Madison Journal of
literary criticism SPRING 2014 VOLUME 4
Madison Journal of
literary criticism SPRING 2014 VOLUME 4
The Madison Journal
Literary Criticism is a peer-
reviewed UW-Madison publication devoted to publishing outstanding essays of undergraduate literary analysis. The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism accepts unsolicited submissions analyzing any form of literary criticism in 7-20 pages. Articles will be chosen for their originality, eloquence, internal coherence, and quality of academic research. Papers must be written in English, although they can analyze the literature of another language. Any submissions or questions may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or http://english.wisc.edu/theMJLC. Funding for the issue was generously provided by The Kemper K. Knapp Bequest through the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
EDITORS’ NOTE This fourth volume of the Madison Journal of Literary Criticism is the culmination of changes begun in previous years. Most importantly, the editorial board has continued to try to make the journal into a truly international publication. The editorial board this year pushed even further in calling for submissions throughout the globe, and our efforts bore fruit; we received over two hundred submissions hailing from the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Egypt, and Ireland, to name only a few, and almost half of our published essays were written at universities outside the United States. Furthermore, we had the honor of interviewing Professor Emeritus Karen Alkalay-Gut of Tel Aviv University, a critic, poet, and founder of the Israeli Association of Writers in English. Our international aspirations were aided by an expanded and redesigned online presence – this year’s issue, like the last, is available on our website. One thing, however, did not change: our goal of publishing undergraduates’ incisive, engaging, and underappreciated literary criticism. This year marks a return to earlier issues’ focus on modern and contemporary literature, reflecting not an editorial bias or lack of intellectual diversity (we hope), but an ongoing commitment to presenting the best criticism regardless of its subject matter. Literary criticism on earlier eras still is, and will be, welcome in the journal’s pages. We would like to thank the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest Committee for their ongoing support in our fourth year of publication. Both the UW-Madison Department of English, especially our advisor Professor Monique Allewaert’s guidance and Karen Redfield’s encouragement, and the L&S Honors Program, specifically Mary Czynszak-Lyne’s advice, were indispensable in making this volume possible. Professor Emeritus Karen-Alkalay-Gut’s enthusiasm and wit in her interview are also deeply appreciated. Finally, we thank all the undergraduates without whom this journal would not exist: a talented board of editors, both new and old; and a host of critics whose work we had the pleasure of reading and whose dedication to literary criticism is the journal’s raison d’être. We hope their commitment makes this volume a pleasure to read. Alexander Sherman and Meghan Stark MJLC, Editors in Chief
MADISON JOURNAL OF LITERARY CRITICISM STAFF Editors
Alexander Sherman and Meghan Stark
Associate Editors Samuel Eichner Rachel Fettig Cody Kour Katherine Krobriger Madeleine Michaelides Christopher Petersen Tamara Rosin Laura Schmidt Lucas Weaver Emily Wessing
Faculty Advisor Monique Allewaert
Cover Art Kailey Barthel
Publication Design Meghan Stark
TABLE OF CONTENTS Page 7
“The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination”: Philip Roth and the Spectacle of Holocaust Viccy Ibbett
A Ghost in the Canon: Queering Family, Nation, and Canon in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts Huan He
“To Saturate Every Atom”: Presence, Absence, and Corporeality in Virginia Woolf ’s Letters Emma Walshe
Constructions of the Real Emily Paull
“Manure the Whole Place Over”: Narrative Cycles and the Fecal Fecundity of Language in James Joyce’s Ulysses Sean Kirkby
Sappho Clark and the Transformation from Object to Author by Way of Embodiment Tess Scriptunas
The Moment of the “Twang”: The Pursuit of Happiness in Infinite Jest Paula Zelaya Cervantes
The Death of the Subject: A Postmodern Approach to Ideology in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape Neil Cooney
The Hunger to Discover: An Interview with Professor Karen Alkalay-Gut
“THE REALITY OF THE HOLOCAUST SURPASSED ANY IMAGINATION” PHILIP ROTH AND THE SPECTACLE OF HOLOCAUST
Victoria Ibbett University of Oxford
Philip Roth’s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, the protagonist, Philip __Roth I, encounters his double, Philip Roth II1 who is spreading the policy of “Diasporism”2 through Israel. Roth I describes his meeting with Roth II as an encounter with the “spellbinding reality of his unreality” (Roth, OS 70) and comments that: Even the gullible now have contempt for the idea of objectivity; the latest thing they’ve swallowed whole is that it’s impossible to report anything faithfully other than one’s own temperature; everything is allegory—so what possible chance would I have to persuade anyone of a reality like this one? (Roth, OS 215-6) In the encounter of Roth I and Roth II, Roth stages a crisis of “reality,” where “reality” as the simultaneous existence of two physically indistinguishable Philip Roths is too strange to be believable despite having the gloss of “objectivity.” As this encounter demonstrates, Roth is interested in the “contempt for the idea of objectivity” (OS 215) that complicates the manner in which individuals engage with their own, or others’, reality. In like manner to the unimaginable reality of Roth and Roth, the “reality of the Holocaust” is typically avoided in cultural and sociological studies, which assume that the Holocaust was “a momentary madness” or “an interruption in the normal flow of history” (Bauman viii). The Holocaust, n
1 John Updike termed the three Philip Roths of Operation Shylock as Philip Roth (the
author), Philip Roth I (protagonist of OS) and Philip Roth II (double of Philip Roth I) (Updike 109). I have assimilated his method. 2 Philip Roth II defines this in the following manner: “Diasporism seeks to promote the dispersion of the Jews in the West, particularly the resettlement of Israeli Jews of European background in the European countries where there were sizable Jewish populations before World War II” (OS 44).
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as an unimaginable event in the history of humanity—both speciously and qualitatively—is an ideal vehicle for Roth’s exploration of “reality” and the “imagination.” Through the Holocaust, Roth investigates how the “reality” of an event becomes culturally established, and the way in which it then influences, and even generates, cultures. Within critical studies of Roth’s work, critics rarely treat the author’s portrayal of the Holocaust as a principal issue. This tendency is ostensibly valid; despite being on the lips and in the back-story of many of Roth’s characters, Roth’s fiction does not treat the Holocaust directly. As Roth answered in an interview, “[F]or most reflective American Jews, I would think, it is simply there, hidden, submerged, emerging, disappearing, unforgotten” (Reading Myself and Others 118). Accordingly, in critical studies of Roth’s work, the Holocaust is typically approached as a sub-category “submerged” within the larger theme of Jewish identity. Hermione Lee has written usefully about Roth’s “unashamed use and reuse of Jewish stereotypes” (42), including the stereotypical prerequisite that the Jewish character “must suffer” (35). Andrew Furman has written on the shift in emphasis over the course of the latter decades of the twentieth century that sees Jewish American authors seeking “to define themselves and reinvigorate their writing with reference to Israel” (148), a nation that, in Roth’s work, gestures openly or obliquely to the Holocaust as a catalyst for its formation. More recently, Inbar Kaminsky has written about translations of Roth’s work into Hebrew for distribution in Israel. Kaminsky concludes that such endeavours risk failure; by tampering with Roth’s distinctive use of a mixture of American, Yiddish, and Hebrew vocabularies, the translated text “fails to capture the tension between Jewish guilt and alienation” encapsulated by “Hebrew, Yiddish humour, and Roth’s intricate cultural identity.” According to these critics, in Roth’s work the Holocaust is the reification of Jewish suffering, an incentive for nationhood, a root of the “guilt and alienation” of the American Jew whose identity is not permitted to be either wholly American or Jewish. Even in Michael Rothberg’s direct critical study of “Roth and the Holocaust,” the conclusion is that “Roth has proven himself consistently sceptical about the historically understandable Jewish tendency…to embrace the Holocaust as a pillar of identity” (64). Despite his criticism, Rothberg still engages, albeit negatively, with the specifically Jewish legacy of the Holocaust. Whilst these studies have explicated the “multiple legacies” (Rothberg 65) of the Holocaust that are staged in Roth’s work,
they do not explore the mechanics of how the Holocaust, as a “detailed, empirical reality” (OS 56), is imaginatively transformed into a legacy. The latter is a pertinent study to make of Roth’s works, as the author interrogates the imaginative process that produces the cultural legacy of the Holocaust that provides his material. An area of Roth’s interest is in how the “reality of the Holocaust” moves away into representation and the spectacular order.3 That is, in how the inconceivable reality of the Holocaust is imagined through the metonymic reification of its parts. In his works, Roth shows how the Holocaust is only symbolically imaginable, and never realistically or objectively. In Roth’s works, it is possible to trace this reification from the individual’s confrontation of the inconceivable reality of the Holocaust to the imaginative representation of the Holocaust as a metonymic symbol, a Situationist ‘spectacle’ that influences and generates cultures. By working out this process in his works, Roth engages with the cultural importance and legacy of the Holocaust whilst also demonstrating his engagement with the postmodern “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard xxiv). This paper will trace Roth’s portrayal of the cultural legacy of the Holocaust and examine the cultures that it generates. Subsequently, this paper will investigate Roth’s engagement with the mechanics of how the reality of the Holocaust becomes an imaginative cultural symbol. In Roth’s works, the Holocaust is the “submerged, emerging” (RMAO 118) event in the history of his characters and the cultures in which they participate. As noted above, although the event of the Holocaust does not directly figure in Roth’s fiction, its legacy is discernable in the lived experience of his characters and in the cultures that they belong to. In his investigation of the legacies of the Holocaust, Roth indicates his suspicion of the homogenizing influence of the Holocaust on Jewish culture in particular. In his imaginative engagement with the Holocaust, Roth prefers to promote the individual, subjective experience of the “reality of the Holocaust” and its legacies that extend above and outside that of the group or community. In Roth’s work, there are few characters that have directly experienced the “empirical reality” (OS 56) of the Holocaust. When these characters do appear, they are not the protagonists of Roth’s works and their experience of 3 Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, published in 1969 although only available as a
book two decades later. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” (Debord 1).
