Uncertainty of Life and Death in Christine Brooke-Rose's 'On Terms'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014
17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Body
a. The Uncertainty
i. The Uncertainty Principle in Science
ii. The Concept of Truth and its Alteration
b. Representation of Life and Fragility of Existence
i. Entre-deux: Suspended between Two Levels of Existence
c. Experimental Style and Innovative Technique
i. The Jargon of Astrophysics and the Break with Conventions

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

A common practice among contemporary authors has been the exploitation and, concomitantly, the questioning of other fields of discourse than the literary one. This practice developed as an attempt to oppose nineteenth century Realism, defying thus the essential concept of truth of representation. This opposition can be observed especially in the unreliability of the characters as regards their vision or perception of the world. The involvement of a mediating consciousness or mediating language of the fictional character (McHale 1979, 88) becomes thus responsible for altering the veridicity of the narration and for creating the so called suspension of disbelief.

The short story On Terms written by Christine Brooke-Rose was published in the collection Go When You See the Green Man Walking in 1970, and it is an experimentalist, ultra-modern piece of literature in structure, ideas and technique. Brooke-Rose has always managed to displace herself from any genre, any national tradition or literary context by using a highly innovative overlap of different fields of knowledge. This story features the discourse of astrophysics as an organizing metaphor of the surrounding world and of the character‟s identity. (cf. Birch 1994, 65)

The uncertainty that is cast upon the ontological status of the character, the difficulty of drawing a line between what is real (within the fictional world, of course) and what belongs to the imaginary, remains the reader‟s responsibility concerning the text and the disclosure of its true message.

This paper will deal with the scientific discourse as an element fundamental to creating a semblance of truth - the language of astrophysics being the driving force that shapes the instability of the character‟s ontological status. Christine Brooke-Rose uses the paradoxes inherent in science to create a universe of instability which is strongly held together by the use of language. Not only the jargon of astrophysics but also various post-modernist narrative techniques serve here to stage a doubtful representation of truth and to illustrate the ambiguity of a character at a crossroads of life and death.

2. Body

a. The Uncertainty

i. The Uncertainty Principle in Science

Our society is being increasingly pervaded by different specialized discourses derived from the domains that individuals come in contact with, technical terms being now spread all over our everyday language. Christine Brooke-Rose takes up the challenge of using scientific jargon in its purest form and demonstrates through her writing that [l]iterature is in a position first to explore the consequences of modern science for the individual‟s relation to the world and to other individuals, and second, by pointing to the linguistic constraints under which scientific discourse operates, to contest the efforts of any discipline to defend itself against the encroachment of the arts.” (Birch 1994, 7)

This statement justifies the use of scientific discourse as an innovative modality of creating pictures in the minds of the readers which, along with the use of the inexhaustible potential of language, make them question not just science as a discipline but also reality itself. The scientific discourse in Brooke-Rose‟s story represents thus a tool for experimentation, aiming at “a metaphoric restructuring of the world by our minds”, deterring us from regarding any idea as „absolute truth‟ (Birch 1994, 4f.). This chapter will discuss the scientific principles that are crucial to understanding how the character evolves throughout the story.

One of science‟s great paradoxes that Brooke-Rose chose to construct her short story on is the uncertainty principle formulated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. Through scientific experiments Heisenberg has been able to show that matter and radiation possess a dual character since they display at times properties of both waves and particles. In order to justify the apparent ambiguity of scientific phenomena, he draws on the fact that the description of atomic processes is succumbed to the limitations imposed by our language (Heisenberg 1949, 10f.). Likewise, determining both the position and the momentum of a particle is not possible through the medium of language (Heisenberg 1949, 15). This leads us to the conclusion that language is an impediment when it comes to describing reality in that it encompasses a trace of uncertainty which is inscrutable to the human mind. This is, of course, highly relevant to On Terms since the short story revolves around the idea of the uncertainty of life and death.

Another scientific experiment related to the uncertainty principle that is especially relevant to illustrating the ambiguity of the character‟s self-proclaimed existence is Erwin Schrödinger‟s cat paradox. In conducting his experiment, Schrödinger disposed of a steel box in which he placed a Geiger counter, a small amount of a radioactive substance and a living cat that had no contact with the radioactive material. Along with these items he built an electric circuit using a hammer designed to be dropped and to smash a beaker containing a deadly acid gas. If an atom of the radioactive substance decayed, the Geiger counter would detect it and activate the circuit that released the hammer which spilled the poisoning gas. The cat‟s life or death depended thus on the potential event that the radioactive material may or may not have decayed within the box. In terms of quantum mechanics, the state of the cat can be regarded as both alive and dead until the box is opened. The simultaneous existence of an alive and dead cat inside the box remains a paradoxical interpretation of Schrödinger‟s experiment. Consequently, it can be stated that not even quantum mechanics can elucidate the absurd condition of the cat which remains intermediate until the outcome confirms it.

