Moldenke, the Magic Rat, and Postmodern Pain

Postmodernist analysis by definition is analytical, occurs in the mind, is intellectual, and creates its own reality or point of reference. What then, of physical sensation? Meaning, beyond sight? The visual mode is the typical way in which (sighted) humans take in information: observing the signifier (an image of a woody perennial plant generally recognized as tree, for example) and using the mind to process this information into the signified (“oak tree” for example). Does postmodernist analysis, or any kind of analysis for that matter, discount the physical in preference for the mental? And what of emotion (or feeling) versus thinking? Is there room for discussion on the extent to which works of art generally considered postmodern evoke physical response or empathy? This reader’s (and listener’s) response suggests there may be linkages worth exploring in this regard to supplement logic-based analytics. Specifically this work undertakes a personal and critical evaluation of linkages between Moldenke (the character from David Ohle’s novel Motorman), the Magic Rat (the character from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Jungleland”) and pain (as defined by postmodern scholars).

The ache begins in my left knee. When it becomes impossible to ignore, I want to deconstruct and reassemble it. By that I mean I want to deconstruct the pain, not the knee, showing my preference for poetry over surgery. The reconstruction part is a trick I learned studying postmodern literature: it makes me want to merge different angles of experience. For example: what is the relationship between pain and pleasure? Are they complementary? And what is the relationship between stored memories associated with pain and the actual impulses traveling from the injured knee to the brain? Do they collide or intertwine? My pain comes as I sit in the chair in the living room playing vinyl records. This is my fox’s den. My situation (at least for an hour or two): an ideal example of the individual’s isolation in the world. The music and pain compete for my attention, but for a while both transport me beyond perceived boundaries of time and space.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform the rock song “Jungleland” for me, and me alone, through the technology of the turntable. As a listener I weave through the night riding shotgun alongside the Magic Rat, from Harlem to the Jersey shore, and in the end find the Rat gunned down by his own dream.[1] But not before a summer night romance with a barefoot girl. The Rat’s demise may or may not be final, but vinyl records have come back from the brink. Some audiophiles prefer the dynamic range of the vinyl record to the compressed digital file, suggesting technological innovation doesn’t always improve delivery of a work of art. Or maybe just proving trends are hard to predict. Which is why it’s sometimes hard to take seriously intellectual definitions: while critics discussed a concept they called modernism, they blinked their eyes, and subway trains full of artists seeking fertile fields departed (a mythical) University Station for a destination later to be named postmodernism. Because critics analyze works of art after their creation, what they are really analyzing are reverberations or shadows of an artistic movement.

Is the same true for postmodernism? Have we already moved on? Literary critic Terry Eagleton discussed the difficulty of categorization within the context of the term “postmodernism,” given its application to literature, punk rock, and philosophy alike. The term grew so large in scope he went so far as to call postmodernism a “creature” whose existence couldn’t be denied, stating, “it is hard to see how one could be in some simple sense either for or against it, any more than one could be for or against Peru.”[2]

Novelist and critic Susan Sontag similarly advised against excluding popular culture from the definition of art. She questioned the value of acts of criticism when she argued that works of art, as acts of subjective expression, are their content not their interpretation. I think it would be fair to say she preferred the immediacy of art to its afterthought. Not only did she compare over-interpretation to an act of pollution, she also called it “the revenge of the intellectual upon art.”[3]

I can relate to Sontag’s defense of art as experiential. Elbowing my mind out of the way, I like to surrender to a work of art. Take the postmodern novel Motorman by David Ohle which begins with the main character, a man named Moldenke, also sitting in a chair as if paralyzed by one or more fears. He’s an approximation of a man, with one good eye and one good knee, living on an approximate planet earth with its poisoned air, vast rivers, and artificial moons. Moldenke’s fears take the form of recollections, most strikingly memories of another character—his love interest—Roberta, in a nostalgic world of public parks, private joy, and breathable air. Though the temporal setting of Motorman is post-apocalyptic, and features the associated bleak human experiences, my response as an individual reader is: deep down it’s a novel about love. Admittedly that interpretation favors emotional over rational response. My point of view could easily be deconstructed and may even fail literal interpretation of the text. Perhaps something in Motorman causes me to experience it more as song than a novel. Perhaps I’m a product of popular culture with a preference for love stories. I’m not even holding the text of Motorman in my hand (it sits on top of one stack or another of books in my home) when parallels spring to mind between Moldenke’s relationship and the relationship, described in “Jungleland,” between the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl.

