Postmodern Literature Time, Death, and Finitude In “Synecdoche, New York” In the most simplistic mode, death is part of life. To be living is to be dying but the arrival of death constitutes the end of being. Take this passage from Heidegger’s “Being And Time”: “Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein. Thus death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped. As such, death is omething distinctively impending. ” (BT, 50: 294) Death cannot achieve arrival in terms of the existence of the Dasein, but merely impend. The only way to view death is as an impending possibility because when the possibility finally becomes actualized the Dasein ends, or becomes impossible. So, the Dasein must exist with the knowledge of its possible impossibility in order to grasp it’s own existence. In the postmodern sense, being is contingent on being towards something, in this case: being-towards-death.

In Kauffman’s “Synecdoche, New York”, when Caden is speaking to his cast, he tells them “we are all ‘dying’, hurling ourselves towards death”, and his struggle to “get at something real” becomes his struggle to understand his own fragmented mortality. It is important to highlight the difference between death and dying. Dying is the state in which the living finds itself. Death itself is not part of living but rather the end of it. It is the demise of the Dasein and it’s completion. Once dead the Dasein is no longer moving towards-death and ceases to exist.

Caden, on his deathbed, at the end of the film, realizes how to complete the play that is representative of his own life, by achieving his own demise. The “something real” is that the play itself becomes part of his life rather than a representation of it, even the real Caden is an imitation of Caden and thus a being split into two, a Caden-towards-Caden existence, constantly finding truth in non-arrival and completion in demise. Sammy, the actor portraying Caden, tells Caden that he has never truly looked at himself.

This is an interesting idea since Sammy was supposed to be a representation of Caden, so Caden was looking at himself through Sammy. The only problem is that Sammy is merely an actor playing the idea of Caden and, when Caden himself takes on Sammy’s role after his ‘demise’, we realize that even Caden can never truly be Caden either, or representative of what is ‘Cadeness’. Caden is an ever-evolving figure with countless aspects and at no point in Caden’s life is Caden (or any other actor) ever a complete ‘true’ reflection of what Cadeness is.

So in death (arrival) Caden completes his life, the play, and himself and all cease to be. The play, and Caden, only signifies Caden through a continual and indefinite postponement, or Differance. Through constant deferral of being, as understood in Derrida’s Writing And Differance: “Differance is not only irreducible to any ontological or theological–ontotheological– reappropriation, but as the very opening of the space in which ontotheology–philosophy–produces its system and its history, it includes ontotheology, inscribing it and exceeding it without return. [DMOP p. 6] Finitude is from where meaning is derived. If one were infinite, then one would be towards-nothing and to be is to be towards something; existence is contingent on change and change is contingent on finitude, without it meaning in the strictest sense would be a metaphysical impossibility. The implication of which, I would argue, reverberate into the idea of the paradoxical celestial heavens, those that, ideally, “will have no end”. Finitude deals not only with mortality but also with our subjection to time, space, causality, etc.

Like a fish does not realize it is in water because it is limited to water, humanity is trapped by these more abstract concepts. Take time for example: there is no fixed being that can conceptually be grasped, rather being is derived from a continual redefining of itself. In these terms time becomes ‘dimensional’, the past is defined as that which no longer is and the future as that which is not yet present. This differs from the Kantian idea of past and future as “what no longer exists” and “what does not yet exist” [AFAPPOV 56] In this sense, time is a condition which existence must ascribe to.

In the former dimensional sense, time is a quantitative facet of being rather than a condition for it. In “Synecdoche, New York”, time can be seen as such: Caden’s age varies throughout the film and at points he loses track of it, such as with his daughter’s age or the time he has spent producing the play, instead time serves as a continuing aspect of Caden’s character. Time is a dimensional concept within a linear framework; or rather linear time is being derived from the dimensionality of Caden’s being in time. Another example of dimensional time is Caden’s psychiatrist.

The book she gives Caden goes blank after he rejects her ‘ripe flower’, but had he not rejected her, the book would not have ended and rather a new Caden would have formed within this new alternate split in time. This brings up an underlying concept of duality. “Synecdoche, New York” might be a story told in a single minute. In the first scene where Caden wakes up to a radio show about the “beginning of the end” the minutes on his clock read 7:44 a. m. At the end of the film there is a clock reading 7:45 and the voice of a woman saying, “Now you are here, it’s 7:43. Now you are here, it’s 7:44.

Now you are — gone”. So the film could be interpreted as merely a working of Caden’s inner world during the moments of his death. Regardless, this possible condensation of time is another clue as to the effective dimensionality time has on the character. The question of ‘when’ is replaced by the question of who someone is in any given moment of time. In the seconds between 7:44 and 7:45 Caden traverses an entire lifetime through which he evolves. Another clue is Caden’s last name, Cotard, which is a term for a delusional symptom for people who believe that they are dead.

The film leaves this possibility open but does not reaffirm it; I merely bring it up because it serves as a demonstration of the division of ‘authentic’ time and ‘inauthentic’ time. Authentic time being the events progressing one after another, in which both the past and the future are non existent and only the present is… well, present, and inauthentic time where the present is a fixed point determining both the past and the future, “like an endless line which he can never succeed in actually filling out. [LADT] Time is occluded, and for Caden time becomes a “now-sequence of interchangeable seconds”. The past and the future become entwined with the present, all layered on top of one another, like a filmstrip folded on itself. Even in this sense of time, being is still defined by being-towards, even though it may seem like time has stagnated and helped form the infamous ‘nugget’. Caden is still hurling owards death, but death to the Dasein of Caden is merely an impending possibility of doom, though time has become non-linear the possibility of death still pervades in every instance of his existence. Still, rather than Caden dying in the beginning of the film, I would read that as a dimensional possibility, another possibility being that Caden is given 40 more years to live which he then spends obsessed with death and creating matryoshka sub-worlds to understand his own existence.

The end is built into the beginning,” notes Hazel on her last night alive, before she dies in the burning house she bought. Hazel is a character, unlike the protagonist, that is comfortable with her own mortality; when she buys the burning house, equipped with a pre-installed husband, she is locking herself into a path that she is comfortable with even in the face of looming death. Hazel’s actions are akin to those who smoke or to the obese, people who realize their actions could very well lead to their premature demise but accept them anyway. Synecdoche, New York” underscores the concepts of death and finitude as well as the ontological ramification of time on being in a post-structuralist sense. The film deals heavily with mortality and the constant deferral of meaning, as see in Caden’s constant struggle with ‘self creation’. As Caden walks through the remains of his studio, the voice through the speak phone mutters that “Everyone is everyone”, meaning everyone experiences the same thing, and the specifics hardly matter: birth, life, and death.

The details are the differences that create meaning within the all-encompassing experience of being’s finitude.

Bibliography Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. by Mary J. Gregor, The Hague: Nijhoff 1974, 56 f. “Human Mortality: Heidegger on How to Portray the Impossible Possibility of Dasein – A Companion to Heidegger – Mulhall. ” Wiley Online Library. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. . “Jacque Derrida, Deconstructionism & Postmodernism. ” ON TRUTH. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. .


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