An Analysis of STEPS (Jerzy Kosinksi)
by Joseph Suglia
Jerzy Kosinski did not write his books alone. His authorship has long since been discredited as fraudulent; all of the writings to which he gave his signature have been dismissed as the trickery of a con artist. Indeed, this very signature preempts any of “Kosinski’s books” from being taken seriously. What Kosinski once fobbed off as his own creation is now surrounded by an embarrassed silence. One smirks bemusedly at these works as the artifacts of an interesting life.
What is one to make of the fact, then, that Steps, a novel that bears Kosinski’s name and yet was not composed in his own language, is one of the most intensely powerful novels of the twentieth century?
The subject of Steps undergoes a continual metamorphosis throughout its pages. At the beginning of each of the forty-six episodes into which the book is divided, an “older” self is negated (not cancelled out entirely, but preserved in the memory of the work) and a “new” one forms and takes its place. Each self belongs to a “present” instant that is disconnected from the series of instants that precede it, each of which is itself displaced from history. If a unified authorial consciousness embraces each transformation, holding together the death and reformation of the subject in each instance, this can only be discerned in the articulation of the individual episodes. And if a link binds the episodes together (the “steps” of the title), it is the guiding thread of submission and domination, the only two forms of relationship of which the subject is capable. The author, Jerzy Kosinski was surely mistaken (or was otherwise disingenuous and willfully misleading) when he claimed in an interview that the book progresses from “the formed mind of the protagonist (in the beginning of the novel) when he sees himself as a unique manipulator of others, to the stage (at the novel’s end) when he realizes that he is nothing but a composite of various steps of culture.” To speak of a “progression” in any strict sense would be inaccurate. It is the case that the narrator manipulates a young girl who is dazzled by the narrator’s credit cards at the very beginning, but there are no traces of a gradual progression from the mind of a sovereign subject who deploys a dominant culture for his own purposes to one who recognizes his subjection to that culture. On many occasions throughout the work long before its denouement, he is a plaything given over to powers that infinitely surpass his own, exposed to the whims of the uncontrollable, without a barrier to shield him from the forces that invade him.
The seductiveness of Steps resides in its power to lead the reader astray, away from the world to which s/he has grown accustomed and into a fictional space from which there is no easy escape. However oppressive its horror becomes, it is difficult to tear one’s eyes from this book. Literary analysis might engage with the book’s meaning, but will necessarily fail to adequate the spell that it casts over the reader. Each “step” is macabre and unsettling in its violence. In one episode, the subject is a farm hand at the mercy of peasants who spit on him for their amusement [II, 2]. He seeks revenge by inserting discarded fishhooks into morsels of bread, which he feeds to the children of those who torture him. The only way to invert the existing hierarchy, he seems to feel, is to become an oppressor oneself: oppression generates oppression in the way that fire generates fire. A group of peasants, in another “step,” gapes at a performance in which a young girl is violated by an animal [I, 4]. It is uncertain, the narrator tells us dryly, whether her screams indicate that she is actually suffering or whether she is merely playing to the audience. The extent to which the girl is a victim or a manipulator remains undetermined. In another episode, a nurse passively endures the amorous advances of the narrator, now a photographer, who longs for sexual contact with her in order to distinguish himself as much as possible from the seemingly non-human inmates of a senior citizen’s home whom he has been photographing [III, 1]. When the narrator enters uninvited into the nurse’s apartment, he finds her coupling with a simian creature who, ambiguously, is later described as “human.” The narrator, in another episode, is an office worker whose lover is unaware that she is his lover [V, 5]. The narrator plots with a friend to take possession of her. The woman submits entirely to the friend’s will and agrees to allow herself to be possessed by a stranger while blindfolded. Now the narrator can dispose of her sightless body as he wishes: a relationship that is emblematic of all of the relationships portrayed in Steps. Despite her complete availability, his desire remains frustrated. Nothing about her is concealed, but her nudity is itself a form of concealment. At another moment, narrator is on a jury [V 3]. The defendant explains his deed in the most ordinary terms without ever attempting to justify his behavior. A fictive identification is afforded between the members of the jury and the “executioner”: they visualize themselves in the act of killing, but cannot project themselves into the mind of the victim who is in the act of being killed. The agony of the victim is lost to vision altogether. The narrator, in another episode, becomes the powerless spectator of his girlfriend’s rape [III, 3]. Afterward, their relationship changes. He can now only represent her to himself as one who has been violated and who is worthy of violation: her rape comes to define her. He visualizes her as a kind of crustacean or mollusk emerging from her shell. The conclusion of the episode follows an implacable logic: under false pretenses, the narrator offers his girlfriend to the rowdy guests at a party, who proceed to have their way with her. Her pearl necklace, a gift from the narrator, scatters to the floor like so many iridescent seeds (a somberly beautiful passage that gives the lie to Kosinski’s own self-interpretive remark that Steps eschews figurative language). The architect of an orchestrated violation, the narrator departs without witnessing the inescapable result of his designs. Such a summary can only imperfectly approximate the grotesque horror of this book.
One might wonder whether there is a point to such an uninterrupted current of phantasmagoric images. The reader might be invited to take delight in the extremity of its descriptions: such would nurture one’s suspicion that Steps is a purely nihilistic work. What we find in each instance is a relationship between one who terrorizes and oppresses or who sympathizes with terror and oppression (this is often, but not always, the narrator) and one who surrenders, voluntarily or otherwise, to the will of the oppressor. By describing such scenes of exploitation and persecution in a neutral manner, the book seems to offer no moral transcendence. Such an interpretation, however, would ignore the book’s moral center.
The book’s ethical dimension first becomes apparent in an italicized transitional episode in which the protagonist tells his lover of an architect who designed plans for a concentration camp, the main purpose of which, the narrator explains, was “hygiene” [IV, 1]. Genocide was for those responsible indistinguishable from the extermination of vermin: “Rats have to be removed. We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitudes toward cats, dogs, or any other animal. Rats aren’t murdered-we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning.” This passage in particular casts light on the motif of dehumanization that runs pervasively throughout the book. In Steps, the other person is reduced to the status of a thing. To make of the other human being a thing: such is sadism. Only by representing those to be murdered as vermin (as things to be exterminated) is mass murder possible. It is no accident, from this perspective, that the narrator imagines himself felling trees when he obeys an order to slit his victim’s throat toward the end of the book: it is the only way that he can suppress the nausea that wells up within him [VIII, 3]. Each human being is irreplaceable, and the death of a person is, therefore, an irrecoverable loss. By forgetting this, by turning the other human being into a mere object, one is able to dutifully “obey orders” to kill without the intrusion of moral consciousness. Steps aims at disgusting the reader by showing him/her the obscene consequences of objectification. From this perspective, Steps is a profoundly moral book.
The center of Steps might serve as a counter-balance to the parade of scenes of horror and degradation that constitute it. However, this center does not govern the totality of its operations. A tonality of evil informs these poisonous pages; in terms of its sheer cruelty, the work could only be compared to the writings of Lautréamont and Sade. Although one can point to its moral character from the passages cited above, the book could also be determined as a willfully perverse affirmation of simulation, falsehood, and metamorphosis that suspends the dimension of the ethical altogether. The subject ceaselessly yearns to exteriorize himself, to become part of an exterior space in which he would become entirely other-than-himself. It is a space in which he would be unencumbered by all forms of ethical responsibility: “If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings” [VII, 1].
Dr. Joseph Suglia