Everything is Illuminated
Multiple Meanings of Illuminated in Everything is Illuminated
In Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer the theme of illumination is explored by the triple meaning of the word itself. Foer shows how illumination may mean to clarify or explain, to produce actual light, or to embellish something. These multiple meanings of illumination, paired with the book’s triple narrative, help to convey that knowledge pertaining to the past is often being sought after, though answers are rarely found.The first meaning of illumination Foer plays with is to clarify. This broad term segues into a narrower path when Foer has one of the main characters, Jonathan, travel back to a small town called Trachimbrod to find himself through his past lineage. His travel guide, Alex, finds this confusing and does not see any point in trying to look at a horrible past to find answers. Jonathan explains to Alex why he wants to go back: “I want to see Trachimbrod…To see what it’s like, how my grandfather grew up, where I would be now if it weren’t for the war.” (59) Jonathan tries to place himself out of his actual life and put himself in some fairytale land that he will never know anything about. Jonathan tries to understand the mysteries of his past by searching for a town that is no longer there called Trachimbrod. Stumbling upon the last woman who lived in Trachimbrod, Jonathan thinks he will finally have clarity about his past. Jonathan shows his interest in the woman when he says, “Ask her to tell us everything. I want to know how she met my grandfather, and why she decided to save him, and… if they were in love.” (148) In order to find out facts about his grandfather he has to ask more questions about the woman than about his grandfather. Jonathan hangs on every word because according to Jonathan’s knowledge, she is why he is alive today. But when Jonathan is finally told the story about his grandfather and about Trachimbrod, he states, “I don’t want to hear anymore.” (184-186) Foer shows that when given the illuminated truth about his past Jonathan would rather hide from it than confront it. The use of illumination to clarify the past is refuted by the inability to accept the truth. The second meaning of illumination is to produce actual light. Foer incorporates this when he uses an image of a “sex light” saying, “from space, astronauts can see a person making love as a tiny speck of light…the glow is born from the sum of thousands of loves.” (95) Foer sets this light on Trachim day, a day where “everything is tied with string” in remembrance of the past, that no one knows all the full details about. Having this light tied to a day that is made to commemorate the uncertain past actually ends up bringing people together, sexually, and producing light. This love light is repeated again when Foer writes, “[Brod’s] belly lit up like a firefly’s bulb – brighter than a hundred thousand virgins making love for the first time.” (98) Here Foer weighs all the past love light to Brod’s single love light. In doing this he hints that the present is more important and pressing than the past. By talking about Brod as a firefly, Foer gives way to many different symbols. Butterflies often mimic each other to attract mates, just as Foer has present generations mimicking past generations and each producing a light with their mate. Fireflies also communicate with one another through light, just as the people making love communicate with their light. This light is shown to outer space when the astronaut looks over Trachimbrod, sees the light and says, “There’s definitely something out there.” (99) Again “what” exactly is out there is unclear, and he will never find it. Also, in order to see something in space from the Earth will take time, so whatever was illuminated to the astronaut is actually happening in the past. Lastly, Foer uses illumination as a way of embellishment. Alex toys with exaggerating his past history, which causes a discrepancy in the past. Trying to justify why he does this Alex says, “I manufacture non-truths for Little Igor. I desire him to feel as if he has a cool brother, and a brother whose life he would desire to impersonate one day.” (144) Foer, again, makes the future more important than the past by letting it be altered in hopes for a better life. Just like Jonathan, this changing of the past, even if it is to make it better, will rupture the knowledge upon which Little Igor will base his life. This also insinuates that Igor, similar to Jonathan, will choose to base his future on lies rather than the truth shown from the past.During the novel, Jonathan is writing a fictional book and Alex writes letters back to Jonathan critiquing his writing. Once more, Foer shows Alex’s desire for embellishment when he asks Jonathan, “If I could utter a proposal, please allow Brod to be happy…You would have to alter your story very much…but might it be wonderful in this manner?” (143) Foer asks if truth or deception is better to prove the past. Even though Jonathan’s book is fictional, Alex still insists that changes are made in the book to make the characters seem happy. Foer shows that any work required to change the past would pay off because of the beautiful “image” of the past it would create. Alex is also writing his own book, the story of how he, Jonathan, and Grandpa were searching for Trachimbrod. Alex sends all of this writing to Jonathan for feedback the same way Jonathan sends his writing to Alex. After knowing Jonathan ignored a fabrication in the story, Alex