“It’s a really great drill!” — Jeffrey Engles
Novelist Jeffrey Engles—the Huxtable’s seemingly goofy and hapless next door neighbor in the later seasons of The Cosby Show (who is played, of course, by actor and playwright Wallace Shawn of My Dinner with Andre fame)—is among the few characters within the Huxtable narrative that the Huxtables demonstrate and pronounce outright disdain toward. Throughout Engles’s several appearances on the show, he is routinely presented as being incompetent, purposeless, helpless, humorless, petty, cuckolded, navel-gazing, egg-headed, arrogant, self-righteous and sexually inept. He is, for the entire Huxtable clan, an object of collective derision and mockery, the butt, in effect, of a running family joke. Cliff regards Engles, despite their ostensible friendship, as annoying, clueless and materialistic and regularly pronounces not only annoyance but also abject disregard for him. While the Huxtable hegemony serves to celebrate the art and act of narrative—consider the Huxtable’s collective worship of Cliff’s great aunt’s storytelling abilities in “The Storyteller,” (6.26), Shakespeare (see see, for example, “Theo and Cockroach” ((2.15)) and “Shakespeare” ((4.5))) and even Cliff’s own narrative prowess throughout the narrative—the figure of the contemporary Postmodern novelist, personified in the character of Engles, is regularly assailed and mocked by the Huxtables. The Huxtable’s rejection—and veritable negation—of Engles reveals not only the extent to which the Huxtable narrative takes part in the Postmodern renouncement of the Romantic figure of the author, but also a lingering, subconscious super-ontological awareness by Cliff of his own fictional nature, an awareness which he, interestingly, attempts to negate by dismissing and castrating the very figure of the Postmodern author, a figure who, even more interestingly, is shown to possibly possesses some measure of narrative agency over him.
In his much celebrated essay “The Death of the Author” Roland Barthes argues that the figure of the literary author is, at least in the Postmodern world, absent, for “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that the at all its levels the author is absent,” with the text itself serving—or being revealed, finally, as being—“a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” For Barthes, an author does not quite create his or her discourse from scratch but, instead, combines the discourses of authors who have come before in order to concoct narrative. Michelle Foucault, reaching beyond Barthes’s notion of authorship, contends in his essay “What is an Author?” that the figure of the author is not an entity at all but instead merely a textual function or construct of the institutions of various discourses. What both Barthes and Foucault suggest is that the figure of the author does not ultimately exist as an individual per se. Instead, he or she is conceptualized as a mere functionary, a construct that exists not as a free-thinking and empowered agent, but as the helpless subject of various discourses. Barthes, Foucault and the Huxtables effectively dismiss the decidedly Romantic conception of authorship and artistic authority in order to conceptualize such as a functionary of larger, depersonalized social, cultural and political forces.
Engles, in many respects, personifies the very figure of the Postmodern American novelist, so much so that he seems to be a stereotype of such. He is a resident of Brooklyn, New York (as was, at the time, Norman Mailer and Paul Auster; Thomas Pynchon, of course, lived across the river in Manhattan then), Jewish (like Mailer, Philip Roth and a number of his contemporaries), divorced, balding, extremely anxious and self-conscious, and decidedly intellectual and cultured. However, the Huxtables regard Engles with annoyance and derision. In his first appearance in the Huxtable narrative in “Cliff’s Mistake,” (4.5) we learn that Cliff has lost Engles’s drill (i.e. his phallus) that he borrowed several months before. Engles has returned for his drill, a drill which even Engles’s daughter recognizes her father’s love for, and Cliff searches the house half-heartedly for it while Engles follows impotently in pursuit. Cliff, meanwhile, makes countless excuses for losing the drill and only discovers it after doing exactly what he, as a medical doctor, should have known to do from the start: use the process of elimination to solve the mystery. Engles’s obsession with the drill, his anger at Cliff having lost it, Cliff’s apparent refusal to return it, suggests that, at least symbolically, Cliff has absconded with Engles’s penis. He has borrowed Engles’s manhood and creative essence—for, as Norman Mailer reminds us, a male author’s creative power originates with and within the penis—for the purpose of securing and strengthening the practical palace of the Huxtable hegemony, and, in subconsciously recognizing the power of Engles as author, “lost” the essence of his creativity in order to