacan as a moment of jubilation, since it leads to an imaginary sense of mastery.[8]

At this point, the ego is created. All the same, due to the fact that the person and the picture are not one and the same, the identification with the own image is simultaneously an alienation. The whole picture of the self lets the baby experience a feeling of wholeness, coherence and coordination, an impression that the uncoordinated body can not yet give at this stage. The infant “falls in love with his image and […] takes the image of his whole body as his love-object”[9]. This love towards the own image is the reason why the now created ego is also called an ego-ideal and it can be said that this first identification process is, fundamentally, a narcissistic development.[10]

2.1 The Imaginary

In the Mirror Stage, a whole sphere of images is created − the Imaginary. Those are images not only of the self, but also of the world, inner and outer images, “conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined. In this respect, ‘[I]maginary’[11] is not simply the opposite of ‘[R]eal’: the image certainly belongs to reality […]”.[12]

The Imaginary is the first psychic sphere and constitutes the mind before the subject comes into contact with language. But this doesn’t mean the Imaginary is replaced or disappears at later stages, it “is not something that one goes through and grows out − but remains at the core of our experience.”[13]

2.2 The Symbolic

When a child starts to learn a language, another sphere is created in the mind: the Symbolic. Through the structure of a language, this logically structured and ordered sphere is constituted. Whereas the ego already comes into being during the Mirror Stage and the formation of the Imaginary, “Lacan claims that the ‘subject’ is constructed in the [S]ymbolic at the moment of the accession to language; there is, for Lacan, no such thing as a ‘subject’ before entry into the [S]ymbolic [O]rder.”[14] All the rules of interaction, which an individual living in a society inevitably has to live by, are rooted in the Symbolic: these include grammatical rules, social standards and laws.

As Lacan states that “the unconscious is structured like a language”[15], psychoanalysts, who deal with the depths of the language-like structures of the human mind, can also be seen as “practitioners of the [S]ymbolic [F]unction”. Considering that of the mental orders, “the [S]ymbolic is the most crucial one for psychoanalysis”[16], it is the sphere which is most interesting for an analysis of Auster’s City of Glass. Not only does it help to explain the changes in Daniel Quinn’s personality: The search for symbolism, for a logical order behind the things, is one of the most central and recurrent aspects of the book.

2.3 The Real

As the third part of the triad, there is the Real. It is the counterpart of the other two spheres, and a polar opposite to them. The Real is the term most difficult to describe, because everything belonging to this sphere can neither be put in words nor imagined. Death would be an example for something that is hard to integrate in the ‘ordered’ spheres of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Deeply traumatic events like death are hard to imagine and even harder to put in words, and therefore part of the Real. Things which cannot be ordered in some way (be it imaginary or linguistically) create a feeling of powerlessness and irritation, so the Real is also called Traumatic Real. The Real itself “remains foreclosed from the analytic experience, which is an experience of speech.”[17] That is why in psychoanalysis, the aim is to make the traumatic events graspable again, to lift them from the sphere of the Real. The traumatic occurrence has to be put in words or transferred into pictures in order to integrate it in one of the other spheres and thereby overcome its traumatic nature. The Real is the “essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.”[18]

3 The Development of Quinn’s Character

In the beginning of City of Glass, the reader is thrown right into the life of its main character, Daniel Quinn, an author of detective fiction in a deep identity crisis. No details are told about his past. The reader ‘only’ gets to know that he had lost his wife and son, a traumatizing experience which lead to a great feeling of emptiness in his life. In this chapter, the psychological aftermath of this loss shall be analyzed with the help of Lacan’s theories. To fight his trauma, Quinn, after having long created detective worlds for his books, finally tries to live as a detective himself.

3.1 The Constitution of Quinn’s Different Identities

Trauma: An event in the subject’s life defined by its intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization. In economic terms, the trauma is characterized by an influx of excitations that is excessive by the standard of the subject’s tolerance and capacity to master such excitations and work them out psychically.[19]

Looking at Quinn’s trauma with Lacan’s theory in mind, one could also describe Quinn’s problems in working out this overload as his inability to integrate the events in the Symbolic Order. As mentioned earlier, death generally ‘belongs’ to the order of the real. As the terrible events cannot (yet) be integrated in the Symbolic or the Imaginary, the Real dominates Quinn’s mind. Thus, considering Lacan’s theories, a possible explanation for Quinn’s actions is given right from the start of the book. He is trying to escape his trauma, his Traumatic Real, by focusing on things which clearly belong to the Imaginary or the Symbolic Order.

Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.[20]

Accordingly, the “reducing himself to a seeing eye”[21] can be described as an escape into the Imaginary.


[1] Freud, Sigmund (1916-1917): “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”. In: Freud, Sigmund (1963): The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. London: Hogarth Press. Vol. 15 & 16, 27.

[2] Freud, Sigmund (1906): “Psycho-Analysis and the Establishment of the Facts in Legal Proceedings.” In: Freud, Sigmund (1963): The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. London: Hogarth Press. Vol. 9, 97-114.

[3] Landrum, Larry (1999): American Mystery and Detective Novels. A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 5.

[4] Herzogenrath, Bernd (1999): An Art of Desire. Reading Paul Auster. Amsterdam: Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 5.

[5] Cp. Jakubzik, Heiko (2002): Paul Auster und die Klassiker der American

Renaissance, 166 <> (01.06.2012).

[6] Cp. Berman, Emanuel (1993): Essential Papers on Literature and Psychoanalysis.

New York: New York University Press, 270.

[7] Evans, Dylan (1996): An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 115.

[8] Evans, 115-116.

[9] Benvenuto, Bice; Kennedy, Roger (1986): The Works of Jaques Lacan. An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 54-55.

[10] Cp. Evans, 116.

[11] For consistency reasons, the first letters of Lacanian terms were capitalized in this work.

[12] Lacan, Jaques; Sheridan, Alan (2001): Écrits . A Selection, xi.

[13] Homer, Sean (2005): Jacques Lacan. 1. Aufl. London: Routledge, 31.

[14] Smith, Paul (1988): Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 20.

[15] Žižek, Slavoj (2003): Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 33.

[16] Evans, 201.

[17] Lacan; Sheridan, xii.

[18] Evans, 160.

[19] Laplanche, Jean; Pontalis, J.B. (1988): The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac, 465.

[20] Auster, Paul (2001): City of Glass. Stuttgart: Reclam, 4. Hereafter referred to as City of Glass.

[21] City of Glass, 4.

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Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" in the Tradition of Detective Fiction: a Psychoanalytical Analysis
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Philosophische Fakultät)
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Oliver Strecker (Author), 2012, Paul Auster’s "City of Glass" in the Tradition of Detective Fiction: a Psychoanalytical Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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