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the Holocaust is not one that they themselves, or the others in the narrative, can comprehensively grasp. In Eli the Fanatic, one of Roth’s first published works, Roth describes the reaction of a mixed Christian and assimilated Jewish neighborhood to the arrival of a group of displaced persons, including a “greenie” (209) whose suit “is all he’s got” (196) following his experience in the Holocaust. Elsewhere, Roth’s stories feature a Jewish soldier who aided in “killing those Nazi bastards” (Defender of the Faith 136) and the actual author, Aharon Appelfeld, who experienced the “detailed, empirical reality” (OS 56) of the Holocaust. Each of these characters has directly experienced the “reality of the Holocaust,” but Roth makes it clear that it is not a reality that they can comprehend. Appelfeld explains that it is only through fictionalizing his experiences that he can make them “credible” (OS 86). In Eli the Fanatic, Eli observes the “greenie” grieving: His right fist was beating his chest. And then Eli heard a sound rising with each knock on the chest. What a moan! It could raise hair, stop hearts, water eyes. And it did all three to Eli, plus more. Some feeling crept into him for whose deepness he could find no word. It was strange. (209) The “reality of the Holocaust,” as the “greenie” has experienced it, is incommunicable except as a “moan.” Yet this “moan” has a tangible effect on Eli: it “crept into him” and “was strange.” But, like the survivor, Eli’s experience is one “for whose deepness he could find no word.” The “reality of the Holocaust” is tangible, but incomprehensibly complex and deep, both for those who have directly experienced the Holocaust and those who encounter it indirectly. In Roth’s works, the protagonists are usually individuals who interact with the “reality of the Holocaust” indirectly as a legacy (i.e. as an event in the history of a constrictive community) in which they feel involved to varying degrees. The adolescent Alexander Portnoy complains that “the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house” (PC 73) 4 and sheds his tears, not “for six million” but “only for myself ” (PC 73). Portnoy, as his sister accuses him, feels that he is “not a Jew” (PC 73) but “a human being and [has] nothing whatever to do with their stupid suffering heritage” (PC 73). Portnoy interacts with the Holocaust as an “excuse” that obstructs his realisation of himself as a “human being,” as his identity is inextricably bound with that of his “stupid 4 Author’s own emphasis
suffering heritage” as a Jew. Through Portnoy’s response to the Holocaust, Roth satirizes the stereotype that limits the Jewish character to someone who “must suffer” (Lee 35). Portnoy’s frustration is that of the individual struggling against a Jewish identity that, since the Holocaust, has become dominated by his membership of, or empathy with, the “six million.” Accordingly, Roth portrays the legacy of the Holocaust as exercising a constrictive influence on individual identities. Even when Roth portrays a character that willingly expresses solidarity with post-Holocaust Jewish cultural identity, Roth undermines its authenticity. Whilst Roth I, the protagonist of Operation Shylock, hears himself “emotionally informing” his alter ego, Roth II, that ‘“Hitler did exist…Those twelve years cannot be expunged from history any more than they can be obliterated from memory, however mercifully forgetful one might prefer to be”’ (43)5. Roth I’s “outburst of sincerity” (OS 43) is an expression of sympathy for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, with whom he feels a certain solidarity given his own Jewish roots. However, despite his “sincerity,” this is not the only impassioned outburst that Roth I indulges in over the course of this narrative, and elsewhere he retracts their spontaneous sincerity in hindsight. Whilst impersonating his double, Roth I finds himself “usurping the identity of the usurper who had usurped mine” (OS 156) and giving a lecture on Diasporism. In this instance, Roth I is ‘heedless of truth, liberated from all doubt, assured of the indisputable rightness of my cause—seer, savior, very likely the Jews’ Messiah” (OS 156). The feeling of “rightness” is equivalent in both instances, yet Roth I’s later appraisal of his second speech is that it is evidence for “leave I had taken not merely of my senses but of my life” (OS 163). Roth I’s lack of volition or reasonable intent in this second instance undermines the first instance of his expression of solidarity with the Jewish heritage of suffering stemming from Hitler and the Holocaust. Roth does not let the legacy of solidarity engendered by the Holocaust go unexamined, and his examination frequently reveals it as insincere. A similar suspicion of post-Holocaust Jewish solidarity is present in Roth’s early fiction. In Defender of the Faith, Roth includes a character that is unashamed to exploit the heritage of the Holocaust for his personal gain. In a moment of reported discourse, the infuriated Sergeant Marx imagines the dialogue of the trainee, Grossbart, as he persuades a Jewish officer to help him 5 Author’s own emphasis
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escape serving in the Pacific: In fact, I could hear Grossbart the day he’d discovered Shulman in the PX, or in the bowling alley, or maybe even at services. ‘Glad to meet you. Where you from? Bronx? Me, too. Do you know So-and-so?… Hey, how’s chances of getting East? Could you do something? Change something? Swindle, cheat, lie? We gotta help each other, you know. If the Jews in Germany… (DOTF 148) Sergeant Marx’s anger permeates this passage, evident in its bitingly imitative form and embedded accusations of Grossbart’s dishonesty; his readiness to “swindle, cheat, lie.” Marx’s aposiopesis, marked by an ellipsis, falls after his reference to the “Jews in Germany.” This suggests that his anger is rooted in his disgust for Grossbart’s exploitation of the Jewish cultural legacy of the Holocaust, an event that he himself experienced personally, being “a veteran of the European theatre” (DOTF 123). Roth’s portrayal of Grossbart’s motives and methods undermines the culture of Jewish solidarity that Roth indicates is a legacy of the Holocaust by revealing it as being potentially inauthentic and open to the exploitation of opportunists. Roth’s suspicion of opportunistic uses of the Holocaust legacy is explicable with reference to the post-war climate: it was the period in which he initially established his literary reputation, and the period that saw the formation of Israel as a nation state with the significant aid of Western powers. Roth explores this theme extensively in Operation Shylock, interpreted by Allan Cooper as a novel in which “Roth creates thoughtful voices openly sceptical of Israeli policy on the West Bank” (150). Similarly, Ann Basu writes that, with Operation Shylock, “Roth powerfully engages politically and ethically with the tense contemporary Israeli scene and its connections with US foreign policy.” One of the policies that Roth critiques in this novel is the Israeli use of the Holocaust as a tool for generating international guilt that works to Israeli national advantage. Writing about the show trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Hannah Arendt records the intention of Israeli Prime Minister, BenGurion, that the show trial of Eichmann be publicized to “the nations of the world” so that “they should be ashamed” (10). Likewise, in Operation Shylock the assimilated American—Palestinian Arab George Ziad—vocalizes criticism of how Holocaust rhetoric is used for the advantage of the Israeli nation on the international political scene, dating back to “the Israeli victory in the Six
Day War” (132), after which the Holocaust is used: …to establish Israeli military expansionism as historically just by joining it to the memory of Jewish victimization; to rationalise— as historical justice, as just retribution, as nothing more than selfdefence—the gobbling up of the Occupied Territories and the driving of the Palestinians off their land once again. (OS 132) Ziad accuses the Israeli state of exploiting the history of “Jewish victimization” to justify “the driving of the Palestinians off their land.” Roth distances himself from this anti-Israeli rhetoric by focalizing it through the Palestinian, Ziad, and having his authorial alter ego, Roth I, observe of Ziad that “[b]y the time his ideas wormed their way through all that emotion, they had been so distorted and intensified as only barely to resemble human thought” (OS 129). However, Roth’s use of reported dialogue throughout Ziad’s diatribe on “that topic called the Jews”6 (OS 130) assimilates Ziad’s views into the first person voice of the authorial alter ego, Roth I. Although Roth I, the first person narrative voice of Operation Shylock, avers that he is presenting “a condensation of his argument,” this “condensation” is frequently infused with a passion that is readily associable with Ziad, but which is attributable to Roth I. The passage quoted above is itself an example of reported dialogue, despite being a vociferous critique of “Israeli military expansionism.” Such passages as these prompted John Updike to write, “though such views are put in the mouths of fictional characters, Roth’s Zionist critics will not excuse him from their vigorous expression” (111). Roth’s sympathy with Ziad’s perspective is an intensification of his suspicious attitude toward the opportunistic use of Holocaust rhetoric, specifically in support of Israeli nationhood. However, Roth’s works also include characters that ingenuously utilize Holocaust rhetoric to promote self-improvement. In The Professor of Desire, the philandering protagonist is confronted with the “reality of the Holocaust” in the form of Mr. Brabatnik, a survivor of the camps whose story is an inspiration to Dr. Kepesh’s father:. “I tell him,” says my father, “that he should make a book out of all he went through. I can think of some people I’d like to give it to read. If they could read it, maybe they would shake their heads that they can be the way they are, and this man can be so kind and good.” (TPOD 865) 6 Author’s own emphasis
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Kepesh’s father promotes the narrative of the Holocaust as an admonitory symbol that he hopes will encourage individuals to “shake their heads” at the “way they are.” Significantly, Dr. Kepesh does not engage wholeheartedly with Brabatnik’s representation of the Holocaust; rather, he is tortured by the real and present narrative of his own inexplicable suffering at the disappearance of his desire for “the kindest, most loving, and loyal nature” (TPOD 869). Kepesh, “like Portnoy, tries to reject his” parents’ generation’s stories of Gentile persecution as “irrelevant to the kind of life that I intend to lead” (qtd. in Lee 43). Where Portnoy exclaims, “That isn’t what I’m talking about!” (PS 73), Kepesh’s unresponsiveness to the Holocaust is a powerful indictment of its irrelevance. Roth treats the manipulative use of Holocaust rhetoric with suspicion, both in political and personal discourses. Post-Holocaust Jewish solidarity is complemented by the solidarity of the “goys” among whom they live, particularly in Roth’s portrayals of JewishAmerican characters whose identities occupy a point of intersection between Jewish and American heritages. In the post-World War Two environment, this solidarity is evidenced and encouraged by an upsurge in literary interest in the Jewish writer and character. According to Tony Hilfer, the fifties was the “Jewish decade” (76), a decade in which “Jewish” sentiment enjoyed a cultural vogue. This was largely attributable to a post-Holocaust sense of guilt, which saw Jewish authors and Jewish characters accepted into mainstream American culture, particularly in literary circles. However, it was also due to the complex relationship that American society had with Socialist politics and attitudes following the war. American society had borne witness to atrocities committed in the name of Communism during the Second World War, and continued to take a stand during the Cold War era that followed. This suspicious attitude, coupled with American economic prosperity following the austerity years of the war, bred an acquiescent relationship with capitalist economics. Marxist economics was no longer fashionable, but a Socialist sense of duty to one’s neighbour remained.7 Jewish sentiment was glamorized as the archetypal modern personality, an emotional freedom coupled with a profound sense of ethical duty. As Hilfer writes, it was the era of the “man of heart and ethical responsibility,” summed up in the term menschlichkeit (76). The menschlichkeit is the archetypal Jewish character within this literary mode and, as such, 7 For further illumination of this analysis, see “Liberal and Existential Imaginations: The
1940s and 1950s” in Bradbury, The Modern American Novel.
represents a stereotype to which Roth responds and against which he rebels. Roth proves to be as skeptical of this literary patronage as he is of the constrictive categorization of individuals in relation to the “six million.” Although he at first embraces the stereotype of the menschlichkeit, Roth very quickly jettisons this aspect of his literary persona, preferring to position himself in opposition to, rather than in solidarity with the heritage of Jewish authors who had been proponents of it. In Roth’s first full-length novel, Letting Go, Roth stages the tragedy of the menschlichkeit. Although Gabe is not a religious Jew—he is accused of taking a “savage atheistic pleasure” (LG 535) in mocking Libby’s conversion to Judaism—he embodies the moral Jewish protagonist whose “impulse…had led him to want to tidy up certain messy lives” (LG 529). The tragedy of Letting Go is the tragedy of Gabe’s failed ethos of moral obligation, according to which he thought he was “sacrificing himself ” (630) for others. In his first novel, Roth initially embraces the popular Jewish stereotype of the menschlichkeit and aligns himself with such writers as Saul Bellow and Malamud who dramatized this fashionable Jewish sentiment in the post-war decades. In the literature of Malamud, for example, the protagonists do battle with their rational faculties and give preference to their more impulsive emotional responses. In “The First Seven Years,” a shoemaker acquiesces to the socially mediocre match of his daughter and his assistant, despite having tried to match her to an ambitiously academic boy her own age. Significantly, the difference between the two suitors is their ethos: Miriam dismisses the academic suitor as “a materialist” who “has no soul” (TFSY 16) and conversely, the assistant suitor is able to claim that “she knows who [he is] and what is in [his] heart” (19). The shoe-maker is a typical menschlichkeit protagonist: he has “slaved and destroyed his heart with anxiety and labour” (20) for the sake of achieving a “better life” (20) for his daughter, but at the crucial moment “his teeth were on edge with pity…and his eyes grew moist” (19), allowing his soulful assistant to hope for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The shoemaker’s sentimentalism and Gabe’s tragic moralism are typical qualities of the Jewish protagonist that became a consolidated stereotype during the post-war vogue of Jewish literature. However, following his initial success within the remit of fashionable Jewish literature, Roth indulges his skepticism for a style of writing that is born out of a culture of sympathy for the “six million” rather than interest in
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the individual. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the protagonist complains about the “six million” who complicate his quest to simply be a “human being”; as Portnoy rejects his Jewish heritage, so it is in this novel that Roth indicates his break with the literary context in which his first novel is embedded and indulges his desire to “get in touch with another side of [his] talent” (RMAO 19) by savagely satirizing the character of the Jewish menschlichkeit and encouraging the “history of mutual exacerbation between his work and his Jewish audience” (Updike 112). The protagonist of Portnoy’s Complaint is, by vocation, ethically concerned. As his mistress puts it: ‘The Great Humanitarian!’ she cries. ‘The one whose job it is to protect the poor people against their landlords!…You’re why I’m killing myself to be something more than just somebody’s dumb and stupid piece of ass! And now you want to treat me like I’m nothing but just some hump, to use—use for every kinky weirdo thing you want to do…’ (PC 124). Roth satirizes the menschlichkeit primarily by professionalizing his “Great Humanitarian” ethos. The implication is that Portnoy hides behind his “Great Humanitarian” project and disguises the iniquities of his day-to-day living, including his enjoyment of “every kinky weirdo thing” at Monkey’s expense. Portnoy’s Complaint is styled as the extended confession of the menschlichkeit: it takes the form of an interview between Portnoy and his psychoanalyst. The narrative is deliberately shocking, “freewheeling and funny” (RMAO 19), as Roth is undercutting an established figure in Jewish literature. Roth is demonstrably interested in the legacies of the Holocaust: his works engage with the impact of the “reality of the Holocaust” as it imagined by characters as individuals and within the context of the cultures to which they belong or are consigned. In his portrayals of characters whom the Holocaust has impacted either perspectivally or practicably, Roth injects a suspicious attitude toward those Holocaust legacies that promote a homogenizing unification of individuals into cultural groups, whether this manifests itself as solidarity with the “six million” or as a literary vogue. This suspicion of the homogenizing impact of the imaginative legacies of the Holocaust is the counterpart to Roth’s interest in the “contempt for the idea of objectivity” (OS 215). This leads Roth to examine how the reality of the Holocaust becomes a symbol that can influence or generate these potentially homogenizing legacies and cultures.
