Moon Palace – Paul Auster

MoonPalace2I read Moon Palace about four months ago. I really wanted to write something about it, even though its trace is no longer as fresh in my mind as it was then. This text is not a review. The book is wonderful, possibly the best Auster novel out of the three I’ve read (the others being The New York Trilogy and Timbuktu), and I’d recommend it heartily to anybody. This text isn’t an attempt at an exhaustive analysis either – I’m too far detached from my reading experience at this point. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but a degree of immediate entanglement with the text is essential to such a project. I’d like to think of it rather as a key or sorts; one that would allow me some day, when I revisit the story, to open more of its doors. It does contain some spoilers, and though I’ve tried not to reveal that much, it’s probably better to read it after the novel itself.

My central intuition about Moon Palace (and by intuition I mean something composite, accumulated and thought-through, the result of many intuitive turns) is that it shouldn’t be interpreted at face value. In the first half of the book the narrator – one Marco Fogg – describes his unconditional surrender to the world:

“Two years ago for reasons both personal and philosophical, I decided to give up the struggle. It wasn’t because I wanted to kill myself––you mustn’t think––but because I thought that by abandoning myself to the chaos of the world, the world might ultimately reveal some secret harmony to me, some form or pattern that would help me to penetrate myself.”

If we the readers mimic Marco and surrender our trust completely to him, then we are tricked. The trick is beautiful and perhaps being tricked is part of that beauty, but it does not yield the penetration into reality that seems to be the subject of the novel. If we accept at face value the unlikely twists of fate that govern the story, essentially we choose to interpret Moon Palace as an escapist novel.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love escapist novels and I particularly love the quasi-fantastical elements in Moon Palace. However, I don’t think that the book ultimately belongs to this tradition. There are plenty of clues to this end, strewn throughout and interconnected by a web of meaning. To unravel the web and open up the hidden spaces beneath the surface, one needs to find namely a proper key, and the safest, and probably wisest place to seek that key, is in the central image of the novel.

This image is of course that of the moon, which crops up everywhere in the text: the title, the Moon Palace restaurant frequented by the characters, the references to Cyrano de Bergerac, the landing on the moon, the Moonlight painting, the emphasis on the moon’s place in the night sky at the very end. In addition to these apparent references, the image of the moon is used to construct much of the rest of the significant imagery. Lunar language is used to describe Julian Barber, the recurrent motif of growth and diminishment (physical and social) harmonizes with the moon cycle and Fogg himself consciously recognizes the satellite as a force in his life:

“I would turn my life into a work of art, sacrificing myself to such exquisite paradoxes that every breath I took would teach me how to savor my own doom. (…) The moon would block the sun, and at that point I would vanish.”

The alignment between the moon and the Sun signals a Platonic interpretation of the world that is powerfully reinforced by TomasMoonPalace3 Effing’s seclusion in the cave in Utah. These two celestial bodies are employed in many cultural practices to encode and mythologize knowledge about the nature of knowledge. Moon Palace certainly engages in this tradition. The omnipresent image of the moon is situated in multiple webs of meaning, not just sensory and metaphorical (with relation to the narrative), but also specifically cultural. The Moon Palace restaurant, whose role in the story is seemingly peripheral (but actually pivotal to its interpretation), is an explicit invocation of the tradition of Taoism. In his “Ways of Looking at the Moon Palace”, Edward Schafer writes of the moon palace as “the destination of an adept’s liberated spirit”. Funny enough, he also writes the following:

“Yet another old scripture tells of a great Tao lord for whom the “Moon Basilica of Widespread Cold” is a vestry where he assumes a costume of feathers before accepting a holy text from the supreme lord of the universe.”

The liberation of the spirit is undoubtedly what Fogg is after, and let us not forget the etymology of his surname, duly elaborated upon by himself. “Fogg” supposedly comes from “Vogel”, the German word for bird. Its English transformation, on the other hand, is reminiscent of “fog” – what needs to be pierced through to locate the source of light, or knowledge.

Taoism, as well as other mythological architectures and indeed art to some extent, is a system of codes. The iterative recombination of those codes seeks to illuminate life and perhaps lead the student to liberation, to the moon palace. No wonder its presence in the novel is only circumstantial – through the Chinese restaurant – and even that seems somehow incidental; the moon finds its place at the very end, and Marco with it:

“Then the moon came up from behind the hills. It was a full moon, as round and yellow as a burning stone. I kept my eyes on it as it rose in the night sky, not turning away until it had found its place in the darkness.”

