Trama y Fondo
VI Congreso Internacional de Analisis Textual


“The unlikely likelihood of a narrative:  ‘The Solipsist’ by Fredric Brown”


Jean-Louis Brunel


So short a short story as The Solipsist to enter so vast a field as that of narrative(1) may not seem the proper and consistent procedure. All the less so when starting with one even shorter, from Richard Brautigan, which, flashing across the page, reads:


“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning
 to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.”(2)


A flash fiction, so to speak, simply to bluntly exemplify what I believe to be the question these short short stories bring up, that is, format, and from which I believe the rest ensues, that is, the way the narrative is structured and substantiated in obviously so restricted a space.

Though there are “infinite riches in a little room,”(3) they may not be those expected in a narrative the treasure of which has mostly been looked for along the steep paths of likelihood.

  A question of format  

And likelihood fades in when reading is long enough for the fruits of imagination to get ripe, in accordance with Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”(4) which conjures up ‘life’ as it conjures away ‘literature’, and reveals format as the first operator of mimesis.

Provided it is large and lofty! And common sense has it—which is the sense of a narrative—that a little room may not be comfortable enough for us readers to be lulled into what should be less ‘literature’ than ‘life.’  So what remains if life can’t be grasped?

Literature of course! And even more than that maybe; a theory of literature, i.e. a poetics of the narrative at the heart of what presents itself as narrative that would invent a form and initiate a fact, the fact of a form that I see reaching back to Poe with short stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Oval Portrait or

The Tell-Tale Heart.
Not any poetics since in such a format, it would tell, as the game starts, the impossibility of a totalising knowledge as we’ve got used to it with the realist tradition of the novel, founded on the virtues of causality and the notion of progress, both starting from a principle of authority or leading to it. In that sense the format of these short short stories might well be akin to that of a fragment.

Not in the sense of an economy which, negatively, would refer to some lost totality, but in the sense that what is presented would “put forward the unpresentable in presentation itself,”(5) which would be the only rule of its presentation—the rule of its making—ceaselessly reasserting the impossible closure of representation.

If sense there is in that little room then, it can’t possibly be figured out from good form which, like good sense, consists in the comfort of a fixed and only sense, but should be tracked down in what can only be signalled as “becoming,”(6) which both structure and substance of The Solipsist displays.

  A question of structure  

Shortness and infinite regress preside over the paradoxical structure of The Solipsist:


Shortness allows us, first and last words together in view, to grasp “all at once” that what is told is less sense than a proposition the sense of which, if any, is that which lurks off frame, or to say it differently, i.e. from a cinematic perspective, that which adds sense to sense.(7)
In fact, the end which is the beginning—ours, now and always, and unto the ages of ages—tells us retrospectively that the beginning rests on some end; the “B” in Walter B. Jehovah, the name of the character, inevitably refers to an “A”. Therefore, and to make a long story short, what is supposed to tell us, from the first name, the tale of the tree—be it the Tree of Knowledge, the wood of the Cross, and, by extension, the verticality of the divine order—is consistent with an economy that contests its legitimacy: a rhizomatic economy, i.e. the horizontal logics of the middle, at the expense of a teleological regime.
So much so that this structure could be defined as having the properties of a Möbius strip the twisted loop of which would have us read along edge-A to unexpectedly find ourselves along edge-B, and, though puzzled, we would read on to meet edge-A again, and edge-B again, ad nauseam until realising that A had been, as ever, that false pretender of seminal instants.
It is the figure of that strip which opens up—I might as much say which doesn’t open nor will it close, for that matter—a volume of short fictions from John Barth, entitled Lost in the Funhouse, that the author in his note presents as “a series”(8) which turns out to be a series of images and reflections and that might be some way to envision what is meant in The Solipsist.

Infinite regress

Infinite regress characterises the economy of The Solipsist, i.e. a process which, from the Garden, has substituted images and simulacra to the real, a process which, without the miracle of the Scriptures said to have the real breathe in the word, has generated mirages of writings, texts upon texts, representations of representations, which all boil down to the same John Barth who declares in The Friday Book, that “capital-R Reality is our shared fantasy.”(9) 
Therefore, what fantasy do we share when we read The Solipsist?

  1. The story of Walter B. Jehovah
  2. Who, without his knowing it, was part of the story of the voice that, thanks to Walter, “can finally cease his own existence, find oblivion and let [him] take over.”
  3. Walter who, having emulated the voice and created his universe, has disappeared in his turn,
  4. Since he is told by the 1st person narrator of the story entitled The Solipsist.
  5. This implies that he himself is part of Walter’s universe and that he is the one Walter waited for, so that he, Walter, could, in his turn, cease to exist and find oblivion.
  6. And therefore has come up to tell that story to us—“in case you don’t happen to know”—, to us all who are part of that universe he’s created…
  7. To disappear in his turn as soon as we readers have started to read and interpret, in other words and tentatively: to create.
  A question of imagination  

Now, what images can we create to keep reading and rambling on the ways of the universe? I see them proceeding from three different kinds of modalities: theological, metatextual and, as a conclusion, cosmological.