Roth examines the mechanics of how the reality of the Holocaust enters the spectacular order in his works. However, in his study of the Holocaust as “objectified” reality (Debord 5), Roth reveals his suspicious attitude not only to the homogenizing legacies of the Holocaust, but also to the process that moves the “reality of the Holocaust” away into a representation that generates legacies. In his novels, Roth explores the “contempt for the idea of objectivity” (OS 215) that characterises postmodern culture. Eagleton writes of postmodernism that “nothing could be less to its taste than the idea of a stable, pre-modern, tightly unified culture, at the very thought of which it reaches for hybridity and open-endedness” (29). In postmodern terms, reality is subjectively experienced and known; it is objectively unknowable. This is a matter of perspectives: the postmodern sensibility espouses the idea that everything experienced is experienced from a perspective. This sensibility manifests itself in Roth I’s outburst concerning the “contempt for the idea of objectivity” in Operation Shylock, one of Roth’s later novels. However, it is a feature of Roth’s authorial imagination that is present in his earlier works, as well. In On The Air, a short story published in The New York Review shortly after Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint, The Chief deliriously accuses Scooper of “narrow literalism” (41) and asserts that …I will not be held responsible for the inability of some mental nitwit to open himself out to the simplest God damn playfulness. He has absolutely no feeling for ambiguity whatsoever—and as for a genuine work of art, he wouldn’t know one if he fell over it! He thinks Irony is an industrial town in Pennsylvania. He thinks Frivolity is some guinney seaside resort. (41-2) “Irony,” “Frivolity,” “ambiguity,” and “playfulness” are the pillars of the ethos that The Chief espouses, which, without it being stated, typifies the postmodern. In its toleration of perspectival subjectivity, the postmodern eschews “grandnarratives.” In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard puts it succinctly: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv). Rather, “[i]ts principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy” (Lyotard xxv). That is, the postmodern imagination is capable of comprehending the illogical and contradictory. On the Air, along with Portnoy’s Complaint, marks Roth’s “blowing up of a lot of old loyalties and inhibitions, literary as well as personal” (RMAO 134). The Chief ’s outburst at the close of On the Air is symptomatic of Roth’s
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entrance into a literary style infused with the postmodern sensibility. In Roth’s works the “reality of the Holocaust” is portrayed within the context of this postmodern “contempt for objectivity” (OS 215). In Operation Shylock, Roth I interviews his friend, author Aharon Appelfeld, and asks how he approaches the Holocaust in his fiction. Appelfeld’s answer is that: The reality of the Holocaust surpassed any imagination. If I remained true to the facts, no one would believe me…I removed “the story of my life” from the mighty grip of memory and gave it over to the creative laboratory…There one needs a causal explanation, a thread to tie things together. The exceptional is permissible only if it is part of an overall structure and contributes to an understanding of that structure. I had to remove those parts that were unbelievable from “the story of my life” and present a more credible version. (OS 86) Here, the “reality of the Holocaust” is portrayed as an incommunicable experience, something that is so “unbelievable” that its fictionalization is more “credible.” Appelfeld expresses a postmodern attitude: the “reality of the Holocaust” is inaccessible as an objective entity. Rather, Appelfeld avers that by giving up “the facts” and putting experience through “the creative laboratory” one can construct an imaginable, “credible version” of the Holocaust. Appelfeld’s “credible version” (OS 86) of the Holocaust constrains the “reality of the Holocaust” into a structured narrative that metonymically represents the unknowable reality of its subject. In so doing, Appelfeld is consciously enacting a process that Debord elucidates in his essay, The Society of the Spectacle. Debord writes of the commodification of experience in a society in which “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” (1). Debord’s essay was published in periodicals in the sixties, the decade in which Roth was establishing his literary reputation, and echoes of its argument can be traced in the manner that Roth investigates the idea of the Holocaust as a “spectacle.” That is, an event “which has become objectified” (Debord 5) and is experienced symbolically rather than realistically. Appelfeld maintains that one creates a “credible version” of the Holocaust by introducing a “causal explanation” (OS 86) and “overall structure” (OS 86) that were previously not present. In so doing, Appelfeld enacts the process of moving reality away into the representation that Debord describes and which is typified by the legacies of the Holocaust, explored above, that are Roth’s material.
This process is exemplified by the prominence and definition of the word “Holocaust” in post-war academic and popular discourses. The word “Holocaust” acquired the definition of “the mass murder of the Jews by the Nazis in the war of 1939-45” (OED) when Historians began to use the word in the 1950s as lexical shorthand for the murderous treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazi regime. The OED records that the word was probably adopted “as an equivalent to Hebrew urban and shoah “catastrophe”’ (OED). The older definition of the word, “holocaust,” is “a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering” (OED). The original and the new definitions of the word have a connotative resonance. “Holocaust” is a word that connotatively and definitively calls to mind a particular representation of the murderous events of the Second World War, a reading that is specifically concerned with Jewish experience and calls to mind ideas of sacrifice and consumption. It is a word that is only applicable in a transferable capacity to “the similar fate of other groups,”8 despite other groups suffering a similar oppression under the Nazi regime. As Peter Novick points out: [T]here was nothing about the reporting on the liberation of the camps that treated Jews as more than among9 the victims of the Nazis; nothing that suggested the camps were emblematic of anything other than Nazi barbarism in general; nothing, that is, that associated them with what is now designated “the Holocaust.” (65) Novick makes the important point that, in the initial liberation of the concentration camp inmates, Allied forces discovered there to be a mixture of groups of people that were deemed opponents to the Nazi regime. It was several years before the Jews were thought to be anything more than “among” the victims of the genocide. In his Letter On Humanism, Heidegger critiques the corruption of language effected by its enslavement to the public realm: “[l] anguage thereby falls into the service of expediting communication along routes where objectification—the uniform accessibility of everything to everyone— branches out and disregards all limits” (221). Heidegger is critiquing a use of vocabulary that constrains realities into vocabulary that promotes “uniform accessibility” through the “objectification” of real experience. Heidegger, like Debord, warns against the movement of everything that is directly lived, in 8 “Also used transf., of the similar fate of other groups; and attrib.” (OED). 9 Author’s own emphasis
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all its complexity, into simplified representations that do not disclose their “reality.” “Holocaust” is a prime example of this process, insofar as it operates both lexically and symbolically to represent the systematized genocide of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime; the word “Holocaust” constrains the reality of the genocide into the perspective of the Jewish people and transforms it into a “spectacle” that constitutes the imaginatively constructed legacy of a real event. As such, it is a prime vehicle for Roth’s exploration of how “reality” and “imagination” can be understood within a postmodern culture that has “contempt for the idea of objectivity” (OS 215). In his study of the mechanics of how the reality of the Holocaust moves away into representation, Roth treats the “spectacular order” with a suspicion that suggests his skepticism of the idea that the world “can no longer be grasped directly” (Debord 18). In The Dying Animal, Roth mounts a sustained interrogation of the inadequacies of a worldview, encapsulated by the protagonist, Dr. Kepesh, which denies the reality of lived experience and instead engages with others and with one’s own experience as a “representation.” Dr. Kepesh objectifies his lover as an art object. Consuela is “a work of art, classical art, beauty in its classical form” (TDA 46). Her forehead has a “smooth Brancusi elegance” (TDA 3) and she stands like “Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian” (TDA 71). Jean Baudrillard writes of “the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model” (1560). By conceptualizing his lover as an art object, Kepesh “murders” her complex interior self and engages only with her simplified, aesthetic exterior. However, Roth challenges the desirability of this worldview with the development of Consuela’s cancer, which destroys her body and forces Kepesh to recognize her interior self. In this process, Roth stages the dissolution of the worldview according to which “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation” and posits instead that there is a “reality,” in this case an interior reality, with which one can at least engage, if never objectively or comprehensively know. In like manner, Roth’s investigation of how the Holocaust enters the spectacular order does not conclude that the “reality of the Holocaust” is wholly imaginary. Rather, Roth suggests that it is an unknowable entity, which is approached, rather than murdered, by representations. In Roth’s works, the “reality of the Holocaust” is approached through the metonymic reification of its parts. Because the “reality of the Holocaust” is objectively incomprehensible, Roth shows that it exists chiefly in the
imaginations of individuals who have experienced the event or its legacies in myriad individual manners. Roth’s suspicion of homogenizing cultures generated by the Holocaust, his promotion of the individual and subjective experience over that of the group, and his engagement with a postmodern sensibility that endorses “contempt for the idea of objectivity” (OS 215) significantly influence Roth’s literary style. In his works, the “reality of the Holocaust” and the “imagination” do not occupy a hierarchical space according to which one may surpass the other; rather, the “reality” and the “imagination” of the Holocaust are inextricably symbiotic, the latter frequently being shown to constitute the former.
Works Cited Roth, Philip. “Defender of the Faith.” Goodbye, Columbus. Bungay: Penguin Books, 1983. 121-50. Print. ---. The Dying Animal. London: Vintage Books, 2002. Print. ---. “Eli the Fanatic.” Goodbye, Columbus. Bungay: Penguin Books, 1983. 185-221. Print. ---. Letting Go. London: Vintage Books, 2007. Print. ---. On The Air. New York: New American Library, 1970. Print. ---. Operation Shylock. London: Vintage Books, 2000. Print. ---. Portnoy’s Complaint. Bungay: Penguin Books, 1986. Print. ---. “The Professor of Desire.” Novels, 1973-1977. New York: Library of America, 2006. 679-869. Print. ---. Reading Myself And Others. London: Vintage Books, 2007. Print. Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. London: Penguin, 2006. Print. Basu, Ann. “Before the law: Operation Shylock: a Confession.” Philip Roth Studies. 8.2 (2012): 179-195. Web. 1 Nov. 2013. Baudrillard, Jean. “from The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton anthology of theory and criticism.Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1553-66. Print. Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989. Print. Bradbury, Malcolm. The modern American novel. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
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Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Print. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983. Print. Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print. Furman, Andrew. “A New ‘Other’ Emerges in American Jewish Literature.” Philip Roth. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003. 145-62. Print. “holocaust, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 1 Dec 2013. Web. Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1993. 213-65. Print. Hilfer, Tony. American Fiction Since 1940. New York: Longman, 1992. Print. Kaminsky, Inbar. “Jewish mischief in the land of pranks: the mistranslation of Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock into Hebrew.” Philip Roth Studies. 8.2 (2012): 197-208. Web. 31 Oct. 2013. Lee, Hermione. Philip Roth. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984. Print. Malamud, Bernard. “The First Seven Years.” The Magic Barrel. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958. Print. Novick, Peter. The Holocaust and collective memory: the American experience. London: Bloomsbury, 2000. Print. Rotheberg, Michael. “Roth and the Holocaust.” The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth. Ed. Timothy Parish. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 52-67. Print. Updike, John. “Recruiting Raw Nerves.” The New Yorker 15 Mar. 1993: 109-112. Print.
