Trees of Codes: Writing, Trauma, Adaptation and Commemoration in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book and Wayne McGregor’s Ballet.

November 29, 2017

By Sarah Dowling

614w3EVREeLIn October this year, Melbourne hosted the Australian premiere of the internationally acclaimed contemporary ballet Tree of Codes. The ballet is a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, installation artist Olafur Eliasson and electronic producer/musician Jamie xx, inspired by American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s work of the same name. Foer’s Tree of Codes is, itself, an adaptation of an existing artwork: its abstract narrative emerges through drastic redaction of Polish author Bruno Schulz’s collection of vignettes, The Street of Crocodiles. As the creators of the ballet have publicly noted, these successive re-imaginings of Schulz’s work illustrate the inevitable interplay between appropriation and originality in the creative process (Pasori). However, as a result of Foer’s emphasis on memory, trauma and poststructuralist theories of language, and in light of Schulz’s murder by a Nazi officer during World War II, the two Trees of Codes also problematize the very the nature of language and commemoration.

Schulz is a beloved national icon in Poland, where he is considered one of the country’s literary greats for his idiosyncratic prose style (Paloff). The Street of Crocodiles narrates a series of episodes ostensibly taken from his own life, which circulate around childhood experiences, family life and his father’s evolving madness. His stories are not plot-driven but, rather, invite the reader simply to luxuriate in the decadence of his prose, which is crammed with exuberant, lush imagery. Consider, for example, the wild garden full of “bestially liberated, . . . empty, overgrown, cabbage heads of burrs—enormous witches, shedding their voluminous skirts in broad daylight, throwing them down, one by one, until their swollen, rustling, hole riddled rags buried the whole quarrelsome bastard breed under their crazy expanse” (Schulz 51). A German SS officer shot the Jewish Shultz dead in the streets of Drohobycz ghetto in 1942 in an act of retribution, according to popular telling, against the Gestapo officer Felix Landau, for whom Schulz was painting a mural.

Tree of Codes, Foer’s intervention into Schulz’s text, is best described not as a novel but as piece of textual art. In it, Foer remakes Schulz’s collection by die-cutting words from its pages, leaving behind delicate lattices of paper on which only a few enigmatic phrases remain. The fragmented ‘narrative’ of Foer’s text thus emerges from erasures of parts of Schulz’s. Even the title, Tree of Codes, is created by deleting letters from The Street of Crocodiles. The holes in the pages of Foer’s book ensure that subsequent pages are always visible to the reader through the current page, so that word fragments from future events interrupt and obscure present ones. For example, the page that contains the words “human dreams; rubbish heaps abundant yet ephemeral sudden and splendid, only to wilt and perish”,” (Foer 59) appears to the reader thus:

Tree of codes 59v2

The words from later pages interpose themselves between the words on the page at hand, seeming at once to supplement and undercut their meaning (e.g. “My father … became human dreams; rubbish heaps doubtful expression”) (Foer 59). These word collages also seem, at times, to refer back to the text as a whole in a strangely self-referential way, with their emphasis on both plenitude and disintegration, and with phrases such as “atmosphere, full” and “the future lay open”. While linear plot is minimal in Schulz’s work, it is completely dispelled in Foer’s.

Foer is famous for his postmodern trauma fictions, Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Here I Am, which explore the impact of the Holocaust, the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York, and the fictional destruction of Israel respectively. His work is characterised by a recurrent motif of “holes,” which take various forms in his narratives. These holes include significant peepholes, beads, keyholes and orifices, as well as narrative techniques of omission, erasure and illegibility. Tree of Codes is Foer’s first book to render these holes literally, in the form of actual perforations in the page. As I have written elsewhere, Foer’s holes motif evokes both post-structuralist theory and seminal literary trauma theory. Foer’s depictions of language’s failures and disappearances reflect a Derridean sense of the ungroundedness of language, which reveals the absence of any “fundamental signified) (Derrida 266). Additionally, the various lacunae in Foer’s novels show the influence of literary trauma theories that emphasise experiences of discontinuity within victims’ sense of self and the world following traumatising events: the ubiquitous holes that ravage his narratives attest to the ubiquity of trauma in his characters’ lives.

Tree of Codes can be read as an homage and memorial to a great author. Certainly, Foer’s marketability—his novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were both New York Times best-sellers and have both been made into Hollywood films—secured for Tree of Codes much broader distribution and attention than such an avant-garde textual artefact might otherwise have received, and so he likely succeeded in winning greater recognition of Schulz’s work from English-speaking audiences. Yet Foer’s memorial is not only of the author but also of the catastrophic loss of life and genius he embodies. In Foer’s oeuvre, with its preoccupation with Jewish identity and trauma, the Jewish Schulz becomes an emblem of traumatic disruptions of history. Schulz’s death haunts the novel by way of its missing words, reminders of his other missing works—both the manuscript lost during the Shoah and the texts he never had the chance to write—and his murder stands synecdochally for the Jewish genocide as a whole. Although Foer pays tribute to the original work by distilling its atmospheric, fanciful quality, the resulting text remains unmistakably incomplete. Enough persists to evidence the presence of a narrative, and yet too much is missing for any coherent sense of it to emerge. The original novel thus appears irreparably wounded. This form of memorialisation emphasises loss while avoiding any false gestures towards reparation or meaningfulness.