As if to further blur fact and fiction, my own injured knee begins to sing, reminding me of Moldenke: in one of his recollections he agrees to let the authorities break his kneecap as a contribution to the Mock War. I take this as a reference to Vietnam and, although I was too young to serve, have vague recollections of the nightly news footage I saw as a child. I have never been a soldier at all, although I completed the required paperwork at the local post office when draft registration was reinstated by President Carter. Moldenke’s recollection, like his knee, is fractured and can be considered characteristic of postmodern narrative. But his physical injury arguably isn’t the worst concession to war made by Moldenke. Deciding his injured kneecap isn’t enough of a sacrifice, he also offers to give up his feelings.


Postmodern works of art may feature acts of deconstruction and reassembly. The novelist or songwriter generally has a comprehensive command of background information that never appears in the surface finish of the work. For artistic value, the writer may conceal some of these narrative elements. Or the writer may deconstruct his or her own narrative and reassemble it to disregard or deemphasize linear time. This may have the effect of emphasizing tone over fact, emotion over logic, or serving as commentary on the human condition or dysfunctional contemporary society.

I offer for the reader’s consideration: both David Ohle’s novel Motorman (published in 1972) and Bruce Springsteen’s rock song “Jungleland” (released as the final track on the Born to Run album in 1975) are postmodernist works that rely on an artistic process of deconstruction and reassembly. But even that conscious or subconscious artistic choice doesn’t interest me as much as the effect the approach has on the work of art and its resulting impact on the reader or listener. Both examples are essentially love stories set in a degraded world. The setting of Motorman appears post-apocalyptic, the result of some grave collapse of environmental conditions that makes it necessary for Moldenke to wear goggles and a mask when venturing outdoors. In contrast, the setting of “Jungleland” more closely parallels existing environmental, albeit urban, conditions. Nevertheless, the images chosen are similar (if we are allowed latitude to compare artificial moons in Motorman to giant lit Exxon signs in “Jungleland”). Further, disruption of narrative in each example has the effect of elevating the love story over the temporal actions that take place in the text. Linearity, or the sequence of events, does not matter to me: experientially, the emotional impact of events is transcendent.

Within this context, to be transparent about the biases I may bring to this analysis, I will explain how my personal development relates to these works of art. I am roughly of the same generation as the two authors. Therefore some of the echo I hear in these works results from growing up with the same messaging of politics, culture, advertising. Another consideration: I have worked in the field of environmental protection and am sensitized to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings. Lastly I’m a poet, whose work addresses themes of environmental and social change, who attempts to give voice to those who can’t speak or whose language remains unheard. As a further postscript, a career aptitude test I took in high school suggested I was best suited to be a librarian. What I have become instead is a civil engineer and poet and a latecomer to the world of literary criticism.

But what of the love stories? Are Moldenke and the Magic Rat as men, Roberta and the barefoot girl as women, on the same quest? In Motorman, Moldenke experiences flashbacks to when he and Roberta were together: times good and bad. As the novel begins it’s clear they are apart. In his self-imposed captivity (or perhaps his door really is being guarded by manufactured humanoids called jellyheads) Moldenke remembers a shared domestic experience in which he played organ music for Roberta, specifically “The Buxtehude,” after which they enjoyed ant tea.[4] Ohle appears to have named the musical work, “The Buxtehude,” after the Baroque Era composer of music for the pipe organ Dieterich Buxtehude. The author’s use of music type (the organ) associated with the horror film paired with crawling insects disrupt this reader’s idea of romance but do not crush it completely. Why? Because there is an emotional component to this human transaction beyond ants or tea leaves.