deprive him of his creative power. Cliff recognizes Engles, on some level of consciousness, as an intrinsic threat to the Huxtable hegemony by virtue of his very existence and attempts, in a sense, to castrate him. In “The Moves” (6.23) Engles returns to the Huxtable narrative. He is now divorced and attempting to involve himself romantically with a woman. What is particularly interesting is how Engles, for all his worldliness and intelligence, is presented as being sexually inept by the Huxtables. While the figure of the male American novelist is popularly thought of as being sexually experienced and confident—see, again, Norman Mailer, as well as Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and more recently Californication‘s Hank Moody—Engles is presented as being sexually incompetent and decidedly unattractive by the Huxtables. Still, and this is what is truly interesting in the episode, the Huxtable narrative resists the very assertion it is putting forward, for Claire’s intelligent and attractive friend, to the apparent surprise of the Huxtables, seems to find Engles sexually and intellectually appealing nonetheless, suggesting that the figure of the author still, when located outside of the agency of a controlling hegemony which is threatened by it, can still be celebrated and appreciated. The Huxtable assault on Engles continues in “Olivia’s Field Trip” (8.6) in which Cliff and Engles chaperon Olivia and her friends on a trip to a natural history museum. Engles offers observations and explanations on the exhibit to the children which seem to perplex them. Cliff, instead of appreciating and encouraging Engles’s honest attempt to educate the children, mocks Engles, dismisses him and instead tells the children outright lies about the exhibits in order to entertain them. Cliff, unlike Engles, regards children as fools who are incapable of grasping difficult concepts, mere simpletons who must be guided by naïve fictions in order to comprehend existential reality. Intellectualism and critical thinking are regarded by Cliff, at least consciously, as intrinsic dangers to order, especially to the young, and capable of disrupting his agency over those at the mercy and under the subjection of the Huxtable hegemony.
It seems, then, that Engles’s creativity and intellectual force threatens the foundation of the Huxtable hegemony. He, to put it simply, does not fit in to the Huxtable world-view. He is, indeed, a force of creation and not the subject of some blind, unknowable creation. Cliff is only comfortable embracing authorial figures who are either long dead and deluded of all immediate and practical political, cultural and social power—such as Shakespeare—or who adhere to the fundamental notions and assertions of the Huxtable hegemony, such as his great aunt and himself. The Huxtable hegemony’s logic and power centers around steadfast adherence to institutionalized thinking and to the active resistance to any sort of creative, free-thinking force of resistance or intellectualism. Shelley famously declared poets to be “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” for artists and creative thinkers, by virtue of their creativity and drive toward originality and psychic freedom, as well as their intrinsic control over language, effectively create (and recreate) culture. The Postmodern philosophical and aesthetic movement, however, given their tendency to denounce Romantic notions of genius and artistic and intellectual singularity, works, implicitly, to dismiss and negate Shelley’s claim, to suggest instead, despite the democratic intentions of the movement, that we are all ultimately at the mercy of larger institutional practices and systems that we are fundamentally incapable or resisting or escaping from.
Still, there is yet another role that Engles seems to play in the Huxtable narrative. In the magic-realistic, drug-infused episode “Cliff’s Nightmare,” (5.26) Cliff undergoes a series of seeming opium or mescaline dreams or hallucinations that unleash a floodgate of bizarre hallucinatory visions from his subconscious that reveal not only the extent of his supposed food obsession\addiction (the entire episode, in fact, recalls the allegorical approach of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), but also his innate distrust in his family, his awareness of his oppression by the very hegemony which he promotes, his unusual sexual predilections, and his own developing ontological super-consciousness. Interestingly, Cliff’s dream is narrated directly, and in apparent first person, by Jeffrey Engles. The suggestion, then, is that Engles is, at least to some measure, a product of Cliff’s own subconscious that he has somehow projected (just as Rudy did with Sandra) into apparent existence, or, perhaps, the actual author (or counter-author) of the Huxtable narrative whose narrative voice is only “heard” by Cliff while he is in a state of intoxication and thus outside the immediate, overt influence of the Huxtable hegemony.