The novel itself is constructed as a code and displays that quality generously. Just consider once again the narrator’s name and all its transformations, its happenstance connection to Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (another story about the completion of cycles), the association with Marco Polo, who traveled to China, the suggestion that the initials MS (from Marco Stanley) might also stand for “manuscript”, i.e. for a life waiting to be written or perhaps decoded. Then there Marco’s stint as a translator, the whole business of changing identities and names (Effing’s), the invention of mythologies (Barber’s novel), the injection of intensely symbolic meaning into physical objects and acts.

In the Tarot tradition, the moon is featured as the eighteenth trump, or Major Arcana card. Incidentally or not, Marco Fogg is eighteen years old when he arrives at New York to study in Columbia University. More importantly, the Moon is the card that is perhaps most closely allied to the interpretation of the imaginative powers of humans. In the Arthur Waite deck the face of the moon wears a deep frown (compare with the blissful child painted on the Sun card); beneath it we witness a landscape populated by two foreboding towers, a dog and wolf, a crayfish coming out of the water and a path leading into the distant horizon. Here is the interpretation of the card from The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Waite:

MoonTarot“The distinction between this card and some of the conventional types is that the moon is increasing on what is called the side of mercy, to the right of the observer. It has sixteen chief and sixteen secondary rays. The card represents life of the imagination apart from life of the spirit. The path between the towers is the issue into the unknown. The dog and wolf are the fears of the natural mind in the presence of that place of exit, when there is only reflected light to guide it.

The last reference is a key to another form of symbolism. The intellectual light is a reflection and beyond it is the unknown mystery which it cannot show forth. It illuminates our animal nature, types of which are represented below—the dog, the wolf and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower than the savage beast. It strives to attain manifestation, symbolized by crawling from the abyss of water to the land, but as a rule it sinks back whence it came. The face of the mind directs a calm gaze upon the unrest below; the dew of thought falls; the message is: Peace, be still; and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up a form.”

Such an interpretation is clearly in the same Platonic vein that manifests itself time and again in the novel. Knowledge is reflected light, its source not directly accessible, ungraspable (in the same way the Tao/path is ineffable; it now strikes me as fitting that one of the characters trying to eff it should be named Effing); knowledge is inherently elliptic, riddled by gaps. The triad of reality-knowledge-imagination is at the heart of the moon image. Knowledge is derived from the true nature of things, from the Platonic world of ideas (the Sun in Tarot), but it is grasped as reflected light, i.e. as the Moon. Because of this, it is also distorted and incomplete to some extent.

Herein lies the transmuting power of the imagination, which slides signifiers through metaphor and metonymy and encodes patterns of knowing, hiding but at the same time preserving knowledge. True knowledge might not be fully graspable in rational terms (just as Marco cannot fully explain the importance of having the baby with Kitty, he just knows it); it is nevertheless preserved as patterns that hide deep beneath the lives of ordinary people, in mythology and art. The mind can flirt with that hidden knowledge, unwittingly, and on some rare occasions it can be granted passage into the moon palace where the moon’s reflected light is strongest.

In Taoism, Zen, mindfulness meditation, Yoga, Christian prayer, etc., a crucial prerequisite to achieving illumination is the stilling of the mind. Its restless nature is identified as a detriment early on in Moon Palace, via the character of uncle Victor:

“Being the sort of person who always dreams of doing something else while occupied, he could not sit down to practice a piece without pausing to work out a chess problem in his head, could not play chess without thinking about the failures of the Chicago Clubs, could not go to the ballpark without considering some minor character in Shakespeare, and then, when he finally got home, could not sit down with his book for more than twenty minutes without feeling the urge to play his clarinet.”

This restlessness often precludes the mind from encompassing the core meaning of things, if there ever is such a thing. Perhaps Effing’s demanding tasks for Marco, who has to describe in excruciating detail physical objects to his blind employer––especially the task of meticulously studying the Moonlight painting––can be seen as some kind of strange Western analogue to the meditative traditions of the East. Effing’s own self-imposed isolation in the Utah desert may be seen as such a form of meditation. I keep remembering a quote from Kafka that I read in Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker:

“You don’t need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Don’t even listen, simply wait.
Don’t even wait.
Be quite still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you.
To be unmasked, it has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

This idea that the world’s secrets are hidden in the everyday reality surrounding us is probably crucial to Moon Palace, which seems to suggest that imagination is the key to opening that door. Imagination as the faculty of extracting meaning from unlikely sources and refashioning it to illuminate yet again:

“Uncle Victor found meanings where no one else would have found them, and then, very deftly, he turned them into a form of clandestine support.”

But as argued above, imagination has an erratic relationship with truth, just as the moon and the Sun’s. It can obscure, as well asSunTarot elucidate. They enter into shifting compositions, occasionally into syzygies (I’ve always wanted to use the word) that yield positive of negative effects. Take Marco and Kitty’s relationship for instance:

“I knew that it was real, but at the same time it was better than reality, more nearly a projection of what I wanted from reality than anything I had experienced before.”