A GHOST IN THE CANON:
QUEERING FAMILY, NATION, & CANON IN MAXINE HONG KINGSTON’S THE WOMAN WARRIOR: MEMOIRS OF A GIRLHOOD AMONG GHOSTS
Huan He Dartmouth College
Asian American literary canon, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts stands as the matriarchal text. Kingston has laid the groundwork for many of the ways scholars conceptualize race, ethnicity, culture, and gender in the terrain of Asian American literature. The presence of her text is ghostly: The Woman Warrior looms over the work of more contemporary writers focusing on the Asian American/Asian diasporic experience. Kingston’s text serves as a point of origin for the canon, a stable source of Chinese American culture meant to empower Asian American women. In any comprehensive catalogue of the Asian American literatary canon, the impulse is to start with the beginning. In Racial Castration, David Eng explicitly states the organization of his book: …chapter one not only begins, as it were, at the beginning of Asian American literary studies with a critical reading that brings together the matriarch and patriarch of Asian American literature; it also establishes a particular structure of vigilant looking that continues to be developed through remainder of the chapters.1 Eng presents his chapters as a progression, placing Kingston in the seat of the matriarch. The impulse to begin at the origin stems from the immigrant desire to establish “completeness” in its community. Rather than remaining disparate, fragmented segments, Asian diasporic communities can be legible within the nation-state if their histories follow a linear chronology. In other words, in the case of Asian diasporas where geographic transnational routes on the spatial axis are plural and heterogeneous, a stable lineage marked through the temporal n the
1 David L. Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Durham: Duke
UP, 2001), 30.
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axis can be useful to delineate Asian diasporic communities. However, in these instances of community formation, diasporic communities adopt a desire to assimilate into the nation-state insofar as they rely on, as JeeYeun Lee notes, “heterosexist concepts of kinship and lineage.”2 The Asian American literary canon follows similar logics of reproductive heritage in order to obtain visibility, coherence, and citizenship within the larger canon of American literature. As evinced by Eng’s placement of Kingston as “matriarch,”3 Kingston’s The Woman Warrior plays a crucial role in establishing a legible canon. Kingston’s matriarchy affirms a heteronormative organization of the canon, a structure that was prevalent during the cultural nationalist project. It inscribes a generational lineage, one with the ultimate goal to produce an Asian American citizen-subject. David Eng points out that although there has been much rehearsed debate between Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, the “patriarch,” the contention implies two different gendered paths to American citizenship. First, Chin constructs the Asian American experience as distinctly hyper-masculine through a strict adherence to masculine codes. Chin hopes to efface any previous effeminate Asian American stereotype in the American public consciousness.4 In contrast, Kingston formulates an alternative female Asian American culture to contest Chin’s patriarchal claim to citizenship.5 Yet the gendered conflict depicts one common link: both Kingston and Chin attempt to stake a claim in the American historical consciousness by establishing a clear generational lineage. The rubric of citizenship thus becomes a nexus where gender politics uphold a strict heteronormativity. By crowning Kingston as the matriarch, the Asian American literatary canon is never rid of the reproductive logic that regulates citizen-subjecthood. This canon organization upholds what Michael Warner coins “reprosexuality.”6 Warner’s term refers to how heterosexual logics seal tight the futurism offered by biological and cultural reproduction. Beyond this, reprosexuality locks in a “relation to self that finds its proper temporality and 2 JeeYeun Lee, “Toward a Queer Korean American Diasporic History,” in Q & A: Queer
in Asian America. Ed. David L. Eng and Alice Y. Hom. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 194. 3 Eng, Racial Castration, 30. 4 Ibid., 209-210. 5 Patricia P. Chu, Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000), 171-172. 6 Michael Warner, “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet” (Social Text, 29, 1991), 9.
fulfillment in generational transmission.”7 Indeed, an incessant narcissism underpins such an orientation to the past and future. In this case, the vision for the future is a narrow one. It is limited in imagination because the future must reproduce what is contained in the “now.” Linearity and continuity ensure that the cultural values in place remain untainted and intact. This is precisely what the cultural nationalist project strived to accomplish vis-à-vis writing gendered, heterosexual versions of Asian America. Eng warns that this limited “positive imagery” offers little “psychic hope” for queer movements to come.8 How do we prevent Kingston’s matriarchy from re-inscribing reprosexual/heterosexual claims to citizenship? In the epilogue of Racial Castration, Eng describes the shift from a cultural nationalist model to a diasporic one in the Asian American literary canon. Coupled with the reconfiguration of the domestic to the diasporic is a movement from heteronormative notions to queer ones. Within this canonical mapping, how can we position Kingston in the diasporic model, one that disavows the quest for (heteronormative) inclusion in the nation-state and is, thus, queer? I argue that instead of giving Kingston the seat of the matriarch, a historical signifier that pulls backward to a temporal origin, we can position Kingston more transiently, perhaps as the ghost of the Asian American literature canon itself. Just like a ghost, she appears to haunt us from an older time but does not necessarily demand obeisance from any generational authority. Kingston’s ghostliness presents an unassimilated presence in the nation-state’s linear “Historical Time.” Ghostliness also becomes a fitting way to portray the vexed relationship between the Asian immigrant and the nation-state. Lisa Lowe describes the Asian American subject as the site of many contradictions. Specifically, in the last half-century, following the repeal acts of 1943-1952,9 the political apparatus of immigration interpellates the Asian American into a citizen-subject even as the immigration process reveals the legal, social, and psychic fissures within the “myth of national identity.”10 For the sake of adhering to the anthem of inclusion and multiculturalism, immigration has “placed Asians ‘within’ the U.S. nation-state, its workplaces, and its markets, yet linguistically, culturally, 7 Ibid. 8 Eng, Racial Castration, 136. 9 Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke UP,
1996), 11. 10 Ibid., 9.
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and racially marked Asians as ‘foreign’ to the national polity.”11 The Asian American subject becomes a subjective quagmire that renders assimilation both possible and impossible. Lowe argues that it is precisely this anxiety toward the “foreigner-within” that “has given rise to the necessity of endlessly fixing and repeating such stereotypes.”12 The national public consciousness clings to images such as the effeminate Asian American man or the submissive Asian American female in order to, on an ontological level, incorporate a stable and nonthreatening identity into the regulated symbolic order of the U.S. national imagination. It is a reification process that has persisted throughout American history and has been the focus of numerous recuperation projects, including Chin’s desire to hypermasculinize the Asian American man. As Asian American literary studies realize the limitations of what inclusion in the national polity has to offer, the focus has shifted. In a ghostly manner, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (written in 197513) anticipates the literary strategies of contemporary authors who seek to articulate an Asian America beyond the space and time of the nation-state; the turn to the diasporic formation in the canon must also include Kingston. The Woman Warrior is a text that internally complicates the delineations of family and nation and externally challenges the reprosexuality of canonicity. My analysis thus consists of these three different but interconnected frameworks of examination: family, nation, and canon. In this manner, my examination of narrative in The Woman Warrior reinforces how I position Kingston within the Asian American canon. First, I look at the structure of family in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and how recuperative discursive acts bring lost historical figures into the family narrative. These acts regulate the compulsory heterosexuality and sexual suppression necessary to maintain familial alliance. Second, the delineation of family, sealed by the historical family narrative, resembles the delineation of citizenship managed by a history of state-operated apparatuses. Third, I examine the Asian American literary canon as an epistemological configuration. It relies on the linear and generational logics that bind family and nation. As a result, the institutionalization of familial structures enforces epistemic violence. 11 Ibid., 8. 12 Ibid., 19. 13 Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (New
York: Vintage, 1977).
No Name Woman: Beyond Recuperation and Epistemic Violence In the opening chapter of The Woman Warrior entitled “No Name Woman,” the narrator reveals the untold story of her aunt. Up to this point, the existence of her aunt has been kept a secret from the narrator in order to preserve the honor of the family. The mother states, “You must not tell anyone…what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.”14 The book opens with a “talk-story,” an articulation of past events finally brought into the family narrative.15 The act of speaking a forbidden story grants a lost historical subject entry into the symbolic order of family discursive narrative. The talk-story is an attempt at regulated recuperation. It is an attempt at controlled restoration. I characterize the speaking of the No Name Woman as first an “attempt” because the historical figure is never granted full personhood. She is the No Name Woman, a figure who can be spoken about but not named. The narrator states, “In the twenty years since I heard this story I have not asked for details nor said my aunt’s name; I do not know it.”16 Slavoj Zizek asserts, “the name itself, the signifier…supports the identity of the object.” He finds in the process of naming that “the only possible definition of an object in its identity is that this is the object which is always designated by the same signifier — tied to the same signifier. It is the signifier which constitutes the kernel of an object’s identity.”17 The act of naming “retroactively constitutes its reference.”18 In the case of the No Name Woman, it would bring the lost ancestor into the realm of symbolic visibility. However, as the talk-story reveals a narrative without naming, the No Name Woman occupies a unique ontological predicament. The story gives a semblance to the narrator’s forgotten ancestor but does so without necessarily making her into a historical referent. Thus, the No Name Woman is a present absence, a ghost brought into being through utterance. Regarding the symbolic order of language, Rey Chow states, “for a (new) signifier to emerge as a positive presence, there must always be a lack/ 14 Ibid., 3. 15 Ibid., 19. 16 Ibid., 16. 17 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 98. 18 Ibid.
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negative supporting it.”19 Yet, she points out that, in fact, the producer of the signifier fills the space of the lack.20 What emerges is a hierarchical struggle between the speaker and the subaltern, an epistemological conflict in which the subaltern cannot speak.21 The struggle is an example of epistemic violence, according to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; knowledge production regarding the disenfranchised, who are removed from the Western intellectual realm, occurs at the cost of further disempowering the subaltern other. Although Spivak frames her dilemma along the West/East and intellectual/subaltern axis,22 the No Name Woman talk-story reveals that epistemic violence can occur within localized immigrant communities in the West. In The Woman Warrior, the combination of the narrator’s imagination and her mother’s actual talk-story produce two complementary (although sometimes contradictory) narratives about the No Name Woman. What I am interested in is not a comparison between the storyteller and the listener-interpreter—respectively, the mother and daughter—but rather how the utterance negotiates an exchange of symbolic power between the speaker and the subaltern, or, in this case, the mother and the No Name Woman. Utterance becomes the process of filling a lack, a way of taming an unruly negation that threatens to unsettle the smoothness of the symbolic order. Within historiography proper, the historical moments of disjuncture, the lack of historical continuity, shatter the linear imperative that constitutes Historical Time. The subject who speaks, who “talks story,” brings a figure into the historical symbolic order under the terms of the speaker. It is a way of recuperation that endorses the epistemological position of the knowledgeseeker; it renders the speaker as subject and the subaltern as factographical objects in the economy of Western intellectualism. These rescued historical subjects become subservient to the conscious speaker. The mother tells the story of the No Name Woman in order to warn the daughter-narrator. The mother cautions: “Don’t let your father know that 19 Rey Chow, “Against the Lures of Diaspora in,” in Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, Ed.
Braziel, Jana Evans, and Anita Mannur (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 174. 20 Ibid., 174. 21 For a full discussion on the concept of subaltern utterances, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Ed. Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988), 271-313. 22 Ibid.
I told you. He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us.”23 Indeed, the purpose of the talk-story is to regulate the behavior of those within the family. As the narrator comes of age, she becomes a full member of the family, a participant in the strict heteronormative logics that maintain the patriarchy of family. Thus, the talk-story functions as a familial apparatus: it inducts the narrator into the family as well as interpellates her as the next daughter in a matriline. The narrator learns to discipline her own sexuality for the sake of familial alliance. It is precisely by repressing sexual desire that a whole, heterosexual, “pure” female can emerge. The apparatus to regulate familial kinship reproduces the logic of a nation-state apparatus that formulates citizens. In other words, the family is a microcosm for the politics of nation. For the Asian immigrant, the process of American citizenship upholds a strict rubric of heteronormative patriarchy. What is most crucial to both citizenship of the nation-state and membership in the family is the privileging of alliance over sexuality.24 Compulsory heterosexuality and suppressed sexuality become necessary to ensure that the generational lineage of the family remains intact through time. The network of alliance is an act of preservation within Historical Time that staves off queer subjectivities. Concomitantly, to deviate from such regulations is to embrace the diasporic and queer. With the allegorical relationship between family and nation in mind, we can examine the talk-story of the No Name Woman as a strategy for preserving the strict family unit. She incorporates the “other”—in this case, the No Name Woman—in order to mark it as foreign. By doing so, the mother recuperates the absent figure of the No Name Woman on her own terms, thus maintaining a family historical narrative that is intact and continuous; simultaneously, she enforces the mandatory suppression of sexuality and compulsory heterosexuality that constitute familial alliance. Lowe explains that the “Asian is always seen as an immigrant, as the ‘foreigner-within.’”25 One of the many contradictions Lowe asserts regarding the Asian American subject is the incorporated otherness of Asian immigrants 23 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 5. 24 For a full discussion of the concepts of the “deployment of alliance” and the
“deployment of sexuality,” see Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990). 25 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 5.