As a commemoration, Foer’s work is a characteristically post-structuralist one. By extracting a new story from the remains of Schulz’s, Foer supplements Schulz’s decimated legacy. As Derrida observes, a supplement is both an enhancement—a surplus or needless addition—and a remedy: an acknowledgement of deficiency (144). Derrida refer to the supplement that is writing—the supposed afterthought-addition to spoken language that actually exposes the fatal lack of presence within speech (145). Tree of Codes highlights this paradoxical quality of writing, which undoes that which it appears to preserve, by erasing, literally, that which it commemorates. His tribute is visibly both an addition to/repetition of something that already exists, and the substitution/negation of that evidently flimsy presence. A such, it reveals the tension between redundancy and erasure that perhaps exists in all tributes.

Foer’s pages riven with holes provide a visual analogy for the post-structuralist model of language as différance: a movement that demarcates words (and, with them, concepts) only through their differentiation from other words and lacks any concrete connection to a transcendental signified (Derrida 47). The title of Foer’s work is evocative in this regard, too; indeed, the fractal Tree (i.e. network) of Codes (i.e. signifiers) is another post-structuralist motif that appears frequently in his fiction, often coinciding with various kinds of holes. It the form of a precarious web of arbitrarily connected strings, a sequence of endlessly interchangeable words, and multiple instances of mobile meanings lost through repeated translation. The book Tree of Codes is a sort of three-dimensional rendering of language’s network of deferral and differentiation. Its decontextualized words suspended in a negative space of white paper and holes allude to the ungroundedness of language. It also visualises the “movement of signification” (Derrida 70), whereby the meaning of words arises as a result of their existence in an infinite chain of alternatives and by their effacement of other possible meanings (which is simultaneously a self-effacing gesture towards [deference to] them). This latter process of différance is represented by the words showing through the pages to redefine, undermine and call attention away from one another. These visual strategies all attest to writing’s suspension of meaning between different words such that meaning is never actually located or ‘present’.

So how does Wayne McGregor’s ballet reframe the insights and problems of Foer’s Tree of Codes? In terms of translating the form of the text into performance, the ballet’s strategies are quite literal, with an emphasis on finding analogies in each of the collaborator’s art forms for the physical form of the book. Cedar Pasori describes how Jamie xx allegedly composed the score using an algorithm that converted the patterns of holes on each of the pages into a bassline, over which he then composed melodies. Eliasson’s stage design sees the dancers moving between multiple screens of reflective glass with round ‘windows’ in them that rotate open and closed. The spaces between the screens are lit up in different colours, so that the holes in them provide glimpses into hued worlds in an evident allusion to the holes in Foer’s pages. McGregor claims to have choreographed a dance sequence for each of Foer’s pages, “according to meaning, feeling, tone, emotional value, and spaces,” and then edited sections out of the completed ballet to leave holes like those in the book (Pasori).

Although a ballet is not a written text, as we would usually define one, it falls within the scope of ‘writing’ as Derrida defines it insofar as it is a form of signification. Dance (and, for that matter, music and visual design) rarely strives for the appearance of simple correspondence between signifier and signified that language does. Such deceptively simple symbolism is certainly absent from Tree of Codes. Yet this ballet does signify: it represents Foer’s book and, for Derrida, all signs are a form of writing: “‘[W]riting signifies inscription and especially the durable institution of the sign” (44). What Derrida terms the “originary writing” or “archewriting” is the very system of difference by which we associate distinct meanings with distinct signifiers (60): it is, indeed, the pre-sensory temporalisation of and differentiation between aspects of our reality at the most fundamental level—the fact of our perceiving reality as having aspects at all—which is something essential not only to our ability to conceive of distinct meanings, but to perception itself (65-66). Différance is at work even at this level, because all such distinctions are arbitrary. They arise from the negative process of differentiation and erasure (“this” is, always and only, “not-that”) and so bestow no positive meaning and identity but only institute a network of signs in which meaning and identity are always suspended, or at play. The ballet takes as its signified a text that takes as one of its signifieds a theory that reveals the arbitrariness of apparent signifier-signified pairs and diffuses meaning instead across a network. The translation of Schulz’s text into Foer’s text into McGregor’s ballet, and the gesturing of ballet back to text back to theory, are dramatisations of the play of meaning within this network of endless alternatives or “not-thats”.

