John Guare’s [Six Degrees of Separation] and the Postmodern Schizophrenic

Six Degrees of Separation Cover

Front cover of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990)

If we are unable to unify the past, present, and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present, and future of our own biographical experience of psychic life. With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

-Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or , The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (p. 27)

The loss of historicity, according to Jameson, has created a mode of existence that greatly resembles a state of schizophrenia. The postmodern condition has weakened the subject’s linkage to the past, thus obliging a firm grasp onto the present. This schizophrenic state, as Jameson points out, is induced when the relationships between signifiers are broken, thus leading said signifers to be scattered and disconnected–alluding to the postmodern benchmark in which pieces must be rearranged and put together to create a simulacrum of the whole.

The Jamesonian schizophrenic subject is an important notion to bring up when discussing John Guare’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play entitled Six Degrees of Separation. The play is centered on a confidence man who goes by the name of Paul, who pretends to be the son of Sidney Poitier in order to gain the sympathies and support of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, a wealthy family who lives in an upper-class estate near Central Park. Paul leads Flan and Ouisa to believe that he is a friend of their children, and he offers tidbits of information that lead the unsuspecting couple to believe that he’s telling the truth. After the couple give Paul some money and let him stay over their place, they soon catch Paul in bed with a male hustler–and he thrown out of their home, ashamed and embarrassed.

The figure of the con artist is very susceptible to postmodern analysis because their personas are typically deliberate and careful constructions. Not only must con artists be hyper-aware of the elements that construct this alter ego, but they must also avoid invoking any past information that might reveal their true identities. We are not given insight into the person who dons the alter ego known as Paul. What Six Degrees of Separation makes clear is that Paul is an amalgamation of texts, other people’s experiences, and fiction. For instance, Paul projects himself as a friend of the Kittredge’s children, he demonstrates to have a lot of knowledge of literature (especially J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), he is familiar with Sidney Poitier’s background, and he also proves to be an excellent cook. All of these traits and sources of knowledge, however, are merely an intermixture that serves to create the character known as Paul. This is particularly highlighted in a phone call exchange between Paul and Ouisa towards the end of the play:

PAUL: You let me use all the parts of myself that night–

OUISA: It was magical. That Salinger stuff–

PAUL: Graduation speech at Groton two years ago.

OUISA: Your cooking–

PAUL: Other people’s recipes. Did you see Donald Barthelme’s obituary? He said collage was the art form of the twentieth century. (Guare 107)

Paul seems to be overt with the fact that he is collection of “parts” that work together to form a collage. He thus represents the collapse of the signifying chain. He is a character who is disconnected from the past, and he is a character who approaches himself as a gathering of multitudinous pieces rather than a whole. Paul can therefore be approached as a postmodern schizophrenic because his presence and his existence boils down to a collection of “material signifiers”–material expressions with no relation that congregate in a specific point in time.

The play initially leads us to believe that Paul focuses his cons on wealthy victims, as it is revealed that he pulled a nearly identical con with the Kittredge’s friends, Kitty and Larkin. Nevertheless, Paul is shown to pull off a con with another young couple of struggling actors–Rick and Elizabeth–who moved to New York from Utah and who work as waiters in the city. Using random and disconnected knowledge that he has obtained from other people, he dazzles Rick and Elizabeth with his intelligence and wit, leading them to invite Paul to stay in their very humble abode: “A railroad loft […] The tub’s in the kitchen but there’s light in the morning” (Guare 86). Paul grows closer to the couple, especially Rick. He then tells the couple that he needs $250 to meet his father–who is deviously claimed to be Flan Kittredge–who is going to present him for the first time to his grandparents. Although Elizabeth firmly claims that they can’t lend him the money, Rick secretly goes to the bank and gives Paul their entire savings. Paul uses the money to buy fancy tuxes for himself and for Rick, he takes Rick out dancing, and they ultimately have sex. Rick confesses his affair with Paul to Elizabeth, and he commits suicide soon after.

In all of the cons, Paul uses the money that he gains in order to achieve a fleeting moment of sexual connection to another man. When Ouisa and Flan catch him with a hustler in their home, Paul exclaims:

I got so lonely. I got so afraid. My dad coming. I had the money. I went out after we went to sleep and I brought [the hustler] back. I couldn’t be alone. You had so much. I couldn’t be alone. I was so afraid. (Guare 50)

Paul focuses his discourse on the fear of loneliness, and the importance of not being alone, but it would be reasonable to question why he chooses to establish connections with people that are temporary and that reject futurity in their entirety. This is not only seen when Paul uses the fifty dollars that the Kittredges give him to buy the company of a hustler, but also when he uses the $250 that Rick gives him in order to spend a romantic day with him. The other relationship that Paul engages with in the play is a three month tryst with an MIT student named Trent. This relationship is depicted as purely physical. Paul exchanges sexual favors for information on the wealthy subjects listed in Trent’s address book, and by the time Paul leaves, Trent confesses that he doesn’t “know anything” (Guare 80) about Paul.

With this in mind, the sexual relationships that Paul forges are very presentist in that they approach sexual and romantic connection in a fashion that disrupts, or better said, refutes, both the past and the future. In other words, these relationships are not based on prolonged efforts to know who the sexual partner is (the past), nor do they take place with the goal of creating a lasting form of kinship. Paul’s sexual relationship in the play thus heighten the present while refuting its connection to other ends of the temporal spectrum (thus obliterating the signifying chain of temporality). Jameson would argue that this intense focus on the present would, to the postmodern subject, be no different from the relief and the euphoria provided by opiate drugs:

the breakdown of temporality suddenly releases this present of time from all of the activities and intentionalities that might focus it and make it a space of practice; thereby isolated, that present suddenly engulfs the subject with undescribable vividness, a materiality of perception properly overwhelming, which effectively dramatizes the power of the material–or better still, the literal–signifier in isolation. The present of the world or material signifier comes before the subject with heightened intensity, bearing a mysterious charge of affect, here described in the negative terms of anxiety and loss of reality, but which one could just as well imagine in the positive terms of euphoria, a high, an intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity. (Jameson 27-28)

Interestingly, even though Paul’s fleeting relationships are focused on the present, and even though they seem to be disconnected from each other, they are all share a common meaning. Every one of Paul’s relationships can be approached as an attempt to stave off loneliness, and they also highlight Paul’s paradoxical fear of being alone while at the same time being resistant to stasis and permanency. None of these relationships, however, possess the element that Paul needs to transgress the clutches of the present. Paul’s relationships reflect the woe expressed in Ouisa’s most prominent speech, in which she expresses the torment and tension behind the theory of six degrees of separation:

Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A] tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B’ like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. (Guare 81)

The play seems to disrupt any attempts at reifying the concatenation and the linearity that the “six degrees of separation” theory ultimately provides. Paul is the product of disconnection. The character we know as Paul is an incomplete amalgamation of texts, anecdotes, fictions, recipes, backgrounds and people. Any attempt to understand Paul is futile precisely because he resists signification.  His inability to feel beyond the present highlights the fact that Paul exists beyond the signifying chain of connection that Ouisa refers to. Thus, the Paul who we are familiar with is a schizophrenic simulacrum: an incomplete and unknowable representation that has replaced reality.

Works Cited

Guare, John. Six Degrees of Separation. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

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