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via the historical process of citizenship. The Asian American subject is a “phantasmatic site,” one in which the “nation projects a series of condensed complicated anxieties regarding external and internal threats to the mutable coherence of the national body.”26 Thus, the Asian American citizen-subject experiences both inclusion and exclusion in the nation-state governed by two contradicting desires. First, the nation-state must erect a domesticated citizensubject to both alleviate internal threats and to seal the “universality of the political body of the nation.”27 Examples of the former include the “model minority” stereotype, a confirmation of the American dream illusion that also appeases the need for multiculturalist inclusion. Second, the nation-state must regard the Asian American citizen-subject as a potential threat, a state of foreignness that lays memory to a history of conflict with the East and that can never be completely cleansed by any state-operated citizenship apparatuses. Indeed, within the discursive history of the Chinese American family, the No Name Woman emerges as the “foreigner-within,”28 the diluted other that cannot be fully articulated for fear of upsetting the symbolic whole. The desire for the mother to tell the story of the No Name Woman and recuperate the lost figure into the family narrative is a process of assimilation. Paralleling the same citizenship-management logics of the nation-state, the mother carefully constructs the narrative of the No Name Woman. The narrator states, “My mother has told me once and for all the useful parts. She will add nothing unless powered by Necessity, a riverbank that guides her life.”29 First, the mother controls the story of the No Name Woman, thereby domesticating the ghostly woman to serve the needs of familial alliance. Furthermore, the tale of the No Name Woman assuages potential disruptions that challenge the authority of the family. As previously stated, the narrative serves to discipline new members of the family, the offspring who “threaten…in similar ways.”30 Internally, the family remains symbolically whole, and by recuperating the No Name Woman, the mother attempts to hold epistemological power to deny any ghosts in the family history. Second, the No Name Woman is deemed unruly, a disciplinary example of what not to become. It is by partially bringing the No Name Woman into signification that the family can suppress all sexual 26 Ibid., 18. 27 Ibid., 9. 28 Ibid., 5. 29 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 6. 30 Ibid., 5.
desires and uphold its strict rubric for compulsory heterosexuality and alliance. Thus, it is of paramount importance that the figure of the No Name Woman, an ancestor rendered ghostly within the symbolic order of family history, has no name. In the mother’s talk-story, the desire is to recuperate the No Name Woman into the symbolic order of family narrative under the terms and conditions of the discursive apparatus. The talk-story, in fact, attempts to transform the No Name Woman into the object rather than the subject of her own narrative. As the narrator states, the “tradition of her mother” is to exorcise “her ghosts by naming them.”31 To construct a cohesive family narrative that adopts the assimilationist logics of citizenship is to eradicate any specters that haunt the symbolic whole. Under the threat of epistemic violence from the mother’s act of recuperation in service of the family, the impossibility of naming the lost female figure, the ghostly ancestor, becomes an act of repudiation. The “no-nameness” of the No Name Woman, the lack of compliance to a symbolic imperative, creates a space for new forms of knowledge production to take shape. In the final chapter of The Feeling of Kinship, David Eng asserts the epistemological purpose of the ghost. He explains that the “figure of the ghost thus troubles modern historical consciousness and its traditional claims to agency.”32 The refusal to name the No Name Woman resists participation in historical representation, which is governed by the binary logic of visibility and invisibility. Rather, the articulation of an absence — the No Name Woman who is, as Eng describes, the “non-visible” — intervenes within the symbolic dialectic of visibility/invisibility to demand “its own epistemological coordinates and ontological consistency.”33 Such a repudiation of the empirical allows a ghostly absence to emerge, only indexed by the acts of haunting and myth. “White Tigers”: A New Epistemology In the second talk-story of The Woman Warrior entitled “White Tigers,” the mother tells the narrative of Fa Mu Lan, a mythological swordswoman. In what appears to be a pedagogical moment of reflection, the narrator 31 Ibid., 24. 32 David L. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy
(Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010), 184. 33 Ibid., 183.
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concludes the following: “the swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar. May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common are the words at our backs.”34 This moment of linkage between the narrator and mythological swordswoman collapses time insofar as a “mythic” past seeps into the present. Moreover, the temporal relationship is not established at the expense of the past — such as acts of epistemic violence in which a speaker in the present articulates a history — but rather allows the past to be in a dialectic relationship with the present. The temporal synchronicity, for instance, can be seen in the ambiguity of the “resemblance.”35 In the narrator’s statement, “May my people understand the resemblance soon so I can return to them,”36 it is unclear which “people,” the subjects of the past or the present, the narrator affiliates with and longs for a return.37 Thus, this positioning of the present self return to moments of the past becomes a flattening of the temporal hierarchies embedded in notions of progress. It creates in its wake what Avery Gordon calls a “dense site where history and subjectivity make social life.”38 In many ways, the story of Fa Mu Lan serves a purpose similar to the tale of the No Name Woman: both talk-stories are meant to educate, to raise a young girl on the virtues of womanhood. Under the anthem of the eponymous claim of “warrior,” the narrator explains her mother’s reason for “talking story”: “She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.”39 The talk-story becomes a way to induct the narrator into the family matriline. The discursive act interpellates the narrator as “daughter.” Yet, in contrast to her tale of the No Name Woman, this talk-story imbues myth into a coming-of-age narrative. What is different about the mother’s mythological talk-story is that it engages in a new epistemological mode. The mother does not attempt to recuperate a lost historical figure in order to regulate womanhood; furthermore, she does not attempt to tame the referent through the epistemic violence of naming. Instead, her talk34 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 53. 35 Ibid., 53. 36 Emphasis added. 37 Ibid., 53. 38 Avery Gordon. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota, 1997), 8. 39 Ibid., 20.
story comes to life and takes on a voice of its own. As Sue Ann Johnston states: “It is her mother who, by giving her the talk-story, also gives her the mythos of who she is and where she came from.”40 It is important to note that although the mother’s use of myth looks into the past, the past itself is not the destination. This backward force offers a historiography that creates a relationship to history outside of the continuum of Historical Time. The past does not serve or affirm the present, in which case the past would always be distanced, archaic, and buried by Western notions of progress; rather, the past becomes ghostly matters, historical entryways into experiencing and negotiating a present that is always in flux. Following Eng’s formulation, these ghostly moments contain pockets of lost cultural memory and thus introduce the “what-could-have-been” as the privileged category through which…an alternative historical understanding emerges into a horizon of being oriented toward a doing in futurity.”41 In an invigorating way, the talk-story as myth disrupts the smoothness of carefully constructed family narratives that come at the cost of silenced subjects. It is important to keep in mind, however, that critics such as Frank Chin from the cultural nationalist movement claim that, generally speaking, myths are not conducive for imagining new futures in the present. Chin states: “Myths are, by nature, immutable and unchanging because they are deeply ingrained in the cultural memory, or they are not myths. New experience breeds new history, new art, and new fiction.”42 He argues against Kingston’s use of mythology because he considers myths to be static and archaic, buried along the diasporic route from China to America. For Chin, myths have no place in America, as they can only contaminate his construction of an authentic masculine notion of Asian American cultural nationalism. Although the shift to a focus on diaspora renders many of Chin’s criticisms outdated, his comments illuminate an anxiety surrounding how myth produces a pull backward to a past. Chin, however, ignores how myths change over time, as they are passed down and retold. For instance, in “White Tigers,” the narrator states, “Night after night my mother would talk-story until we fell asleep. I 40 Sue Ann Johnston, “Empowerment Through Mythological Imaginings in Woman
Warrior” (Biography, 16. 2, 1993), 138. 41 Eng, The Feeling of Kinship, 184. 42 Frank Chin, “Come All Ye Asian American Writers, the Real and the Fake,” in Chan et al., The Big Aiieeeee! (New York: Meridian, 1991), 29.
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couldn’t tell where the stories left off and the dreams began.”43 In the process of transmitting a mythological talk-story, the myth itself cannot be contained, as Chin would call it, in an “immutable” and “unchanging” form.44 Rather, the myth seeps into the narrator’s own subjectivity. Myth, thus, carries a past that remains invisible under the logics of Historical Time and ruptures empirical markers of the present. The story of Fa Mu Lan actively resists any attempts to bury myth as a static cultural artifact and, instead, positions myth as the opening where a cultural past fuses with a wavering present. How does myth—specifically the myth of Fa Mu Lan—offer a new epistemology for the regulation of daughter within family and, concomitantly, citizen within nation? In other words, if the discursive apparatus of talk-story and the citizenship apparatus of immigration both seek to name, regulate, and stabilize membership under the logics of family and nation, respectively, then how does the “mythos” complicate those logics? I argue that the mythological denies these apparatuses the signifying power via naming and thus allows the (Asian American) subject to emerge as a contradictory countersite to hegemonic cultural production. As Lowe states, the Asian diasporic subject occupies an “unfixed liminality…geographically, linguistically, and racially at odds with the context of the ‘national.’”45 The nation-state needs to produce stable stereotypes in order to alleviate any contradictions brought to light by the Asian American subject.46 By doing so, the regulation of words, naming, and labels performs epistemic violence on the Asian American subject, an act that always serves to reaffirm the Western national imagination. Thus, in a moment of clarity, the narrator comprehends the damage done to her by the act of naming. She states, “I have so many words—‘chink’ words and ‘gook’ words too—that they do not fit on my skin.”47 What the narrator describes here is the accumulation of signifying damage inscribed onto her skin as an Asian American citizen-subject. These words that carry a history of racist and xenophobic sentiments attempt to mark the narrator as the “foreigner-within.”48 They are the labels that form to regulate the Asian American citizen-subject. Moreover, these words represent the reification of 43 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 19. 44 Chin, “Asian American Writers,” 29. 45 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 19. 46 Ibid., 19. 47 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 53. 48 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 5.
epistemic violence that occurs when apparatuses manage how subjects become part of family and/or nation. Within the mythological talk-story of Fa Mu Lan, inscription takes on a new meaning. Before the swordswoman goes into battle, her parents engrave words onto her flesh: “We are going to carve revenge on your back,” my father said. “We’ll write out oaths and names.”… “Wherever you go, whatever happens to you, people will know our sacrifice,” my mother said. “And you’ll never forget either.” She meant that even if I got killed, the people could use my dead body for a weapon, but we do not like to talk out loud about dying.”49 The carved letters symbolize a pre-inscribed signification that subverts the usual act of naming, labeling, and symbolic entrapment that causes epistemic violence. Rather than relying on a hegemonic system that regulates subjecthood, the inscription on the body of Fa Mu Lan becomes, in a fitting way, ghostly epistemic revenge. As the narrator says, “The reporting is the vengeance, not the beheading, not the gutting, but the words.”50 These words shift the epistemological power away from the apparatuses that seek to control via signification. Instead, the ghosts that emerge from the depths of Historical Time carry these words in retaliation, as a “weapon,”51 when threatened with epistemic death. This process precisely uncovers the epistemology of myth. Despite Chin’s argument that myths are “immutable”52 and are buried in the past, myth renders the very process of symbolization insufficient. As I have traced, the epistemic apparatus of symbolic visibility is a social, political, and historical system that affirms and situates the present. Through the productivity of myth, the past can be used to bring the present into contradiction to ultimately challenge the symbolic wholeness hegemonic apparatuses attempt to impose. These contradictions, as Lowe points out, typify the Asian American subject and form an “alternative site” of cultural production where “the palimpsest of lost memories is reinvented, histories are fractured and retraced, and the unlikely varieties of silence merge into articulacy.”53 Thus, within the institution 49 Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 34. 50 Ibid., 53. 51 Ibid., 34. 52 Chin, “Asian American Writers,” 29. 53 Lowe, Immigrant Acts, 6.