Passing over the obvious genesiacal references to the void or to the seven-day creation, I would rather insist on what founds the text and consequently the prior and subsequent universes it represents, i.e. the definition of the solipsist as “one who believes that he himself is the only thing that exists, that other people and the universe in general exist only in his imagination, and that if he quit imagining them they would cease to exist.”
A definition which seems to take to the letter what the notion of imagination encompasses, from a Kantian perspective to Poe’s America via Coleridge, i.e. “the living Power and Prime Agent of all human Perception, and […] a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”(10)

To the letter, more and less, since the I AM, infinite because tautological, happens to be W. B. Jehovah, i.e. sentenced from the start to the indefinite and duplicitous lability of language consubstantially analogical.(11) So that, in The Solipsist, “the eternal act of creation” is repetition, and it is finitude which conditions repetition, and repetition the eternal return of universes imagined.
Imagined on Nietzsche’s “divine table for dice and divine dicers.”(12) For that eternal return, which is the sense of “becoming-unlimited” in the stead of eternal Being and the solace of circles and cycles, is the return of chance. And this means for the player throwing the dice, or the solipsist wishing himself out of existence, that the outcome is neither probable nor the end of a combination, but “the number which brings back the dicethrow”, the word which creates the next universe. So that, and to paraphrase Deleuze,(13) the necessity to have a universe—repeatedly and differently created, defined as “becoming-unlimited”—is affirmed of chance in as much as chance is itself affirmed—by the voice who tells Walter that he must do it “the same way I did. Create a universe and wait until somebody in it believes what you believed and wills it out of existence.”
Waiting for somebody without knowing the script; which may account for the voice’s “great sigh,” of relief presumably, for no x-coming of some saving solipsist is supposed to be written and destined to be fulfilled.(14)


Nothing is to be fulfilled since everything is empty in that universe sliding the whole length of “an unreal and ghostly causality.”(15) For the cause of the narrative, its signified, the universe, is pictured within as nothing but a series of unsubstantial images the cause of which is that Walter B. Jehovah, no less unsubstantial than the images he created since he disappeared with them as soon as his creation was wished out by the next Jehovah, our narrator presumably, or any other instance having told him the story he has told us, in the urgency of the interface.
And suddenly materializes the portrait of the artist:

Not so much as God—and that would be consistent with Coleridge’s I AM in which performative imagination originates an epistemological process likely to allow a glimpse into that plot of God the universe is for Poe(16) and which obviously is coherent with “a metaphysics of presence.”(17)
More than less as ghost, finding oblivion to create, in this pure passivity which fades out his relations with the worldliness of the world—his wife running away, his job as a shipping clerk lost, and his broken leg after chasing a black cat—i.e. three accidents, in the plain sense of the word, which challenge what the real and realistic effects—“our fantasy”— are supposed to be shaped into: destination and destiny.

Therefore, “in bed at the hospital,” without any destination for the solipsist but nothingness, the aesthetical process of disappearance can be carried out until that untimely and critical moment when, imagining and willing himself out of existence, “nothing happen[s].”

No wonder he fails since here does lie his success. For he has become his work, the translation in his work of who he is—a solipsist—even though or because precisely it is a process of deconstruction, it still is a process, the process of the artist, to be understood both ways, i.e. being made by the artist as much as making him who, says Maurice Blanchot, “exists only through and in his work.”(18) “Alone in the void”, the solipsist is born, merging with it and made “a perpetual absent”, which is the absolute presence of the artist. (19) 

Hence the voice who tells him to create a universe and wait until somebody in it wills it out of existence; hence the narrator who tells us the story, he, who knows it all and seems to remember and rely, before us and before being gone, on Maurice Blanchot’s assumption that, once being read, “the work has disappeared, it has become a work belonging to other people, a work which includes them and does not include him. [For] the reader makes the work. As he reads it, he creates it: he is its real author.”(20)

Cosmological conclusions

And what if this short short-story the creative principle of which holds in that compulsory appearance disappearance of universes turned out to be some allegory of what the movement of the universe is supposed to be for cosmologists, i.e. a succession of explosions and implosions revealed under the name of Big Bang and Big Crunch.

And what if this short short-story the infinite regress of which imitated the very structure of the universe, supposed to be for cosmologists a hall of mirrors in which infinity would be an illusion created by light wrapped all the way around space, and conjuring up multiple images of each galaxies. So that our story, one occurrence in the multiplicity of a universal series, might be what Jean-Pierre Luminet calls, a cosmic crystal, i.e. “a locus observed and constituted by the repetition of the same domain.”(21)

What if our short short-story, in its impossible closure, was a representation of the topology of the universe for which is not yet settled the question of its finitude and might be, like our short short-story, “finite though unbounded.”(22) A most paradoxical object, the universe is.
So is our narrative in the form of its fact, “with little to look at and much to think about.”(23) A most likely format then, vast and small, for the silence of our universes, be that of blank pages or black holes.


(1) tement or discourse), and narration, i.e. “the producing narrative action and, by extension, the whole of the real or fictional situation in which that action takes place.” (Figure III. Paris: Seuil, 1972. 72.) In The Solipsist, the signifier is the signified, the tale of its performance.