The results of these experiments are easily applicable to our main character that is trapped for a given period of time between these two stages of existence, with her “body l[ying] there in [her] bed in the locked flat in the big city […] slowly undergoing the chemical reaction into compost that will feed no earth no worms no mulching vegetation, only the stinking air in the small room all windows closed” (Brooke-Rose, On Terms, 18). Not only is the main character locked as Schrödinger‟s cat “in a pretence of life”, at a low level of psychic energy, but still living with a potential choice of acting out fantasies and of charging herself with them until the predicted outcome, her death, comes into effect. Her entire existence as a remainder can be associated with the cat in the box, the story as a whole being an experiment with language, with ontological levels and paradoxical ideas. The morbid images of her decaying body resemble the outcome of the experiment, while the horrific reflection of her in the eyes of the ex-lover, old and young represents the ambiguous state of the cat. The constant attempt at predicting events and at describing their development - her dead body locked in a flat, the wedding and the carnation in his buttonhole - all this could be seen as the scientists‟ way of observing and evaluating the world. The next chapter will present a more detailed interpretation of the uncertainty of the character‟s ontological status.

ii. The Concept of Truth and its Alteration

What Brooke-Rose is trying to portray in this short story is “a reality, however imagined, however destabilized, as we all are” (Brooke-Rose 2002, 65), a reality more or less distorted by the view of the main character who is trapped between two worlds. The reality of the situation is, of course to be doubted. The desperate attempt at giving a sense to life, a life that seems to carry on even after the final act of suicide, is a profoundly human urge. The events that make the story scarcely resemble reality are the references to the past relationship, to the presence of a new affair that the narrator claims to be jealous of, and to the wedding that is supposed to take place, which could be described in simple terms as a way of rebounding from the unfortunate experience of a failed relationship. The image of the jealous ex-sweetheart obsessively chasing her lover and reminiscing of the past acquires the proportions of a “truth universally acknowledged”.

There is, however, another dimension to the story. Beyond the haunting female presence observing and recording every move and thought, there are symbolic elements that cast a shadow upon the actual message of this piece of writing. The problematic situation presented concerns every human being at one moment or another in their life.

As Christine Brooke-Rose herself claims in her book Stories, theories and things, “today we cannot believe in truth any more: the more one practices looking for it beyond the appearances, the less it is there”. (Brooke-Rose 1991, 161) There is something paradoxical about the fact that the story bears a striking resemblance to scientific observation, functioning as measuring tool of scientific phenomena, displaying at the same time fragility and uncertainty in its very existence. The character‟s conscience gradually diminishes as if it were a “pinpoint weighing many tons of heavy nothingness” (Brooke-Rose, On Terms, 20) in the vastness of space and immensity of time, illustrating thus the idea of the unbearable lightness of being (Lawrence 2010, 1), as Karen R. Lawrence characterizes Christine Brooke-Rose‟s entire presence on the literary stage. When analyzing the substance of this piece of literature, the first thing that comes to mind is frustration. The frustration of a human being who has already decided upon her fate by committing suicide can, in fact, stand for the frustration that a person has at some point in their life due to not being able to fulfill something that they have wished or worked for. Only in this case the frustration is ultimate and can only be resolved in some sort of vengeance, under the imaginary circumstances of being able to attend one‟s own death ceremony as if it were a wedding and of gathering people‟s reactions as if this kind of sensational event could bring the victim “some sort of peace perhaps”. (Brooke-Rose, On Terms, 21)

The frustration of the character takes over the reader as well, who struggles with a de-familiarized and blurred representation of reality until the very end. Brooke-Rose constantly plays with truth and reality, valuing the rhetorical potential of representing the world. What strikes the readers as problematic at first, haunting them with ontological questions and determining them to question themselves and their own reality (cf. Canepari-Labib 2002, 65), is the character staging a phantasmagoric postmortem scenario of a simulated life hanging by a thread However, Baudrillard opines that [i]t is no longer possible to fabricate the real from the unreal, the imaginary from the givens of the real. The process will, rather, be the opposite: it will be to put decentered situations, models of simulation in place and to contrive to give them the feeling of the real, of the banal, of lived experience, to reinvent the real as fiction, precisely because it has disappeared from our life. (Baudrillard 1994, 83)


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Uncertainty of Life and Death in Christine Brooke-Rose's 'On Terms'
LMU Munich
Postmodern and Contemporary Short Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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postmodernism, life and death, short story, short fiction, experimentalism, uncertainty, uncertainty principle, Heisenberg, on terms, Christine Brooke-Rose, Go when you see the green man walking, astrophysics, paradox, cat paradox, Schrödinger's cat, quantum mechanics, Baudrillard, post-structuralism, entre deux, Jean Baudrillard, simulacra, simulation, quantum theory, stream of consciousness, flashback, foreshadowing
Quote paper
Maria Baciu (Author), 2014, Uncertainty of Life and Death in Christine Brooke-Rose's 'On Terms', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/296177


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