Rebooting Electronic Literature: Documenting Pre-Web Born Digital Media

Critical Essay about J. Yellowlees Douglas' "I Have Said Nothing"

Saying Something about "I Have Said Nothing"

On December 1, 2018 we live streamed J. Yellowlees Douglas’ hypertext narrative "I Have Said Nothing" ("IHSN"). Influenced by two real-life car crashes involving girlfriends of her brother Mark, Douglas’s story appears, along with Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story [1], in  W. W. Norton & Co.’s Postmodern American Fiction (1997), the only works of electronic literature ever published in one of its many collections, a development that led scholar Daniel Grassian at the time to wonder if hypertext had reached “canonical status” (168). [2]

As if.


Dates are important to note here since there are at least three versions of the work. Though "IHSN's" copyright date is 1993, the version I am calling Version 1.0––published on a 3.5-inch floppy disk with Mary-Kim Arnold’s "Lust" in The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext, Volume 1, Number 2––came out in the winter of 1994. [3] Version 2.0, the one published in the Norton anthology, appeared in 1997, and the CD-ROM (Version 3.0) was released a year later in 1998. Douglas reports that she actually developed the concept and text for the story by 1992 and that it took her a mere five days to complete it as a hypertext using Eastgate Systems, Inc.’s Storyspace software on a “luggable” Macintosh computer while living in Brighton, England (Douglas, 1 December 2017).  With 96 nodes and 205 links the work is purposely brief, according to Douglas, approximating the length of a short story.

Written from the 1st person point of view, the work features The Narrator, a fiction writer who often alludes to film [4], both violent and absurd (e.g. The Wild Bunch, Psycho, horror films we watched as children, Esther Williams films, Warner Bros. cartoons, Deliverance), a strategy that underscores the dark and strange plot. Through her we meet Luke her brother, a reckless young man who is not-so-accidentally unlucky in love. [5] We also meet Sherry, Luke’s girlfriend, killed when struck by a Chevy Nova going “75 miles an hour.” Sherry is based on Douglas’ brother’s girlfriend who died the same way. Finally there is Juliet (or “Jule”), the second girlfriend of Luke’s who also dies in a car crash, this time involving a Ford Probe. [6] Alcohol underlies the poor life choices in the story that drives the characters literally to their deaths.

The ignobility of being killed by such mundane, banal vehicles stands out as one of the absurdities of life in the story. Greek heroes, we may remember, die in glorious battle. Perhaps if the Iliad were written today, Homer would have Hector’s body dragged behind Achilles’ Porsche instead of a chariot, but certainly a Nova or a Probe would never figure as that hero’s last ride.

In "IHSN" death is absurd. Luke confesses his incredulity to The Narrator about the fleeting nature of life. One minute we are here and the next we are gone. Thus, the main theme of the story is nothingness––not merely death, but complete non-existence, the aught. Though it is an unconscious realization that seems to underlie the nihilist way Luke and his girlfriends literally drink themselves to their deaths, nothingness is so absurd a condition that Luke is still driven to ask the big question: Why? (in the lexia titled with the same word). Nothingness is instantiated in the blank space that shows up as the lexia, entitled “.” This period represents for us the punctuation of the end of a statement of fact that was once our life. It is unsurprisingly followed by the final lexia, entitled “The End,” where The Narrator quips, not unlike Porky the Pig at the end of a Loony Tunes cartoon, “That’s all she wrote.” Thus, the story ends with The Narrator ramming life’s absurdity at us as if her words were a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport racing 268 miles per hour. It makes sense, then, that "IHSN" is structured in the shape of an hourglass with each pyramid representing two different peoples’ endings” (1 December 2017). The image of the shifting sands of time raise the specter of death in the story, of life that is no longer something other than nothing, or maybe even never was.

Douglas drew the title from Augustine of Hippo’s De Doctrina Christiana 1.6.6 and cites him in the lexia, entitled “But I’ve Said Nothing.” Douglas writes: “I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say.” [7] So, in the end The Narrator does say something despite the title’s promise that she hadn't. It is just not what we expected––or perhaps hoped––she would say about the absurdity of life, finality of death, and the ridiculous state of the cosmos.

I would like to thank the author J. Yellowlees Douglas for her time in helping us host the Live Steam Traversal and for talking with me at length about her work in preparation for the event.

[1] It is important to note that Joyce’s work also includes a car crash, leading Stuart Moulthrop to talk about in his essay “Traveling in the Breakdown Lane” the reoccurring theme of car crashes in pre-web hypertext narratives.
[2] E-Lit scholar Astrid Ensslin looks theoretically at what drives the canonization of particular hypertext in her book, Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions (2007).
[3] Douglas reported in her interview that "I Have Said Nothing" was actually the first publication of The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext but is numbered “2” because the work slated for number 1 was not available.
[4] Douglas studied film at NYU. In fact, she taught at NYU in 1985 along with John McDaid, a prominent hypertext fiction writer that Stuart and I featured in our Pathfinders project and Traversals book.
[5] As mentioned the story is based on Douglas’ own brother Mark. She said she chose the name “Luke” to stay within names of apostles (Douglas, 1 December 2017).
[6] Douglas mentioned that she chose the two female characters names––Sherry and Jule––as “consumables.” This idea is seen through the many girlfriends that Mark seems to go through and eventually are consumed by death (Douglas, 1 December 2017).
[7] Douglas loosely translates the passage. The original is: “Have we spoken or announced anthing worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say.” A special thank you to Nicholas Schiller, Associate Director of ELL and a trained Librarian, for finding this citation, especially so quickly during a Live Stream YouTube Chat.

Douglas, J. Yellowlees. "I Have Said Nothing." The Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext. Vol. 1 Num. 2. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc. 1994.

—. “Live Stream YouTube Chat.” Electronic Literature Lab. 1 December 2017.

Ensslin, Astrid. Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions. NY, NY, Continuum Press, 2007.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, Andrew Levy, Editors. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Grassian, Daniel. Hybrid Fictions: American Literature and Generation X. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2003.

Miranda, Juan. “Death, and Again: A Critical Analysis of J. Yellowlees Douglas’ 'I Have Said Nothing.'" 24 Feb. 2015.

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Traveling in the Breakdown Lane: A Principle of Resistance for Hypertext.” Mosaic 28, 4 (1995): 55–77. To read the article for free a JSTOR go here.


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