It is what the ballet’s collaborators achieve with reflection and multiplication, rather than holes, that contributes the most to this cumulative exploration of writing and commemoration. Jamie xx’s score layers and repeats samples, while McGregor’s choreography sees the dancers frequently duplicate the same movements slightly out of sync with each other. For much of the ballet, the set’s reflective glass screens multiply the dancers’ reflections: some dancers’ appear only once or twice, while others simultaneously stretch into a seemingly endless distance. This clever visual conceit not only parallels the effect of depth in Foer’s book, wherein the reader can see beyond the current page to a variety of later, ‘deeper’ pages, but, like the other forms of repetition in the ballet, it also alludes to the cumulative replication and reproduction at work in McGregor’s and Foer’s adaptations. Translation—into other languages or, even more profoundly, other mediums—reveals the lack of necessary link between any specific signifier and signified. This revelation, for Derrida, is evidence that signifiers gain identity only from their position within the entire field of that which they are not (47). McGregor’s representation/re-presentation of Foer’s text, like Foer’s representation/re-presentation of Schultz’s, illuminates the absence at the heart of signification, which is inextricably linked to its replicability.

Representation always introduces absence because it inevitably involves difference from (and thus the deferral of) that which it signifies: as Derrida points out, even “the perfect representation is always already other than what it doubles and represents” (292). However, it is only because signifiers are not tethered to a present instant or signified that they can be reproduced in infinite contexts, and only because it can be reproduced thus as part of a shared socially constructed system that it can represent at all. The ballet’s experimentations with replication betray no anxiety about locating or preserving an original presence, but rather celebrate abundance. Like Foer’s book, McGregor’s ballet unabashedly both absents and increases its subject: as McGregor reflects, “we used the book very, very intensely, [but] we’re not doing a description of [the book] in the performance. It had to be something other, a different world, one where you’re lost and don’t recognize it” (Paloff). The combination of holes and reflections on stage is an apt symbol of supplementation, with its dynamic of simultaneous addition and subtraction. Tree of Codes the ballet highlights the degree of redundancy—repetition—inevitable, not only in adaptations and acts of commemoration, but in any form of representation.

Many of Eliasson’s equivalents to Foer’s holes are transparencies rather than absences, the emphasis being on frames of perception rather than loss. There is really nothing traumatised about McGregor’s choreography. In fact, what I was most struck by, watching it performed, was its moments of sheer joyfulness and energy. Repetition through re-interpretation opens the way for this kind of shift, or deconstruction. Early in the ballet, the dancers thrust their arms into mirrored cones so that their hands’ reflections bloom like sea anemones. Scenes like this suggest the proliferative, rather than traumatic, potential of holes. Similarly, the mesmerising opening sequence sees the performers, clad in black, dancing in total darkness against a black backdrop, while decked out in tiny lights. From a distance, the contours of their bodies are completely concealed and all that remains is the impression of pinpoints of light moving on their own. It is yet another moment reminiscent of the book Tree of Codes, where words also seem to float in empty space, and this simple play of light and darkness is dynamic and transformative. After all, the insights of post-structuralism do not reduce language to meaninglessness. Rather, the realisation that meaning is constructed and that there is no anchoring signified outside this structure of ‘writing’ liberates meaning from all totalising paradigms. Those dancing constellations of light, untethered from human forms, blazon the fluidity and dexterity signification has, precisely because it is not locked to any absolute signified. Meanwhile, McGregor looks ahead to endless future possibilities for the Tree of Codes, saying that he would love to see the ballet adapted by someone else, so that it “becomes transformed again[, because t]he idea of iterations and translations is really beautiful” (Paloff).

Sarah Dowling is an early career researcher with a specialisation in American poetry. Her recent publications include research into Charles Wright’s poetics of memory, and literary trauma theory in the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer. Sarah is a Literature Lecturer at Trinity College and in 2018 will commence as the Subject Leader of Literature.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. 1st ed. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. London: John Hopkins University Press, 1976

Dowling, Sarah. “The Human Hole: Problematic Representations of Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.TEXT spec. iss. 41, Oct. 2017.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Tree of Codes. London: Visual editions, 2010.

McGregor, Wayne, Olafur Eliasson, and Jamie xx. Tree of Codes. 18 Oct. 2017. Arts Centre, Melbourne. Original production details:

Paloff, Benjamin. “Who Owns Bruno Schulz?” Boston Review, Dec. 2004-Jan. 2005.

Pasori, Cedar. “The Story Behind The Jamie xx-Scored Tree Of Codes Ballet.” Fader, 14 Sep. 2015.

Schulz, Bruno. 1934. The Street of Crocodiles. Trans. Celina Wieniewska. London: Picador, 1980.


One Response to “Trees of Codes: Writing, Trauma, Adaptation and Commemoration in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book and Wayne McGregor’s Ballet.”

  1. Susie said

    Thanks Sarah, really thought provoking article. It would be interesting to link the post structuralist reading to that of the post traumatic identity, which is discovered (?) /perceived/constructed only in its relation to its differentiation from the pre traumatised identity. The language of the post traumatised subject is, as you describe, a paradox of erasure and supplementation – some would argue a futile attempt to fill the ‘holes’ of trauma, which in turn are a result of repressed and inaccessible memory. A really interesting area of trauma theory. Looking forward to discussing it with you in person.

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