This is the positive alignment which brings out the best out of the two. Later on, however, the moon, figuratively, comes to separate them. When Kitty finds out that she is pregnant from Fogg (the Moon card is often associated with impregnation in Tarot), her desire, framed in perfectly rational terms, is to have an abortion. Marco wants them to keep the baby, thinking of how his own mother decided to raise him without a father and let him be. He cannot express this urge rationally, rather he feels compelled to take this stance, by a force beyond his ken. These shifting interpersonal configurations are ubiquitous in the novel.

So where does all this leave us? I’m the last person to disdain an interpretation that hinges on a theory of synchronicity, i.e. on a metaphysical explanation. But I feel that such an approach is not very useful here, it introduces a disunity between the elements of the story, robs it of a fuller potential. I prefer an alternative model which essentially replaces the impersonal metaphysical force with the very personal force of artistic imagination.

I do have to reread the book to cull exhaustive evidence for this hypothesis, but in retrospect it is a no-brainer that Marco Fogg might easily be an unreliable narrator. A very unreliable one, to the extent that it’s possible that none of his narrative ever really “happened” (in terms of the pretend realities constructed by fiction, of course). There are plenty of points along the story when Marco can have – deliberately or due to a mental illness – veered significantly from the truthful representation of reality. He does, after all, subject himself to a life of poverty and seclusion, fills his head with the 1492 books left to him by his departed uncle Victor (his favorite person in the whole world), lives in a cave in Central Park, almost dies. Madness is a recurrent topic, with more than one excellent specimen on display, most notably the possibly fictitious appearance of the elderly Nicola Tesla in Effing’s account.

Or maybe Fogg devised the whole story as a sort of therapeutic enterprise that let him redefine his life and his relation to the world. He refers many times throughout the novel to his present life, supposedly well after the events in the book, but never reveals anything about it; perhaps that is a future state that anticipates the transformative effects of imagination and storytelling. Or perhaps Marco Fogg’s story is a meta-autobiographical account of Auster’s own life – the similarities between the fatherless writer and his characters have been noted by many.

Whatever the truth, whatever the extent of “fabrication” (which is necessarily of a second order, as it is taking place within a fictional reality), an explanation that incorporates Marco Fogg as an active (co-)creator rather than as a passive observer is much more sensible and in accord with what is suggested by the novel. Below I give a number of quotes that demonstrate how emphatically the book insists on talking about imagination:

“Causality was no longer the hidden demiurge that ruled the universe: down was up, the last was the first, the end was the beginning. Heraclitus had been resurrected from his dung heap, and what he had to show us was the simplest of truths: reality was a yo-yo, change was the only constant.”


“The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a ways of penetrating the world and finding one’s place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things.”


“This was imagination in its purest form: the act of bringing nonexistent things to life, of persuading others to accept a world that was not really there.”


“His facts might not always have been correct, but he was telling the truth.”


“It comes down to that, Fogg, in the end it’s all a figment. The only place you exist is in your head.”


“A here exists only in relation to a there, not the other way round. There’s this only because there’s that; if we don’t look up, we’ll never know what’s down. Think of it, boy. We find ourselves only by looking what we’re not. You can’t put your feet on the ground until you’ve touched the sky.”

One might argue that in the end Fogg has found his vocation – to be a writer. He ends up with a number of stories that are produced within the framing one (Kitty’s, Effing’s, Barber’s), possibly by himself. He discovers (or invents) his lost identity, and through a string of symbolic and not-so-symbolic deaths gives it up to fashion a new one, with the moon in the right place in the sky. Much of Marco’s experience as an aide to Effing actually resembles the painful transformation of an ordinary observer into a writer:

“The problem was less in my delivery than in my general approach. I was piling too many words on top of each other, and rather than reveal the thing before us, they were in fact obfuscating it, burying it under an avalanche of subtleties and geometric abstractions.”

MoonPalace1One of the covers of Moon Palace depicts a bird laden with books, flying beneath a full moon, possibly trying to reach it. The knowledge in those books, I believe, at the same time pulls the bird down to the earth and constitutes its only chance of succeeding. To reach the moon palace and walk the path (the Tao) to its end, Marco must arrive at a new form of knowledge. He must simultaneously lose all pretense of knowing (by giving up uncle Victor’s books and, metaphorically and literally, his life) and incorporate it deeper into his fate (through imagination). Not being able to tell what part of his story is true and what false sums up a major point of the novel: true knowledge is not merely a reflection of factual reality, it is alchemically derived from the pale, reflected fire of the moon. The moon itself is never static, it is always in flux, just as people go through cyclical phases in their lives. Imagination can guide the path into the palace. At least in the canon of Paul Auster.

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