writes, “I am glad that you were good-humored about the part I invented about commanding you to drink the coffee until I could see my face in the cup, and how you said it was a clay cup.” (142) Here Foer enhances Alex’s writing with a comedic spin, while still trying to show Alex is a more competent writer than Jonathan. Changing the past to make himself appear tougher proves silly for Alex, as it is stated “it was a clay cup” – not giving Alex the proper answer he was looking for. Here Foer shows that even altering the past doesn’t give adequate answers to the posed questions. Foer shows that while most things can “be illuminated” answers are not guaranteed. Illumination done to clarify may not prove anything. This is illustrated when the men find “Augustine” and ask her to take them to see Trachimbrod, and she says: “There is nothing. I already told you. Nothing.” (154) After the men find the closest thing they have to an answer, there is still not evidence of it; they walk away never fully understanding what Trachimbrod was. This is again seen with the “love light” when the astronaut says, “There’s definitely something out there.” (99) As previously stated, the “what” is never explained or figured out; Foer leaves this as a mystery. Lastly Foer tells how illumination through embellishment may not be such a great idea when Alex asks, We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes…Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? If your answer is no, then why do you write about Trachimbrod and your grandfather in the manner that you do, and why do you command me to be untruthful? If your answer is yes… why do we not make the story more premium then life? (180)The question finally posed is whether exaggerating stories is acceptable or not. Making the stories more “premium” than life does not help answering history and it hurts future generations. In Everything is Illuminated, the triple meaning of illumination demonstrates how, though the search for knowledge is constantly in play, the answers are never found. The definitions – to clarify, to produce light, and to embellish – coupled with the book’s triple narrative helps deepen the understanding of how even when multiple aspects of the truth come together, a real answer may never be produced.
Alex’s Sous Rature: The Understanded (strikethrough) Understood Mistake in “Everything is Illuminated”
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated (underline) is a playful celebration of postmodern eclecticism, piecing together the stylistic conventions and devices of modernity, as Jean Baudrilliard claimed, “…all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces – that is postmodern” (24). This raises the question of the relationship between the artist and the work, in late modernity and the subsequent postmodern reaction, the position of Foer. Ezra Pound would have us believe, “Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth” (211), a very Cartesian observation; however, Heidegger, noting the nourishing ground in which the roots of metaphysics rests, anchoring the tree of any period’s contemporary discourse, writes:…everything with which man is endowed must…be drawn up from the closed ground and expressly set upon this ground [Heidegger describes this ground as the earth, “containing everything that already is, and still hidden”]…All creation, because it is such a drawing-up, is a drawing, as of water from a spring. Modern subjectivism, to be sure, immediately misinterprets creation, taking it as the self-sovereign subject’s performance of genius (73).Foer, humorously, reaches a more Heideggerean conclusion in Trachimbrod’s Book of Antecedents entry on plagiarism, “God is the original plagiarizer. With a lack of reasonable sources from which to filch…the creation of man was a reflexive plagiarism; God looted the mirror” (206); nothing is simply invented or discovered out of genius, but out of attunement with what is already there or lying hidden. So what pieces does Foer play with? Foer uses a variety of techniques, displaying influence from James Joyce’s Ulysses (underline) (place footnote 1), a wide array of fonts, an entire page and a half repeats, “We are writing…” (212-13), but one of the more subtle, understated, choices is a strikethrough. The sentence containing it reads, “But I understanded (strikethrough) understood that the silence was necessary for him to talk” (157). It first appears like an editing issue, why leave it in the text? Why would the character Alex leave it in his story? It is inaccurate but by being left in the text, it seems necessary; by this, it is not an innocent strikethrough but a word placed “under erasure” or sous rature, a deconstructive technique. Gayatri Spivak, in her preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, describes the process of erasure simply as “to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)” (xiv). It is mistaken but useful, simultaneously a cancellation and conservation, a type of Aufhebung (place footnote 2), but what makes it, in any sense, necessary in the text of Everything is Illuminated (especially since its correction is printed right afterwards)? Is it a metaphor, an intention with overflowing meaning, or is it an empty gesture?In his letter to Jonathan, dated 17 November 1997, Alex writes, “I can be funny, because I have time to meditate about how to be funny, and I can repair my mistakes when I perform mistakes…” (Foer 144). Alex’s use of sous rature is then not a mistake, but something intentional, something he