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of family, nation, and Historical Time in which unity and coherence constitute their domination, the moments of incoherence allow for a reconfiguration of their presubscribed logics. Perhaps such ruptures render these institutions insufficient and point epistemology toward the direction of diaspora and queerness. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Ghost in the Canon The organization of the Asian American literature canon follows the same logics that establish the institution of family and nation. Sitting at the heart of the canon, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior can be read as both text and context. Understanding internally how myth allows us to read out of the developmental fiction imposed by family and nation can help us externally think about alternative modes of canon formation, a practice that conventionally aligns with producing family-subjecthood and citizen-subjecthood. Taken holistically, Kingston’s text forces us to read The Woman Warrior not as a static generational marker, a position the canon has conventionally imposed onto the text, but rather as a ghost in the canon, embracing all of the ghost’s mythological and anachronistic associations. The configurations of family, nation, and canon depend on a symbolic wholeness provided by heteronormativity and reprosexuality. Such heterosexual structures include two imperatives. First, the “presentness” that binds such institutions together subscribes to a generational lineage, one that marches under the sovereignty of Historical Time. The same applies to the epistemology of canon formation. To understand what is legible as an Asian American literature canon today requires clearly marking what has come before to produce the literary “here and now.” For instance, the foundation of Asian American literature starts with the work of both Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, the respective canonical “patriarch” and “matriarch.”54 They represent the first established generation of Asian American writers; their presence serves to tether Asian American literature to a stable origin. The burying of these figures within the temporal confines of the past endorses the static present of the current canon. Second, the canon affirms the (Western) nation as the source of epistemological knowledge. Made possible by the cultural nationalist project, the Asian American literary canon puts the semantic 54 Sau-ling C. Wong and Jeffrey J. Santa Ana, “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American
Literature” (Signs, 25. 1, 1999), 189-190.
weight on its “Americanness”; many times, this claim to a literary nationalism adopts assimilationist tendencies in the quest for legibility within the American literary canon at large. Naming Kingston the matriarch of the Asian American literature canon both enforces the heteronormative generational model underpinning the canon and simultaneously buries Kingston within the depths of Historical Time. In many ways, to study Kingston’s The Woman Warrior creates what Elizabeth Freeman calls a “temporal drag.” Freeman’s formulation of the term describes the temporal quagmire that occurs between different feminist and queer “waves” or generations.55 Within the present tense of social movements, there are still foreclosed “identities and desires that…illuminate the often unexpected effects of such deferred identifications.” Her final suggestion is useful for conceptualizing intergenerational cultural relations: If identity is always in temporal drag, constituted and haunted by the failed love-project that precedes it, perhaps the shared culturemaking projects we call “movements” might do well to feel the tug backwards as a potentially transformative part of the movement itself.56 Instead of distancing such generational predecessors that have been foreclosed, Freeman calls for an integration of the “tug backwards” into the present.57 In positioning Kingston as the matriarch, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior exudes a similar “temporal drag” within the Asian American literature canon. It returns us to the gender politics led by Kingston and Chin that divided the canon in the mid-1970s,58 insofar as they both attempt to establish a matriline or patriline to ground the canon.59 I suggest that reducing Kingston’s The Woman Warrior to the gender politics of her matriarchy “propels us toward a barely-imagined future.”60 What can be more productive is if, instead, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior can be the “potentially transformative part of the movement itself.” Thus, with the move to the diasporic model in Asian American literature, the successor to a cultural nationalist project, Kingston’s The Woman 55 Elizabeth Freeman, “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations,” (New Literary Histo-
ry, 31. 4, 2000), 742. 56 Ibid., 743. 57 Ibid., 743. 58 Wong, “Gender and Sexuality,” 175. 59 Ibid., 195. 60 Freeman, “Packing History,” 745.
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Warrior asserts a ghostly presence. Just as the No Name Woman cannot be named in defense of epistemic violence and the mythological swordswoman refuses to be an immutable myth and instead helps the narrator make sense of her present, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior resists the label of matriarch that binds the Asian American literary canon with strict heterosexual logics. The text’s investment in mythology does not anchor itself in a single, static past. Rather, it anticipates a departure from claiming an “Asian America” and a movement toward something more than the nation-state: toward diaspora. Such a diasporic placement of Kingston’s text can help us imagine new directions for the Asian American literary canon.
Works Cited Chin, Frank. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers, the Real and the Fake” in Chan et al., The Big Aiieeeee!. New York: Meridian, 1991. Chow, Rey. “Against the Lures of Diaspora,” in Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Ed. Braziel, Jana Evans, and Anita Mannur. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 163-183. Chu, Patricia P. Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Eng, David L. The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. ---. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1990. Freeman, Elizabeth. “Packing History, Count(er)ing Generations.” New Literary History, 31. 4, 2000. 727-744. Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Johnston, Sue Ann. “Empowerment Through Mythological Imaginings in Woman Warrior.” Biography, 16. 2, 1993. 136-146. Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Vintage, 1977. Lee, JeeYeun. “Toward a Queer Korean American Diasporic History,” in Q & A: Queer in Asian America. Ed. David L. Eng and Alice Y.
Hom. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 185-209. Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 1996. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. 271-313. Warner, Michael. “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.” Social Text, 29, 1991. 3-17. Wong, Sau-ling C. and Jeffrey J. Santa Ana. “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature.” Signs, 25. 1, 1999. Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.
“TO SATURATE EVERY ATOM”
PRESENCE, ABSENCE, AND CORPOREALITY IN VIRGINIA WOOLF’S LETTERS
Emma Walshe University of Oxford
inute literary manifestos suffuse Virginia Woolf ’s autobiographical writings. Yet, as per popular critical tendency, these aphoristic declarations of creative purpose are most often extracted, molded into disconnected quotations, and applied uniquely to Woolf ’s canonical fiction. This practice unearths an approach that fundamentally devalues its textual foundations, in this case Woolf ’s autobiographical writings. To apply these statements solely to her fictional works is, I will argue, a disservice to her and to her epistolary corpus in particular; their worth is in their definition of Woolf ’s shifting attitude toward the writing process. Epistolary communication, as Linda S. Kauffman (1992) argues, “highlights writing as sheer process” more than any other literary form—showing writing not at its conclusion, as published fiction does, but as writing in progress (xx). The epistolary genre within Woolf ’s oeuvre, therefore, must be re-canonized before we can engage with the concepts of presence, absence, and corporeality which so richly resonate with the letter form (both autobiographical and fictional) as perceived by Woolf. In a diary entry from 28 November 1928, Woolf writes: “The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes.” (D: 209) This essay will contend that an exploration of Woolf ’s conception of epistolarity through the terms of corporeality and metonymical relations suggested by this statement takes the letter and transforms it, in both fiction and non-fiction, into a letter-object. The letter, having become physicalized, interacts with and begins to mimic the writer’s absent physicality, eventually becoming the displaced body. Woolf ’s engagement with a language of part-whole relations, raised in the diary excerpt and continued within her epistolary theorisation, shatters this corporeal “whole”; letters now splinter
and fragment, both structurally and as a transformative process enacted upon their writer’s “self.” The letter, previously the writer’s “body,” now becomes synecdoche, a dismembered limb, concurrently connected and disconnected from the self. Vividly capturing the simultaneous corporeal presence and absence of the self ’s body within epistolary discourse, Woolf accentuates the letter’s dual and antithetical purpose: As a communicating missive, letters bring the self into presence; yet as an exaggeratedly physicalized cultural object, letters absent the self. Dominated by paradoxes, none of which are easily “concluded,” I shall argue that the epistolary genre in Woolf ’s work is unique in allowing these dichotomies of presence/absence, part/whole, saturation/ elimination, and atom/superfluity to co-exist. “A corollary,” “an arsenal of ammunition,” “a training-ground for her art”: in such terms are Woolf ’s autobiographical writings typically considered by modern critics—their position is at the margins of her work.1 Her letters and diaries are frequently seen as fruitful only in their collaborative role as “quotation supplier” to her canonical fiction and body of essays and reviews, and as an insight into Woolf ’s Bloomsbury biography. Woolf herself seemed to consider her epistolary corpus as “superfluous,” as a “rehearsal for other art forms,” exempting it (consciously or unconsciously) from her formidable declarations of aesthetic purpose (Marcus, 1988: 116). In her diaries, she rails against “this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner,” desiring to “eliminate” such linear narratives from her writing, yet those words are a seemingly perfect description of Woolf ’s letters, which unapologetically continue to record the minutiae of daily life even as she writes this in her diary (D: 209). Even Woolf, then, places her letters outside of her own concept of “literary canon”: “why admit any thing to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated?” (D, 28 Nov 1928: 209-10). While occupying an almost apocryphal position on the margins of her collected works, her letters exist as part of a whole (despite filling six large volumes), not a whole in and of itself, unlike her prose fiction which is often studied completely independently of the letters. Susan Sellers (2000), for example, admits that Woolf ’s letters “are rarely read in their own right,” a move which signals the recent awareness of this critical shortcoming, and the wish to reposition these marginalized autobiographical discourses as equally valid genres, without levelling their formal differences (109). 1 Snaith, 2000: 2; Bell, 1990: 23; Sellers, 2000: 111
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This marginalization seems unduly severe and imprudent once we acknowledge the contextual centrality letters occupied within the Bloomsbury literary circle. Letters were undoubtedly considered a valuable corpus of biographical works (though their valuation as “literature” remained precarious), and were written in abundance by all within the group. Woolf ’s diary often listed the copious quantities of letters she received: her notation of seven letters as “3 days post” is evidence of the continuous stream of letters entering the Woolf household (D3, 8 Feb 1926: 58). An appreciation of eighteenth century letter culture flourished, and the Woolfs’ library included the collected letters of Austen, Barrett Browning, and Coleridge (King and Miletic-Vejzovic, 2003), as well as her father Leslie Stephen’s Life and Letters (1906) to which Woolf herself contributed. Virginia and Leonard’s Hogarth Press (founded in 1917), which allowed them to “publish works they thought worthy,” published several collections of letters, as well as the twelve “public letters” that comprise the fictitious Hogarth Letters series (published 1931-33), of which “A Letter to a Young Poet” was written by Virginia (King and Miletic-Vejzovic, 2003: foreword).2 The letter’s public and private limitations, as well as its fictional and non-fictional boundaries, became much more malleable in the Bloomsbury circle’s hands. The question that plagued them at Lytton Strachey’s death was not if they would publish his letters, but when; “We can’t publish Lytton’s letters for fifty years” (SD, 4 Feb 1932: 313). The Bloomsbury Group acknowledged and proved that “writers [do not] stop writing like writers when they are writing letters” with their plentiful correspondences; thus a study of Woolf ’s conception of the epistolary form is not only relevant, but necessary (Kermode and Kermode, 1995: xvii). In marginalising this we deliberately ignore a crucial part of Woolf ’s daily literary life, and a defining feature of the Bloomsbury Group’s aesthetic. Regardless of this modern epistolary context, however, Woolf ’s letters are reluctantly accepted as a “whole” text by critics; there is remarkably little written on modern epistolarity, and virtually nothing primarily on Woolf ’s letters. This makes recourse to critical readings with a focus upon the eighteenth 2 Epistolary corpora such as Paul Biryukov’s Tolstoi’s Love Letters; with a study on the
autobiographical elements in Tolstoi’s work, translated by S. S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf (1923), Eliza Fay’s Original Letters From India (1779-1815) (1925), and Hugh J. Schoenfield’s Letters to Frederick Tennyson (1930). Woolmer, 1986, Duke University Library Holdings online [accessed 4 December 2013] http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/literary/hogarth.htm