(2) “The Scarlatti Tilt”, Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970. New York: Houghton Mifflin / Seymour Lawrence, 1995. 50. 

(3) Christopher Marlowe. The Jew of Malta, act 1, l. 37

(4) Samuel T. Coleridge. Biographia Literaria. 1817. Vol. 2. London : Everyman, 1997. 179.

(5) Jean-François Lyotard. Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants. Paris : Galilée, 1988. 31.

(6) “A becoming is always in the middle, one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight.” (Gilles Deleuze. Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux. Paris : Minuit, 1980. 360.)

(7) For the first function of off-screen space is “to add space to space.” (Gilles Deleuze. L’Image-mouvement. Paris: Minuit, 1983. 30.)

(8) John Barth. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Anchor books, Doubleday, 1969. xi. “It’s neither a collection nor a selection, but a series; though several of its items have appeared separately in periodicals, the series will be seen to have been meant to be received “all at once” and as here arranged.”

(9) John Barth. The Friday Book. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP., 1984. 221.

(10) Coleridge 175. As for Kant, “The Imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very powerful in creating another nature, as it were, out of the material that actual nature gives it.” (Critique de la faculté de juger. 1790. Paris : Vrin, 1993. 213.)

(11) “Analogy is the metaphor par excellence.” (Jacques Derrida. Marges de la philosophie, Paris: Minuit, 1972. 289.) Submitted to the law of the supplement and the tropic movements, we could assume that analogy displaces and defaces what thought or being to be represented.

(12) Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra, III, ‘Avant que se lève le soleil’.

(13) Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche et la philosophie. Paris: Puf, 1962. 29-33.

(14) As linguistics has taught us, somebody, is not someone, the latter being necessarily an element belonging to the class of elements, pre-constructed in the situation of utterance, the former being virtual, extracted from a class which is not pre-constructed and therefore left to indeterminacy.

(15) Gilles Deleuze. Logique du sens. Paris : Minuit, 1969. 46.

(16) “The Universe is a plot of God.” “Eureka.” 1848. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. ed. Harold Beaver. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976. 292. The sense of this note should be looked for in the most precious works of Claude Richard dedicated to Poe and especially his introduction to the Poems (Paris: Aubier, 1978).

(17) i.e with “a transcendental signified” as reference, i.e. God as the signified which transcends all signifiers. (Jacques Derrida. De la grammatologie. Paris : Minuit, 1967. 73.)

(18) “La littérature et le droit à la mort.” De Kafka à Kafka. Paris: Gallimard, 1981. 17.

(19) Blanchot 24.

(20) Blanchot 17-18. This, in “the act of writing, incessant and interminable,” leads Blanchot to the notion of the neuter, when ‘He’ substitutes to ‘I’ in the necessary effacement of the author, “that neutral power, formless and fateless which lies behind everything written.” (“La solitude essentielle.” L’Espace littéraire. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. 20.)

(21) Jean-Pierre Luminet. L’Univers chiffonné. Paris: Gallimard Folio /essais, 2004. 160.

(22) Steven Weinberg. The First Three Minutes. New York: Basic Books, 1993. 4.

(23) Jean-François Lyotard. “La peinture du secret à l’heure postmoderne. Baruchello” in Le secret. Traverses, 30-31, 1984. 98. Having in mind what Lyotard’s analysis of Baruchello’s “monograms”, one could envision The Solipsist, within i.e. its subject and without i.e. as object on the page, as a “depot of narrative energy” that will generate other “narratives” and as such be “depots of the indefinite.”


Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Anchor books, Doubleday, 1969.

Barth, John. The Friday Book. Baltimore: John Hopkins U.P., 1984.

Blanchot, Maurice. de kafka à kafka. Paris: Gallimard, 1981.

Blanchot, Maurice. L’Espace littéraire, Paris: Gallimard, 1955.

Brautigan, Richard. Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970. New York: Houghton Mifflin / Seymour Lawrence, 1995.

Centre Georges Pompidou.  Le secret. Traverses, 30-31, mars 1984.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 1817. London : Everyman, 1997.

Deleuze, Gilles, Guattari, Félix. Mille Plateaux. Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Deleuze, Gilles. L’Image-mouvement. Paris: Minuit, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles. Logique du sens. Paris : Minuit, 1969.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche et la philosophie. Paris: Puf, 1962.

Derrida, Jacques. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit, 1967.

Derrida, Jacques. Marges de la philosophie. Paris: Minuit, 1972.

Genette, Gérard. Figure III, Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Kant, Emmanuel. Critique de la faculté de juger. 1790. Paris : Vrin, 1993.

Luminet, Jean-Pierre. L’Univers chiffonné. Paris: Gallimard Folio /essais, 2004.

Lyotard,  Jean-François.  Le Postmoderne expliqué aux enfants. Paris: Galilée, 1988.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. ed. N.W. Bawcutt. Manchester: Manchester U. P., Revels Play, 1980.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra. 1883-1885. Paris: Gallimard, 1971.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Poems. ed. Claude Richard. Paris: Aubier, 1978.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Harold Beaver. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.

Weinberg, Steven. The First Three Minutes. New York: Basic Books, 1993.