wants Jonathan to see, to read, to understand, but what is he hinting to Jonathan? “To understand” is to grasp the meaning, the reasonableness, to interpret in one of possible ways, a clear idea, but most importantly to show sympathy or a tolerant attitude towards something. Alex reveals a mistake to Jonathan, a mistake he attempts to eliminate by an effortless strikethrough, but it preserves the mistake and the need for correction, it does not disappear or go away; it is accepted, tolerated, yet never erased. Grandfather’s mistake during the Holocaust, his involvement in his friend Herschel’s death, a default participation in the Holocaust, cannot be erased; sometimes in life, there are no second chances like in writing. The mistakes of a person’s life can be acknowledged as horrible missteps and people can move on (understood follows understanded (strikethrough)), by putting it “under erasure,” it preserves the mistake itself and the awareness of it in a single stroke (the very act a type of destroying). Wars, genocides, the Holocaust – all horrible events, admitted as atrocities, the worst of mistakes – should not be forgotten, never taken off the pages of history. For those portrayed as “a good person, alive in a bad time” (145), that committed gross errors in judgment, pointing fingers to save their own life or lives of their loved ones, their actions and situation should be understood, sympathized and tolerated, but never wiped away. Alex’s use of placing “understanded” under erasure is a plea for Jonathan to understand his grandfather’s past; just as he understood, the way his father understood, even as Alex understood the need of silence for Jonathan to persevere (157), in the way his grandfather needs a silence to persevere (a silent strikethrough, speaking volumes without an utterance). Within the sentence “But I understanded (strikethrough) understood that the silence was necessary for him to talk” (157), there is preservation, destruction, and a plea for the raising up of understanding, to be understood; preserving the dialectic, history itself, but also forgiving and moving forward.Footnotes:1) Foer has a section lacking punctuation in the chapter “Illumination” (250-52), resembling Molly’s monologue in “Penelope,” and the play script format in “The Thickness of Blood and Drama, 1934,” (173-77) similar to “Circe.”2) The Hegelian Aufhebung (literally “lifting-up”) contains a double meaning of conservation and negation, going through three key phases: preserving, destroying, raising. The verb Aufheben, translated “to sublate,” is to surpass while maintaining. Alexandre Kojeve describes Hegel’s use of the word as the way in which dialectic remains as their opposition is overcome (205). It is the very essence of sous rature; the very essence of Foer’s novel – preservation while moving on. Works CitedDerrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. New York: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Everything Is Illuminated : A Novel. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company Trade & Reference Division, 2005. Gane, Mike, ed. Baudrillard Live : Selected Interviews. New York: Routledge, 1993. Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2001. Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Vintage, 1990. Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel : Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. James H. Nicholas. New York: Cornell UP, 1980. Pound, Ezra, and Ira Nadel. Early Writings (Pound, Ezra) : Poems and Prose. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
Foer’s Use of Surrealist Techniques to Convey Tone, Mood and Theme
The year 1924 marked the beginning of the surrealist movement. Aimed at tapping into the subconscious, surrealism became a growing art form that still influences artists and writers to this day. According to Andr Breton, author of “The Surrealist Manifesto”, surrealism is “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner the actual functioning of thought.” Building on this idea is the concept of automatic writing, a tool that surrealists were very fond of using to tap into this “actual functioning of thought” that Breton describes. Automatic writing is a method of writing without thinking. Surrealists utilize this method because they view it as a way to break down the mental barrier between the conscious and subconscious, thus providing a clearer vision of the thought process.Many aspects of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” are undeniably surrealist, suggesting that Foer employed automatic writing in the piece. He seems obsessed with the idea of not only constantly keeping his readers aware that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a written piece, but making them feel as if it is still a work in progress. His book establishes a sense of truth, as though it has not been edited to completion, allowing readers to feel as though they are viewing a first draft. This is reminiscent of the surrealist idea of automatic writing; it is as if Foer simply wrote the entire book as an automatic writing exercise, and did not take the time to go back and edit it. How and why does Foer use automatic writing to convey different tones, moods and themes in his novel? Through several writing methods, including dialogue, the print in the book itself, and Alex’s italicized letters to Jonathan, Foer employs the process of automatic writing. He does so for two reasons: to exemplify the concept of surrealism, and to strengthen the many different tones and moods found in “Everything is Illuminated”. In turn, using these methods to convey tone and mood reinforces the overall themes of journey and self-discovery.The first way in which Foer’s work utilizes the concept of automatic writing is through the dialogue, specifically the parts of the story that are written from Alex’s perspective. Much of the Alex’s dialogue is written without line breaks: “‘They burned the synagogue.’ ‘They burned the synagogue.’ ‘That was the first thing they did.’ ‘That was first.’ ‘Then they made all of the men in lines'” (185). During this passage, where Alex is translating what the old woman is saying for Jonathan, the exclusion of line breaks gives the reader the impression that the book is a constant stream of thought, as though the author cannot be bothered to even lift his pen from the paper. Furthermore, this helps to convey the mood of the passage. By writing not only what the old woman is saying, but repeating it, as well as excluding the line breaks, Foer emphasizes the importance of this part of the story and creates a somber tone. The mood that Foer expresses here strengthens the theme of journeying because it is so different from Alex’s tone earlier in the book, where the mood is more light-hearted and humorous.Towards the end of the novel, when Alex’s grandfather is recounting the Nazis’ march through Kolki, this writing technique becomes even more pronounced:It was not forever before he was the only Jew remaining outside of the synagogue the General was now in the second row and said to a man because he only asked men I do not know why who is a Jew and the man said they are all in the synagogue because he did not know Herschel or did not know that Herschel was a Jew… (250)Foer does not bother to put quotes or periods between his sentences, turning this section of his work into a stream of thought, suggestive of the automatic writing process. This forces the reader to focus on the text, because it is more difficult to distinguish sentences from each another without the usual punctuation. This also conveys a rushed and anxious tone, as if the grandfather can barely get the words out of his mouth before continuing on to his next thought. This may be interpreted as Foer’s attempt to stress how tragic yet important this section of the book is.However, Foer does not stop by simply excluding line breaks, quotes and periods from his text. He continues to omit even the spaces between words:I looked at Grandmother and shekissedmeontheforehead and I kissedheronthemouth and our tearsmixedonourlips and then I kissedyourfather many times I secured him from Grandmother’s arms and Iheldhimwithmuchforce so much that he started crying I said I love you I love you I love you I love you I loveyou I loveyou I loveyou I loveyou Iloveyou…” (251)This conveys a feeling of steady flow, as if Foer is simply writing continuously, without ever stopping to think about what he is writing. It also serves as a reminder for the reader of how quickly these events are happening. Perhaps more important, however, are the places where Foer chooses to exclude the spaces between words. He utilizes this technique towards the end of the book, when Alex’s grandfather recalls his experience of the Nazis moving through Kolki. By omitting the spaces between words in this section, Foer conveys even more of a rushed tone than when he simply omitted the periods between his sentences. To the reader, it seems as if the grandfather is tripping over his words because they are so hard to speak in the first place that it is easier for him to jumble them all together. Aside from forcing the reader to think about what the author is writing and enforcing the anxious and heart-wrenching mood that the story takes on at this point, Foer’s omission of spaces is reminiscent of surrealist techniques, in that it causes the reader to think outside the box. When Foer pushes together phrases such as “Iloveyou” and “tearsmixedonourlips”, readers must focus on these phrases more than on the rest of the text; it is as if Foer has created these new words to reflect on the fact that there are no words in the English language capable of describing the tragedy that occurred during the Holocaust (251).A second way Foer uses the idea of automatic writing to express tone in his book is through the presentation of the text itself. There are several examples of this in “Everything Is Illuminated”. One of the most noticeable instances in which Foer uses text to prompt his readers to recall the fact that the book is a written piece is during the lengthy excerpt from “The Book of Antecedents”. After the last entry on Brod’s 613 Sadnesses, the book continues: “We are writing…We are writing…We are writing…” (212). This goes on for the next page and a half. While the reader can view this as a humorous addition to the story, because Foer takes the time and space in his book to insert this section, it also forces the reader to examine Foer’s rationale. The readers recognize the fact that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a written work, and that the author is consciously putting forth effort to make sure his audience remembers this. Just as Foer uses dialogue to convey moods of anxiety and somberness, Foer presents this particular segment of text in order to express a mood, this time a monotonous one.Another example of Foer’s use of text occurs towards the end of the book, in between the description of Trachimday and “the dream of the end of the world” (272):This was celebration, unmitigated by imminent death. This was imminent death, unmitigated by celebration. She threw them high into the air………………………………………………………………………………………………….They stayed there…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….