century necessary in order to engage with relevant theories of epistolarity. “Letters aren’t written nowadays: compare these with the 18th century: what jerks and spasms they come in”; in Woolf ’s opinion, letters came more naturally to the eighteenth century mind and body (L, 6 Dec 1936: 382). They had to, for letters as communicative vessels held a far more crucial role within eighteenth and nineteenth century societies than they had in the twentieth: The art of letter-writing is of all arts the most dependent upon circumstances. Had there been a telephone in the days of Cowper and Madame de Sévigné we should have lost some of the most delightful volumes in the world. (E4, “The Letters of Mary Russell Mitford”, 18 Apr 1925: 15) Rivalled in purpose by the telegraph and telephone, the modern letter becomes less and less part of the larger web of public-private communications. Yet the link is not wholly severed; as Frank and Anita Kermode (1995) state, “the great age of letter-writing was, roughly, 1700-1918. Of course there are many good letters after that—think only of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf ” (xxiii). If we acknowledge Woolf to be a letter writer in the “tradition” of the “great age,” theories of epistolarity offered by Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, James How, and Diana Cousineau can be validly re-rooted from their eighteenth century focus and applied to Woolf ’s conception of letter writing without flattening cultural and circumstantial differences. Though perhaps frustrating, this dearth of modern epistolary criticism, particularly in relation to Woolf, forces one to ground Woolf ’s autobiographical and fictional works within their literary context, a context which often seems purposefully veiled in order to emphasize Woolf ’s association with modernism, or “the new.” Woolf ’s desire to “saturate every atom” rings particularly true in the epistolary form, and is necessitated by the form’s purpose: to exist in the absence of its writer. Saturation is an important process within the letter-ascommunication, for its raison d’être as espoused by Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey is “‘to express the personality of the writer’” (Avery, 2006: 935). It must linguistically construct the corporeally absent. Indeed, in her Times Literary Supplement review “The Letters of Henry James” (1920), Woolf corroborates this authorial aim, noting of James’s epistolary style that: “Nothing in the end has chilled or repressed him; everything has fed and filled him; the saturation is complete” (E3: 204, my emphasis). The words must “hold” identity and be completely infused with the writer’s self and circumstances: Woolf, both in her
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own and in her fictional letters attempts to conjure this sense of immediacy and richness. To her sister Vanessa Bell she writes: I was very glad to get your post card…Here we are with the bells ringing for church – daffodils out – apple trees in blossom – cows mooing – cocks crowing – thrushes chirping…I suppose you’re sitting in a Roman street sucking iced soda through a straw while Duncan, having made friends with the waiter – and there are goats, and large spotted dogs – and nice brown and yellow pots – donkeys – mules, beautiful girls for me – and etc. I wont [sic] describe it all, as I daresay you can see it for yourself. (CSL, 2 Apr 1920: 117) Disposing with linear methods of narration, Woolf focuses upon small imagistic “moments”—“daffodils out – apple trees in blossom”—to recreate her and Vanessa’s vastly differing “selves” at the precise instance of writing and reading. She attempts an elimination of superfluous elements: only essential images are conveyed, syntactical connectives having been abolished momentarily as Woolf endeavours to “send” Vanessa a “whole” scene. Woolf seeks not only to imbue the letter with her circumstances but with her recipient’s, to “give back a reflection of the other person” (CSL, 4 Oct 1929 to Gerald Brenan: 256). She constructs an imagined setting for Bell, an aim which attempts to lessen the spatial and temporal distance between them both. The swift dashed punctuation strives to reproduce a false sense of simultaneous time. Furthermore, she tries to blur the boundaries between the real and the reflected imagined scenario with her final phrase, disallowing any discrepancy between them: “as I daresay you can see it for yourself ”—as if Woolf, in her projection of Vanessa’s circumstances, has simultaneously also seen this.Woolf ’s saturation of the self does not rest on the implied self of the autobiographical genre, and her use of active verbs signals this wish to create a more potent sense of “presence.” In her 1905 review of “The Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle” she praises Carlyle’s ability “to cast so brilliant an image of [herself] upon paper”; a later review argues that “a good letter writer so takes the colour of his correspondent” (E1: 54; E4, “Dorothy Osborne’s Letters”, 24 Oct 1928: 557). William Rodney in Night and Day (1919), in his letters to Cassandra, “found it particularly delightful to shape a style which should express the bowing and curtsying” that characterized the practices of courtship (334). To cast, to colour, to shape: all denote directed purpose, and a
skilled constructor. Through such linguistic actions Woolf succeeds in imbuing these sheets with a strong sense of personality, making the letter-writer (and recipient) actively “present” in their own correspondence. Yet Woolf arguably develops this concept of “presence” further. She chooses to focus not upon the essentially ephemeral letter-as-communication but upon the letter-as-object, and, in her subtle utilization of materialistic, corporeal language, the metaphorical presence of the “self ” is translated into and matched by a sense of physical materiality. Woolf ’s language in her 1928 diary entry is weighty, physicalized, and constructs a linguistic “space,” heavy with “deadness.” In “saturat[ing] every atom” of her epistolary forms Woolf echoes this physicality and in fact creates atoms:, particles so palpable that they construct the represented letter as an object even within other texts. “Like all painters, your sense of words is plastic, not linear, and I am on the plastic side myself ” (CSL, 14 Nov 1938 to Duncan Grant: 418). Woolf was keenly alive to, in all genres of her writing, the malleable aspects of linguistic craftsmanship, and of the delicacy needed to model language into larger forms. Applied to the epistolary form, this awareness of the materiality of language, paired with her mindfulness of the letter’s significance as cultural object, creates a highly corporeal representation of “the letter.” Woolf ’s letters are continually “objectified,” in the most literal sense of the term. She emphasizes the process of putting pen to paper, the pen, and the paper, so that palpability infuses her entire conception of the form. Letters have the potential to: “…accumulate upon the imagination in a solid mass, and leave there a monument…monolithic indeed, but impressive as an authentic building where every stone has been lifted laboriously to its place by the poet’s own hand.” (E1, “Wordsworth’s Letters”, Apr 1908: 184) Wordsworth’s letters are accredited by Woolf with the same weighty solidity found in her diary excerpt: they are constructed into “authentic building[s]” with the same clear sense of authorial purpose expressed by Woolf in her diary—“lifted laboriously…by the poet’s own hand.” The construction metaphor elucidates Woolf ’s keen focus on the materialistic qualities of letters; she complained of “horrid, dull, scrappy scratchy letter[s]” and continually accentuated the colour of her non-fictional and fictional letter materials—typically blue (CSL, 25 Sept 1928 to Leonard Woolf: 240). Bernard in The Waves receives his letters “written on blue paper” (172), and Betty Flanders uses “pale blue ink” (JR: 3); Woolf mischievously writes to Quentin Bell of “nothing between us but a blue
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sheet (of paper I mean)” (CSL 28 Oct 1930: 276), and frets about “leav[ing] all this blue paper blank” in her diary (D4, 16 Jan 1934: 200). Again, to rebind texts is to consider printed writing in its most object-like state: with surfaces, with an aesthetic purpose. When Woolf rebound her own travel-worn books, they acquired “a good blue paper cover”—proof once more of a sustained awareness of the physicality of all categories of texts (PA, 15 Jan 1905: 22). Woolf was certainly not the only Bloomsbury member actively interested in accentuating the unusual materiality of the epistolary form. Painter Dora Carrington’s letters were fashioned not simply as linguistic correspondence but as visual artworks. Filling her epistles with “exquisite drawing and snapshots of interior and exterior spaces…deployed in a continuous interaction,” her decorative visuals highlight the materiality of her letters and play with the expected use of writing paper (Tamboukou, 2011: 15). Woolf similarly experiments with the expected manner of “composing a letter” when introducing the medium of stamping to a letter for Vita SackvilleWest: Look at this: I did it myself. [stamped:] Virginia Woolf Virginia Woolf (CSL, 29 Jun 1936: 378) The repetition of her forename and surname, the columnar arrangement upon the page, and the difference aesthetically between her previous handwritten words and stamped formally identical letters of “Virginia Woolf ” all emphasize the production process, the very present self, and the letter as a “crafted” object, not simply a linear means of communication. Much of this awareness of the letter-as-object stems from an intense attentiveness to the practical processes of daily postal correspondence. By referencing the material limitations of the letter format, Woolf continually focuses her epistolary readers’ upon the pragmatic restrictions set upon letters by “pillar-boxes and post-offices” (ND: 327). There is a sharp difference between writing for oneself and writing for the post. In her own letters Woolf constantly feels “cut short”: “have you heard of the catastrophes at Charleston? I cant [sic] go into them in any detail, since they would fill volumes” (CSL, 5 Feb 1919 to Katharine Arnold-Forster: 110). Necessitated by the inherent form (which demands a shorter length of prose) to “eliminate all waste, deadness,
superfluity,” Woolf feels forced to reduce descriptions to their factual essentials: “To economise…I will ring round separate statements, one, two three. (But its [sic] tantalising to think what letters I could write, if, as I say I could merely print off my mind upon a sheet of blue paper about the size of a terrace…) But I want to catch the post.” (L4, 19 Sept 1930 to Ethel Smyth: 215) Once more, we have the blue page; once more, the comment upon material limitations. The parenthesized aside exaggerates the attempt to compress this flight of imagination to a short and “economical” length, ironically endeavouring to fit inside the letter’s boundaries whilst Woolf imagines herself outside these pedantic concerns. The aside, and both the following excerpts, accentuate the material process of writing for the post, for a timetabled “publication” outside the writer’s control: ‘Look how unformed the letters are – there is a careless blot. All must be sacrificed to speed and carelessness. I will write a quick, running, small hand, exaggerating the down stroke of the ‘y’ and crossing the ‘t’ thus – with a dash’ (W: 50) Giles slit the flap of an apparently business document. Lucy read a criss-cross from an old friend at Scarborough. (BA: 194) Bernard narrates his letter-hand in a highly graphological manner, with the present tense of the novel placing his actions as immediate, the “careless blot” existing, we can imagine, as a result of penning these hurried words. Woolf ’s inclusion of the epistolary practice of “criss-crossing,” prevalent during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an expense-saving trick in which the sheet is written on both horizontally and vertically, is an antiquated, anachronistic practice, proof of her desire to draw attention to the materiality of these documents (Kermode, 1992: 203). In both, Woolf emphasizes the measurable boundaries of the sheet of paper and the unromantic economic limitations of the form, often overlooked or unmentioned in fiction. Janet Gurkin Altman (1982) argues that “the epistolary author can choose to emphasise either the distance or the bridge”—to emphasize either the irrefutable gap between writer and recipient, or the letter’s ability to cross such divides (13). Yet one may argue that Woolf emphasizes both in her fictional and non-fictional letters, not closing down the possibility of a paradoxical coexistence. The letter-as-communication saturates the epistle with the writer’s persona; simultaneously, the letter-as-object eliminates their presence, replacing
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them with a more compelling physicality. This oscillating sense of addition and subtraction is found in the verbs of her 1928 diary entry: they war against one another, with “to saturate…to eliminate…to give,” creating a contradictory absent-palpability to Woolf ’s perception of “writing.” Thus, Woolf operates a tensional relationship between the dual forces of presence and absence, saturation and elimination, much like the 1928 diary extract. Keeping paradoxes such as these alive fills Woolf ’s letters with complex contradictions: “The letter from Cassandra was heavy in his pocket. There was also the letter to Cassandra lying on the table in the next room. The atmosphere seemed charged with Cassandra.” (ND: 337) The presence of Cassandra’s letters, and their own underlined physicality (they are “heavy,” they are “lying” on tables) reinforces her actual absence—but the room is still filled with “Cassandra.” Absent yet present, her existence in this moment is both denied and confirmed. Jacob’s Room (1922) holds the ultimate illustration of the contradictory saturation-elimination of the self through letters. In the closing pages of the novel, as Bonamy and Betty Flanders clear out Jacob’s belongings, Bonamy notices on his desk “all his [Jacob’s] letters strewn about for any one to read” (246). Jacob’s letters, though we are assured that they are “so like him” by Mrs. Jarvis, are throughout the novel highly impersonal, serving only to reinforce his textual absence (180). Compare his to Florinda’s letters: “Her spelling was abominable…there were crosses—tear stains; and the hand itself rambling and redeemed only by the fact—which always did redeem Florinda—by the fact that she cared.” (JR: 126-7) Though Woolf ’s novel is not called Florinda’s Room, it holds more of Florinda physically present within it than Jacob. Florinda interacts physically with her letters, which hold her pen-marks, her bodily fluids, and her emotions; her letters are saturated with her, and thus she is present. Despite Bonamy’s narration of Jacob’s letter collection, drawing his correspondence, relationships and previous life events to the fore, making him “present,” the narration paradoxically absents him from the scene: There were Sandra’s letters. Mrs. Durrant was taking a party to Greenwich. Lady Rocksbier hoped for the pleasure… (247) Publishing letters, both to and from the person concerned, has traditionally been considered “a posthumous act” in Western culture, exposing the private sphere to the public (Walker, 1988: 274). Strict definitions of “public” and “private” have, however, continually been blurred and liquefied within the