Similarly, in “Jungleland,” the relationship between the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl is interrupted, by “Maximum Lawmen” who chase the couple down Flamingo Lane, but not before “they take a stab at romance.”[5] The disruption of the narrative in the song also leads the listener to question whether they, too, are destined to part ways. And yet in both cases the apocalyptic environment is not what dissuades their love: it is the complication of the human condition with its cumulative physical and psychological injuries.

What of the feminist perspective? Are the two love stories truly postmodern? Are they presented, in the words of philosopher and critic Julia Kristeva, “with the more or less conscious intention of expanding the signifiable and thus human realm?”[6] Or do they fall into the modernist romantic trap of ordered male/female relationships? The world constructed by Ohle has enough strangeness that it complicates the reader’s ability to adjudicate this issue. Both Roberta and Moldenke seem passive although their relationship seems to fit the pattern where the male pursues the female. At times Roberta is referred to as Cock Roberta, which arguably seems provocative if not pejorative. And yet the many references in the text to artificial sexual appendages suggest this may not be unusual in the world Ohle has created (perhaps sexual disfunction is one of the results of the environmental collapse of that world). Setting that aside, the relationship seems a tender one, with the exchange of letters over a period of what appears to be years when they are apart: removed from the physical there still seems to be an emotional connection. Roberta does seem victimized through her institutionalization “for punctuation,” yet the emotive response for this reader is dismay over the injustice.[7]

Similarly in “Jungleland” feelings between the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl seem reciprocal although it isn’t clear whether they know each other well. Everything seems to happen fast to this listener (this makes sense in a song, even one that spans an unusually long nine and a half minutes) in an urban jungle that features the drinking of warm beer, gangs assembling, and sirens sounding. The relationship, which seems consensual, in the end is complicated by an act of refusal and surrender in a locked bedroom, although the conversation tales place in whispers not shouts.

Are these relationships reciprocal? Do they represent true love? Can we find meaning in a novel or song? While arguing for the elevation of immediate reader or listener response over lengthy interpretation, I have to admit that implies multiple interpretations based on individual reader biases. According to Zygmunt Bauman truth is a “social relation” in which the dominant nation or person imposes their definition on the weaker.[8] Thus the danger in one person forcing his or her definition of love on the other. In any given situation can there be more than one emotional truth? Postmodernist theory is full of discussion whether two readers can even agree on the meaning of a single word in a text much less retrieve a common meaning. Similarly, William Carlos Williams, in his poem “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” discussed the difficulty of getting the news from poetry.[9] Taking the text of “Jungleland” as an approximation of a poem, if we were to undertake a re-write as a newspaper article it might read something like this:

Asbury Park - A purported gang member was brought to Memorial Hospital early Sunday morning in critical condition following a shooting at a local apartment house. The victim is the same man police suspect of public consumption of alcohol with a female companion in the 100 block of Flamingo Lane earlier in the evening. Patrolmen pursued the alleged perpetrator to a local Exxon station but were unable to detain him when a crowd assembled. The search continued with the assistance of law enforcement from neighboring towns. Responding around midnight to a report of shots fired, officers located the victim suffering from a single gunshot wound. The police, having identified no suspect or motive in the shooting, are investigating the possibility the wound was self-inflicted.

What’s wrong with the newspaper version? Doesn’t it convey essentially the same facts as Springsteen’s lyrics? First of all, it represents one of many possible interpretations of the text, critically: whether the Rat’s death was corporeal or spiritual. It takes more than text for literature or a song to become a work of art, to evoke reader response. This has at least something to do with emotion. The newspaper version lacks emotion, the power to move the reader, and doesn’t explore motivation. The Magic Rat was gunned down, but people are shot every day. One of the things that creates tension in the song is the fact that the Rat died at the hands of his own dream. All the more tragically, the song leaves open the possibility it may have been a death of the spirit, with the body of the Magic Rat wounded but otherwise intact. For how else could his barefoot companion so casually shut off the bedroom light at the end of the song?