(270)These periods continue for a page and a half. They are interspersed with three more small snippets of words, the last of which reads, “There is still time” (271). From the text before and after this section, it can be inferred that this portion of the story occurs during the bombing of Trachimbrod. Foer uses these ellipses to indicate the passing of time. By placing such a large amount of periods in this part of the text, it is as if Foer is using this text to represent the time that the citizens of Trachimbrod spent preparing for the bombing and fleeing the city. Because of this technique, it is not necessary for the author to recount the bombing itself; his method conveys just as much, if not more, of the emptiness and loss of the tragedy. In this way, Foer makes it seem as if the bombing is occurring in slow motion. This causes the reader to feel a sense of anticipation, which increases the suspense of the passage. Furthermore, this mood ties into Foer’s journey theme, because the book itself has matured from the story of a few characters setting out on a small quest into something far larger and more significant. In literature, the purpose of multiple ellipses is to leave something out of a story. In this instance, the ellipses create the illusion of an interruption in Foer’s thoughts, further indicating that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a work in progress. It seems as if during Foer’s automatic writing exercise, he could not find the words to describe the bombing, and simply inserted these ellipses as a temporary measure.A third way in which Foer conveys tone in the automatic writing exercise is through Alex’s letters to Jonathan. All of these letters are typed in italics:17 November 1997Dear Jonathan,Humph. I feel as if I have so many things to inform you. Beginning is very rigid, yes? I will begin with the less rigid matter, which is the writing. I could not perceive if you were appeased by the last section. I do not understand, to where did it move you? (142)The italicization reminds readers of hand-written letters. This is another cue that helps readers to remember that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a written piece. By typing Alex’s letters in italics, Foer forces his readers to think about why he is doing this.Also, the fact that Alex’s English is not very good reminds the reader of the fact that the book is a written piece. Alex remarks that he has a thesaurus next to him as he writes his letters. This is evident throughout the book, as he consistently replaces his words with similar-meaning words, but ones that do not exactly fit into his statements:I have girdled in the envelope the items you inquired, not withholding postcards of Lutsk, the census ledgers of the six villages from before the war, and the photographs you had me keep for cautious purposes. It was a very, very, very good thing, no? I must eat a slice of humble pie for what occurred to you on the train. I know how momentous the box was for you, for both of us, and how its ingredients were not exchangeable. (23)Phrases such as “I must eat a slice of humble pie” and words such as “girdled,” “momentous” and “ingredients” are just a few examples of how Alex misuses words (23). Technically, these words mean essentially what Alex intends them to, but he uses slightly inappropriate words in an effort to sound more knowledgeable about the English language. This serves as a subtle reminder to readers that the book is in the process of being written, because the author has purposely not taken the time to correct the letters to reflect proper English language and grammar. Leaving Alex’s letters unedited not only invokes certain emotions in readers, but also suggests that this is a rough draft of the novel. It is as if Foer is still in the process of writing and revising his work. Overall, the tone of Alex’s letters reveal increasing maturity as they progress and Alex develops a better grasp of the English language. Throughout the novel, and particularly towards the end, Alex comments on how he now realizes he has misused some of these words: “This made me very wrathful (not spleened or on nerves, as you have informed me that these are not befitting words how often I use them)” (100). As the book progresses, Foer’s blatant attempts at ensuring that his readers realize that “Everything Is Illuminated” is a written piece also reveals how Alex matures as a person, strengthening the theme of self-discovery.Throughout “Everything Is Illuminated”, Foer drops numerous hints (both obvious and subtle) to remind his readers that this is a piece that has been written and, perhaps, may still be in the process of being revised. He does so to invoke certain emotions in his readers, such as anxiety, anticipation and emptiness, which echo the moods of different sections of his story. In what may be considered an automatic writing exercise, Foer echoes Breton’s definition of surrealist works as unplanned and purely creative productions. Through his dialogue, the type in the book itself, and the letters from Alex to Jonathan, Foer shows true psychological impulsiveness, reminiscent of the concept of surrealism and the process of automatic writing. By using this method, Foer strengthens the tone and mood of different sections of his books, and reinforces the overall themes of journey and self-discovery.