Sunday, August 24, 2008
The Third Policeman
by Flann O’Brien
The lead-in sentence in Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” establishes the book as a mystery or crime novel: “Not everybody knows that I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade…” This is, for all intents and purposes, the sort of first sentence that really “grabs” a reader in the manner they drill into your head in creative writing Workshops. This first sentence provides the reader with some information, but at the same time withholds enough to keep them reading. O’Brien’s joke, and it’s a good one, is that how thoroughly the book destabilizes this first sentence. The book defines itself both in reference to, and in opposition to it.
“The Third Policeman” is indeed a mystery novel, but it is not a mystery of actions, but of mind. A mystery novel usually relies upon a confidence in the existence of structure. Sherlock Holmes or Dupin are stabilizing agents, as they represent an ordered universe. The mystery in the traditional detective story is revealed due to the Holmes or Dupin following the chain of ordered events to a tidy conclusion. But O’Brien writes “The Third Policeman” in a nightmare world of pandemonium, “…where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good…” This is a mystery novel of the metaphysic, where there are no rules extant, beyond the play of rule-making itself.
Northrop Frye classifies such a novel of mental play as Menippean satire, after the Greek cynic Menippus. Frye explains that “The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes.” O’Brien’s novel does not just deal with mental attitudes, it continuously skewers them. The book destabilizes the context of the academic annotation in a manner similar to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” For O’Brien, academia and the play of the mind is a landscape of phantasmagoria and double mirrors. Towards the conclusion of “The Third Policeman,” our nameless narrator follows the eponymous officer, Policeman Fox, into his barracks, where he finds himself “…standing, not in Mathers’ house, but inside the walls of it.” The novel is full of such impossible spaces that stretch out, unknown, between readily understood confinements and boundaries.
The philosopher de Selby provides much of the humor throughout the book, as O’Brien uses apocryphal quotations and annotations to present de Selby’s absurd theories and suppositions. The book is preceded by two quotations - one from de Selby and another from Shakespeare. Shakespeare, who stands as a stabilizing foundation of the Western canon, follows the imaginary de Selby. de Selby will prove to provide more of a key to the text than Shakespeare. We are introduced to de Selby with his claim that “Human existence [is] a hallucination containing in itself a second hallucination…” Here we are, not even stabilized within a hallucination, as one imaginary state is contingent upon at least another one, if not an infinite horizon of them.
One is reminded of the ornamental boxes policeman MacCruiskeen spends his time making. MacCruiskeen opens the largest box only to take out an identical, but exponentially smaller box. The narrator watches in horror as the policeman is “…manipulating and prodding with his pin until till he had twenty-eight little chests on the table and the last of them so small that it looked like a bug or a tiny piece of dirt except that there was a glitter from it.” That’s not the end of it either, as MacCruiskeen then takes out a string of invisible boxes of ever decreasing size. One generally expects that opening a box leads to finding something, whether it’s information or an actual object. Our narrator finds that each box only contains the possibility to contain more. There is nothing but the possibility that there is more. Look at the cyclical, never ending structure of the novel, for another example of this in practice.
O’Brien ridicules scholarship throughout “The Third Policeman.” He mocks academia’s claim that it can reveal any truth. Look at de Selby’s Codex, “…a collection of some two thousand sheets of foolscap closely hand-written on both sides. The signal distinction of the manuscript is that not one word of the writing is legible.” This reminds me, even though O’Brien’s book prefigures it by decades, of the work of Henry Darger, which is so in vogue at the present time not so much in spite as much as because of its incoherence and impenetrability. de Selby’s numerous commentators decode his Codex however they see fit. It is not so much de Selby’s text itself that is important, as its dense illegibility and its interpretations. Even the scholars devoted to interpreting de Selby are themselves’ destabilized in their identities. Do they even exist? Are they actually de Selby as well?
Further research of the Codex does not shed light on anything, but only further obstructs the concept of truth, as “It cannot be pretended that the position regarding this ‘Codex’ is at all satisfactory and it is not likely that time or research will throw any fresh light on a document which cannot be read and of which four copies at least, all equally meaningless, exist in the name of being the genuine original.” Again, we have a series of replicas, like the boxes, but the idea of an original is destabilized. It simply doesn’t exist. What we have is simply a collection of copies without any fixed stable original.
One of the more apt comparisons to “The Third Policeman” might be Lautreamont’s “Chants du Maldoror.” Both works are Menippean. Both books are written by educated, maybe even over-educated men with astounding personal repositories of literature. I remember a professor of mine in college discussing Milton, and how it was conceivable in those times that a man of genius could familiarize himself with the entireties of a library – that is, a canon. The concept of a library has since changed. In Milton’s time, one could conceive of a library as a finite thing, bound within a set canon and with a discernable horizon point. A work like O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman,” or that of Lautreamont are intimately concerned with a similar concept- that of a library or repository of knowledge. But these books are written in the age of a Borgesian library, in place of a Miltonian one. The library is a sprawl of glossolalia.
There is a grotesquery in this sprawl, sure. Look at O’Brien’s descriptions of the policeman and their horrific solipsism. And yes, de Selby is also utilized to satirize the pretensions of the intelligentsia, but perhaps some clues as to the matter of this work within the theories of de Selby. The narrator remarks that “de Selby had some interesting things to say on the subject of houses… The softening and degeneration of the human race he attributes to its progressive predilection for interiors and waning interest in the art of going out and staying there.” It is within confined spaces that all the most horrific events of the novel occur. The open air revitalizes our narrator, while houses, interiors, whether Mathers’ home or the police barracks, are a source of fright.
Perhaps the activities of the mind in and of them self are not what O’Brien is criticizing. Maybe O’Brien is actually attacking the arrogance to suppose that these same mental activities can provide any fixity. The mental acrobatics of a Holmes or Dupin are not obscene, but the pretension that they can actually lead anywhere other than to the act itself is what is obscene. de Selby is the epitome of foolishness, but maybe he is also an instructive example for the reader, as his experiments are, as the footnotes show “…as in many…of de Selby’s concepts, it is difficult to get to grips with his process of reasoning or to refute his curious conclusions.” O’Brien’s book agrees with such a statement in the most favorable manner. “The Third Policeman” charts the development of the individual and of the workings of the individual mind at the onset of industrialization – that is, as represented by the bicycles which many of the characters ride throughout.
Sergeant Pluck states “…that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them…” This both satirizes the Greek notion of atomic unity and looks forward to 20th Century postmodern discussion of cybernetics. The man, in an industrialized society, becomes himself part machine. But “According to Bergson’s theory of comedy, machines are funny. The mechanization of organic life is the first principle of comedy.” This comedy of the Industrialization serves to elevate “The Third Policeman” above mere Menippean play. The novel is a play of the mind, but within the context of encroaching mechanization. The book, fittingly enough then, ends with the question “Is it about a bicycle?”
Everything, then, is about bicycles.