It’s been said love is complicated. How often does the word “love” occur in Bruce Springsteen’s early work? According to historian Louis Masur the word “night” appears more often.[10] Both “Jungleland” and Motorman feature (external) nocturnal journeys and the (internal) nightscape of the soul (postmodernism may posit, but is unable to prove, the non-existence of the soul). Maybe pain is simpler to discuss.

Even then, can we limit ourselves to the physical? Having spent time growing up in New Jersey I recognize the Rat as a brawler in the tough guy setting of the New York Metropolitan Area. Even so, it’s the Rat’s dream that causes him possible fatal injury. Whether a real gun or a metaphorical one is involved there’s an emotional component to the human transaction. And as we have discussed Moldenke’s injured knee is almost an afterthought: he has given up his feelings. Even so the description of events in the hospital ward where Mock War victims are processed suggests this too is a human transaction, practically a negotiation.[11]

It’s been said war is hell, an interesting simile in that, once again, postmodernism can’t prove the existence or non-existence of a fiery afterlife. Author and professor Michael Bibby has written about the Vietnam War in the context of postmodernity, linking artistic expression surrounding the war to Julia Kristeva’s notion of rhetoric of apocalypse which is “image-laden” but “undemonstrative.”[12] The undemonstrative part of this proposition may parallel the claim that Moldenke has given up his feelings while the “image-laden” portion parallels his flashbacks to the Mock War and the circumstances surrounding his injury. Is Moldenke suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? How about the Rat: what’s his emotional problem? Has he also been to war? Instead of too much information, we have too little. We don’t even know the true nature of the Rat’s fatal or near-fatal dream.

Moldenke says he has given up his feelings and yet he experiences fear: he’s afraid to go outside believing jellyhead assassins are guarding his door. Is fear not a feeling? He also seems to reflect on his emotional pain more so than the physical: the reader doesn’t learn about the injured knee until the novel is well underway. Still, once having read that graphic description of the ball peen hammer brought down on the knee, I react with empathy whenever I think of Moldenke. I connect with him through a sensation of physical pain.

As for my knee, the accident happened like this. One October, a colleague and I drove from Philadelphia to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to catch an early show of colorful foliage. We chose a two-day backpacking route in which we would summit Mt. Washington. Overnight showers made the rocks slippery above tree line, where the trail began its ascent up the talus slope known as the Fan, following blazes over boulders. Some were massive enough to require unhitching our packs and shoving them over before hauling ourselves up. It happened like this: slick rock; worn boot; top-heavy pack. I landed on my left knee. One quick shot of pain receded into numbness, then that familiar throb that still haunts me. After five minutes seated, on the same rock that proved my relative weakness, I found I could flex the joint. Resting wasn’t an option, not even for a man who lives most of his days surrounded by four walls. We proceeded to the summit.

Pain—dislocation—what’s broken—to me represents the starkest measure of what it means to be alive. Survivors are beautiful to me: hemlocks with their storm-torn branches; and Moldenke with his injured knee. Despite the dangers of wilderness, the answer for me has never been to sit safely at home. Maybe there are limits to giving up the sensation of living through fear: even Moldenke eventually leaves his chair and his room to find the jellyheads gone from the corridor.

What’s the linkage between physical and emotional pain? X-ray and other physical examinations have found no diagnosis for my knee. Over-the-counter medicines can temporarily dull the pain, but is it centered in my mind? According to author and professor David Morris, the older, modernist, concept of pain is explained through an organic metanarrative as a mere series of impulses traveling from the injury site to the brain. Postmodernist theory dislikes metanarrative: in this context Morris argues such an overarching approach may be insufficient to capture each individual’s experience of pain.[13] It’s as if the human concept of pain is a ghost that can’t be translated onto film. That seems to comport with Morris’ postmodern assessment, in which the individual (perhaps through over-thinking) “seems especially vulnerable to illness and its power of fragmentation.”[14]

