Simulacrum, like many terms surrounding postmodernism, has been defined in a number of ways. Perhaps the simplest definition of the world connotes representation. However, a definition I prefer comes from Baudrillard, not because it is a more transparent, comprehensive definition, but rather because in its novelty it offers a new perspective to the world around us. Baudrillard writes in his now (in)famous postmodern tract, Simulacra and Simulation, “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is the truth that hides that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (1). Initially, this sort of definition may seem like simple wordplay and a clichéd instance of reversing terms to make a short statement seem poignant and profound, but once analyzed, I think Baudrillard’s definition is helpful.
To analyze the term, I’ll demonstrate the way in which it can be found in literature, and then the impact that it may have on our world. The text I will be analyzing is Donald Barthelme’s “Concerning the Bodyguard,” which can be found online with a simple search. It took me six minutes to read, but the nature of this reading will not require that you read the story for yourself, but it will, I should hope, give you a better understanding of my reading if you do. Let us begin.
This story, essentially a collection of questions directed toward a nameless bodyguard, ends the first paragraph thusly: “Who has inflicted a brown burn on his yellow shirt purchased expensively from Yves St. Laurent? A great brown burn just over the heart?” (Barthelme 45). While this question seems innocuous enough, perhaps an underlying statement is this: a heart is mentioned to indicate the location of a burn. In my estimation, it would be more helpful to simply say the burn was near the breast pocket as this locates the burn without depending on a person to wear it. Surely, as different people try on the shirt, the location of the heart will shift according to their height and weight. But, you may counter, the man is the only one to wear the shirt, so when the speaker says this, he means in relation to the bodyguard. Which leads precisely to my point.
By employing the word “heart” in order to locate the burn, the speaker attempts to aide the reader in forgetting one thing: the man may not have a heart. Consider Baudrillard’s simulacrum: “the truth that hides that there is none” (1). With this in mind, the shirt burn – a truth, insofar as it is immediate and empirical and present – serves to hide the fact that the man has no heart. Even the physical location of the burn covers his heart screaming out, ‘there’s a burn over the heart, so there must be a heart behind the burn!” The heart also seems to be important as it connotes life, authenticity, and the recurring theme of love, meaning, if he does not have one, he will be lacking in these areas.
Following this assertion, one can see the way in which this loss of heart is manifested. The speaker asks, “Will the bodyguard be relieved, today, in time to see the film he has in mind—Emmanuelle Around the World?” (45 Barthelme) This is a ‘sexploitation’ film, which is significant, as Baudrillardian thinker will recognize that pornography is either a second stage of the sign (that which misrepresents reality) or a fourth stage of the sign (6) (that which is not related to reality at all). Either way, we see the bodyguard interacting with lust, or even love, in a hyperreal way, that is, in such a way that has no relation to reality. Again, relating this to Baudrillard’s simulacrum, it seems evident that the bodyguard, not having the capacity to experience genuine love, resorts to pornography (a truth, as it immediate and empirical ie. I can interact with it right now) to avoid or hide or compensate for the fact he has no heart. The simulacrum is true again.
Then the topic of love resurfaces on page 47. The speaker asks, “are there small blurrish Poloroids stuck along the left edge of the mirror, Poloroids of a woman in a dark-blue scarf and two lean children in red pants?” This teaches us, along with implicit hints hidden throughout the text, that he is divorced, and the only way he can really interact with his family is through pictures. However, just a few lines later, the speaker asks, “Is there a color foldout of a naked young woman torn from the magazine VIR taped inside the wardrobe door?” This creates the impression that the bodyguard experiences his loved ones in the same way that he experiences paper woman, namely, through pictures. Tying this with my previous assertions, I argue that because he lacks a heart (love, affection, authenticity) he is unable to experience his family in a pure way; rather, like paper woman, he experiences them in a hyperreal way, that is, purely through representations of people, instead of the people themselves.
On top of his troubles in relationships, the bodyguard seems to be working in a dead-end job, which is unfortunate, because the story defines the man entirely upon his occupation. The speaker asks, “does the bodyguard, at these times, feel himself part of an ocean of bodyguards?” (46) as if to imply that the bodyguard is unimportant or even redundant due to the sea of bodyguards like him. If this was not enough, the speaker continues by asserting of the crowd, “there are too many of them; they cannot be known, there are too many of them; they cannot be predicted, they have volition” (49). This implies that the bodyguard, if the crowd chose to act against his client, would be outnumbered and thereby useless, making his entire job, and with it, his existence, seem pointless – an illusion of utility and realness and nothing more.
Taken together, in my reading, the bodyguard is a sad fellow. His marriage has fallen apart and his kids have been taken from him. The bodyguard also seems to lack the capacity to experience authentic love (no heart), and tries, in the worst of ways, to hide this fact. As readers, we may be quick to feel pity or perhaps even sympathy for the bodyguard, but to do so may be missing the main theme in my reading: simulacrum.
Baudrillard writes, “It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing that fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of the saving the reality principle” (Baudrillard 172). The entire story, in my estimation, represents the reality principle and simulacrum. By exposing the reader to a character and a story, in text, (a truth) the reader is able to recognize a lack of reality or authenticity, and forgets (hides that there is none) the potential (hyper)reality, that we, like the bodyguard, live in an unavoidably hyperreal society, where authenticity and essence is impossible; that we, like the bodyguard, do not have hearts, never had hearts, and continue to compensate for this lack. Perhaps we, like the bodyguard, live pitiable lives to those watching us, or to those reading about us in a reality still realer than ours. It’s in stories like these: the ones that so obviously contain the hyperreal that allows us to sit back and face the character, to moralize with the character, suggesting things he could do differently, and the areas in which he is wretched, all the while elevating our own status; reminding ourselves that we are different from him. But imagine our despair when we turn the page and find we are no longer reading of a bodyguard, but are confronted with a mirror and our face revealing the simulacrum is true.
With irony: God help our hearts.
Josiah H. Nelson
Barthelme, Donald. “Concerning the Bodyguard.” New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988. Print.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor, MI: The University Of Michigan Press, 2006. Print.
Adapted from: Nelson, Josiah. The Simulacrum of Self in “Concerning the Bodyguard. Unpublished, 2015. Print.