Is pain then meaningless in a postmodern context? To the extent that each individual may experience pain differently, then the concept of pain has no center. Morris acknowledges this and also forwards the concept that, even in a single individual, “affliction might contain several different meanings—even meanings that threatened to contradict or to cancel each other out.”[15]


This argument started out advocating for valuing emotional response over an intellectual act of interpretation. One of the emotional hooks in Motorman is the shared domestic experience in which Moldenke plays “The Buxtehude” for Roberta. We know this experience is physical: Roberta goes into the next room to listen through the walls; and the music causes ants to emerge from those walls. Buxtehude was a Baroque era composer of church music played on the pipe organ but this information isn’t essential. The vibratory effect Roberta experiences should be clear to the reader. When Ohle chooses to call the piece Moldenke performs “The Buxtehude” he may be engaging the reader in a word game or puzzle: an intellectual act but a playful one as well.

For the reader who chooses to engage in play, or who wishes to call it research, there are other parallels to find. Over the history of civilization war has generally been a dominant factor in male experience. Therefore it isn’t particularly surprising that the fictional character of Moldenke and the composer Dieterich Buxtehude were both influenced by acts of war. According to biographer and music scholar Kerala Snyder, Buxtehude lived in the town of Helsingborg (in Denmark) during a period of Swedish occupation following armed conflict over control of the Baltic Sea.[16] She further reveals when Buxtehude moved to Germany, specifically the town of Lubeck, he became a citizen by paying a fee and “displaying his armor for the defense of the city.”[17]

“The Buxtehude” seems to stand in for a complex triad of emotions involving spirituality, seduction, and horror, operating on the subconscious level. Author Julie Brown describes the associative effect of the pipe organ in terms of the visual art of the cinema: “a man playing his organ at home or in some other secluded place is quite sexually suggestive.…”[18] Brown further reminds us in the film Phantom of the Opera the female lead character, the opera singer Christine, is strongly influenced by the voice of the phantom speaking to her through walls.[19]

Is the playing of “The Buxtehude” a romantic, physical, or intellectual act? When I place a record on the turntable am I mainly exercising the mechanism, and disturbing the air, or am I personally engaging with music and lyric? Author and professor Iain Chambers discusses “tactile appropriation” in works of popular music, suggesting that, although in the lyrics of songs the male-dominant “romanticism of an imaginary street life” prevails, it is ultimately the body that responds.[20] David Ohle represents Roberta’s reaction to “The Buxtehude” as physical; her body responds to the reverberations in the walls. In a similar way, my in-the-moment reaction to “Jungleland” is driven by what author Rob Kirkpatrick describes as (piano player) Roy Bittan’s “fervent chord progression” and (saxophonist) Clarence Clemons’ “soulful bridge.”[21]

In the Baroque era, which predated mechanical techniques of recording sound, the only way to experience the work of Dieterich Buxtehude was in person. In contrast, both “Jungleland” and Motorman are mass-produced works which may be referred to again and again, much in the way Moldenke relives his memories.


Now that we’ve deconstructed my emotional response to two very different works of art, the postmodern act of reassembly is the difficult part; as anyone knows who’s tried to set up a backpacking tent in the pouring rain. While its assemblage of poles and fabric can be taken down in a manner of minutes, erecting the tent can mean sorting out different lengths of fiberglass rods and making sure they cross each other in a specific pattern. My city friends wonder why I take what they call so many risks. They ask how I can stand the silence and darkness away from the noise of the city and the glare of street lights. I have no response.

Moldenke takes a risk when he emerges from his self-captivity to re-join life on the outside, depleted as it is, only to find himself stranded on a river bank at the end of the novel. The Magic Rat takes a risk when he cultivates a dream so dangerous it causes his own demise. But he experiences rain, and beer, and love, and likewise Moldenke, despite representations that he has given up his feelings, in the end feels his multiple hearts (the result of one or more transplants made necessary by environmental conditions) still beating for Roberta.

Postmodernist poet Philip Larkin has been described by author and professor Peter Brooker as “the unofficial laureate … of the unpassionate grey tones of a tawdry welfare-state England.”[22] Yet despite Larkin’s reputation as a curmudgeon, he concluded his poem “An Arundel Tomb” with the proposition: “What will survive of us is love.”[23] Bruce Springsteen in presenting the primary question he was trying to answer in songs on the Born to Run album, including “Jungleland,” chose the line: “I want to know if love is real.”[24] If Springsteen suggests love can be distilled into a metanarrative, we can all agree upon, postmodernist critics would conclude he’s wasting his time. They would say the same about trying to define pain. But again, this criticism favors intellectual response. As someone who’s felt love, I’m pretty sure it was real.

As for that fixed pain that’s become a part of me, I can’t say that I really mind. I consider it one small annoyance, like a traffic jam, or paying taxes, that accompanies the life I choose. And I reason to myself, if no-one performs surgery on a fox in its den—a true survivor—then who am I to complain? My more constant companion—the knee pain—sometimes half-wakes me and, half-asleep, I can feel a sigh escape. It reminds me of the wind over Mt. Washington, heard from a place of safety, below the peak, amid a bed of balsam fir, in a time of joy, in a place where pain never stood a chance, or could even find a foothold in my mind.


1. Bruce Springsteen, Songs (New York: Avon, 1998), 61. The lyrics read: “In the tunnels uptown / The Rat’s own dream guns him down / As shots echo down them hallways in the night.”

2. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1996), 21.

3. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967), 7.

4. David Ohle, Motorman (New York: Calamari Press, 2008), 7. The text refers to a piano room and a cold keyboard. An organ can be inferred from the text, in which Roberta listens through an adjacent wall. She says: “’Play the Buxtehude, Moldenke. I enjoy the chills it gives me.’”

5. Springsteen, 61.

6. Julia Kristeva, “Postmodernism?” In Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. Peter Brooker (London: Longman, 1992), 199.

7. Ohle, 75. While he is engaged in the Mock War, Moldenke, a General, receives word of Roberta’s incarceration by The Grammar Wing of the Great Chicago Clinic.

8. Zygmunt Bauman, “Postmodernity, or Living with Ambivalence.” In A Postmodern Reader. ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon (Albany: State U of New York Press, 1993), 11.

9. William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” In vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, ed. Jahan Ramazani (New York: Norton, 2003), 317. The passage reads: “”It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

10. Louis P. Masur, Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 75.

11. Ohle, 74. After the nurse relates to Moldenke that she has just “shot a two week vet in the spine,” implying a minor fracture is nothing in comparison, Moldenke feels guilty and agrees “to give up a list of feelings.” The list is not disclosed to the reader but this event appears to be the beginning of the difficulties between Moldenke and Roberta.

12. Michael Bibby, ed. The Vietnam War and Postmodernity (Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press, 1999), digital file, XIII.

13. David B. Morris, The Culture of Pain (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1991), digital file, 282.

14. David B. Morris, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1998), digital file, 56.

15. Morris (Culture), 283.

16. Kerala Snyder, Dieterich Buxtehude, Organist in Lubeck (New York: Schirmer, 1987), 27.

17. Snyder, 37.

18. Julie Brown, “Carnival of Souls and the Organs of Horror.” In Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, ed. Neil Lerner (New York: Routledge, 2010), 6.

19. Ibid.

20. Iain Chambers, “Contamination, Coincidence and Collusion: Pop Music, Urban Culture, and the Avant-Garde.” In Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. Peter Brooker (London: Longman, 1992), 195.

21. Rob Kirkpatrick, Magic in the Night: The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009), 56.

22. Peter Brooker, ed. Modernism/Postmodernism (London: Longman, 1992), 8.

23. Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb.” In vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, ed. Jahan Ramazani (New York: Norton, 2003), 215. The text reads, speaking of the tomb of the Earl of Arundel and his wife: “…The stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be / Their final blazon, and to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true: / What will survive of us is love.” The qualification of the statement with the word “almost,” used twice, complicates the meaning. Perhaps it is posed as question as opposed to definitive statement, which would be consistent with postmodernism’s dislike of metanarrative.

24. Springsteen, 47.

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