epistolary genre, the superficial conception of the letter as solely a “private theatre” being now largely demystified (Dusinberre, 1997: 97). Bonamy’s narration of the letters’ contents plays with performing a kind of publication, definitively confirming to readers Jacob’s demise (his death is not established elsewhere) by posthumously making public his “private” correspondence. More critically, however, it emphasizes Jacob’s final absence, an absence that has persisted throughout the novel. In conceiving of her letters in corporeal terminology, Woolf begins to construct links between the physical letter and the physical human body of its writer; the epistolary form is recurrently shown to ape and share specific physical attributes. Therefore, though Thomas O. Beebee (1999) argues that “as a sign, the letter is something tangible, material…which points to the intangible,” Woolf ’s letters can equally be read as pointing from the tangible to the tangible again (48). They construct links from the physical to the physical as Woolf draws the two material “bodies” toward one another, subtly emphasizing their differences in this close juxtaposition. To Clive Bell, in February 1907, Woolf writes: “A true letter, so my theory runs, should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving in the mind; but if I followed my own prescription this sheet would be scored with some very torturous and angular incisions.” (SL: 39, my emphasis) The physical, impressionable surface offered to the writer by the paper is emphasized as it fulfils an engraving role: it takes impressions, via the “film of wax,” of the mind’s “graving,” and is marked by incisions and notches. Woolf perhaps felt that this image clearly described the process of letter-writing, as this engraving image is seen again in a much later 19 September 1930 letter: “I could merely print off my mind upon a sheet of blue paper” (SL: 215, my emphasis). This sense of pliable mimicry within the letter’s paper sheets can be seen in a more specific example from Mrs Dalloway (1925). When Clarissa’s meandering thoughts first rest upon Peter Walsh she remarks on their lack of communication: “she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks” (6). They are not likened to “dry sticks,” they “were”: his letters become, and are, an object in Clarissa’s eyes, and thus we imagine Peter’s letters visually rather than thematically or verbally. Published in the same year within the first Common Reader series, Woolf ’s essay on autobiography, “The Lives of the Obscure,” praises the eighteenth century poet-biographer Laetitia Pilkington for saturating her biographic writings with so much detail and personality as to “prevent [her subjects] from shrivelling to dry sticks” (E4:
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140). The reoccurrence of the same specific descriptive image of parchedness and “deadness” is here the descriptor for the person, not the paper. People can become “dry sticks” too if not saturated with enough life. In this particular example we see not only the way in which Woolf considered people and writing materials with a similar, translatable corporeality, but also the way in which she—consciously or subconsciously—subtly narrowed the gap between person and letter. Woolf allows this gap to disappear gradually: letters become bodies. Her potent use of corporeal language, her carefully constructed symbiotic similarities, and her fluid conception of absence and presence within the letter in fact create corporeal texts, texts which do not simply reference and mimic the physicality of their writers but are treated as their writers themselves. Cousineau (1997) states that the photograph is “the cultural object par excellence that captures the subject in the very process of becoming an object”—arguably, the letter-as-object enacts this process in Woolf ’s work too, but in reverse (13). From object, she transforms the letter into its own “subject,” or writer, a transformation caught within the manner in which Woolf ’s characters, and she herself, interact with the epistolary form. The letter exceeds its purpose as narrative communicator as it “becomes itself the object of interest” (Beebee, 1999: 50). Its presence no longer a substitute for the writer’s absence, it is the writer: ‘I advise you to be circumspect,’ said Ridley. ‘There’s Willoughby, remember – Willoughby’; he pointed at the letter. Helen looked with a sigh at an envelope which lay upon her dressing-table. Yes, there lay Willoughby, curt, inexpressive, perpetually jocular, robbing a whole continent of mystery, enquiring after his daughter’s manners and morals… (VO: 220) Both Ridley and Helen Ambrose treat the letter as if it were Willoughby. It is not “like” Rachel’s father, nor does the letter remind them of his ways; they simply consider that “there lay Willoughby.” His letter has the ability “to conjure presence at the very moment of absence,” and the presence of the signifier becomes one and the same as the signified (Cousineau, 1997: 27). Woolf comments upon the uncanniness of this second body compared to the writer’s “real” self, writing after she meets Vita Sackville-West following a lengthy epistolary correspondence: “So Vita came: & I register the shock of
meeting after absence; how shy one is; how disillusioned by the actual body.” (D3, 25 May 1926: 88) As if Vita’s epistolary corpus has become, in her absence, the corpus (Latin, of course, for “body”) to which Woolf has attributed the self of “Vita Sackville-West,” Woolf notes the shock she experiences at the presence of the “actual body.” Therefore “letter-bodies,” created through the complete, conjoined saturation of the letter’s materiality and the writer’s physicality, and through the elimination of the “superfluous” body (in this case the writer’s), further accentuate Woolf ’s exploration of the dichotomous presence-absence field within the epistolary form. This conception of letters-as-body seems at first to fulfil Woolf ’s creative statement: through saturation, then elimination, comes “wholeness”— here, the whole, present body. Inherently, however, the epistolary structure performs a fragmentary effect upon the self, and problematizes this simplistic amassing of any “whole.” The part-whole lexis with which the original diary entry engages—we have the indivisible “atom” alongside the oxymoronic phrase “moment whole,” a smaller division of time married to an unbroken “all” which has “no part or element wanting”—is thus drawn into this theory of corporeality.3 Letters, dominated by a pervasive sense of structural division, take the “whole” identity or body and splinter it. Their structurally necessary narrative breaks and presentation of “different selves” to one correspondent, then another, eliminate the possibility of transferring a “whole self.” Woolf ’s placement of letters and moments of self-fragmentation—particularly those which revolve around mirrors—in close proximity to one another within her novels and letters is noticeable; through these scenes Woolf explores the interaction between letters and fragmented identity. Letters are used similarly to mirrors by Woolf ’s characters: they seek to draw “the parts [of the self] together” through gazing into them (MD: 42). Woolf ’s letters are frequently gifted mirror-like properties, a perception ubiquitous with their genre. Cousineau (1997) writes that autobiographical writings have a “reflecting surface”—a further example, too, of the form’s materiality as a surface (82). However, both letters and mirrors reflect the self not to present a “whole” but to highlight the process of the self ’s fragmentation, and to further it. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, Woolf concretizes the perceived responsibility of the letter to “reflect oneself ”: “…and then 3 “Whole”, adj. sense 6a. OED Online. September 2013. Accessed 4 December 2013.
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someone says But you’re the most appalling liar I’ve ever met, and I rush to the glass (this sheet is a glass) as if I’d been told my dress was upside down…” (CSL, 6 Apr 1930: 265) The striking image of Woolf peering into her letter is flippant, true; but it still conveys this immediate urge to confirm a sense of preconceived “whole” identity, when challenged, in both letter and mirror. In the following fictional illustrations, Woolf parallels the processes of letterwriting and reading with more concerted efforts to purposefully “compose” (a verb Woolf uses interchangeably for both letter and mirror-reflection) the self in the mirror: Finding her [Helen Ambrose] letter lying before the fire she added a few lines to it…He [Ridley] stood over the fire gazing into the depths of the looking-glass, and compressing his face into the likeness of a commander surveying a field of battle, or a martyr watching the flames like his toes, rather than that of a secluded Professor. (VO: 106-7) Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter. (JR: 124) Pragmatically, these connective scenes between letters and mirror-moments may derive only from their shared environment, the private dressing-room or living quarters. But when the letter’s dual purpose as mirror is considered, it seems to suggest a shared purpose: as Ridley Ambrose strives to “compress” the parts of his face into alternative “whole” visages, so too does his wife. Whilst Jacob composes himself into the “Jacob” that his mother writes to, Florinda enacts a similar (though far less rigorous than Ridley’s) process of self-examination. As objects, both mirror and letter capture the desire to stabilize the moving “self,” to “give the moment whole”—and yet, they instead capture its destabilisation and become instrumental in encouraging a further disintegration. The fragmentary energy (and the consequent necessitation of a partwhole lexis) of the letter does not mean that it cannot be realized in corporeal form—it can be, but we must adjust our critical vocabulary accordingly. “The letter is a metonym for the…body,” yes, but not for the “whole” body (Kauffman, 1992: 20). Echoing the metaphorical part-whole fragmentation of the self through the letter format, a physical actualisation of this theory takes
place. Previously we had progressed in our theorisation from “atom” to “the moment whole,” but now we are forced to regress back to the smaller physical component: letters are body “parts.” Both inherently connected to the origin body and significantly held apart, letters are dismembered; it is a process of synecdoche rather than metonymy that is found in Woolf ’s depiction of them. This separation from the origin body – the sender of the letter—is enacted by the temporal and physical distance necessarily created in sending the letter, which creates an insurmountable space between one’s composition of said letter and another’s reading of it. “The epistolary mode is neither timeless nor transcendent”: its form is governed by the process of posting it, and therefore is fundamentally a product of this passage of time (Kauffman, 1992: xiv). Though criticism is scarce on the “letter-as-body-part” (but rife on the topic of letter linked to whole body), Richard Hardack (2000) does argue that “writing is a skill that literally costs an arm and a leg…to write a letter is to self-differ, to pick up a pen is to dismember one’s hand” (131). Woolf, one might argue, bases her depiction of the epistolary form on this striking literalism: once letters fragment the internal sense of self, they also fragment the self ’s body. In Mrs Dalloway, for example, Peter Walsh exclaims: “Oh it was a letter from her! This blue envelope; that was her hand. And he would have to read it. Here was another of those meetings, bound to be painful! ...it was like a nudge in the ribs.” (131) Though by “that was her hand” Peter of course primarily means that he recognizes Clarissa’s handwriting on the envelope, the admission still conjures a secondary sense—that of the corporeal “hand” as an image in the reader’s mind. Once more, the correlation between epistolary materiality and bodily corporeality is strengthened through that second sentence, the “blue envelope” being directly paralleled with Clarissa’s hand— the language of physicality still pervades, her writing being “like a nudge in the ribs.” Here, then, the letter is the hand, and perhaps the elbow: separated body parts, presented as disassociated, without their original context. This dismemberment also occurs in Jacob’s Room: “But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir... her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it.” (124) Again, we have a “pale blue envelope”; again, it becomes a body part—this time, Betty Flanders’ heart. Beginning as a hypothetical scenario (“if the pale blue envelope…had the feelings of a mother”), by the conclusion of Woolf ’s imagining of Mrs. Flanders’ emotional response her heart is immediately
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palpable within the room (“her heart was swollen”). With this distance between the living body and these smaller fragmented “parts,” Woolf foregrounds her letters as separated relic-like objects rather than “whole” living organisms. Considering the epistolary form as a “dismembered” genre chimes interestingly with many of the concepts raised by Woolf ’s diary excerpt. The process of elimination originally professed to eradicate “all waste, deadness, superfluity”; with the letter-as-body, however, this fragmentary elimination has in fact created a part superfluous to the whole: the body-part letter. Fundamentally “deadened,” the letter now transforms its previous sense of physicality—something alive, “saturated” with a sense of self—into one painfully disassociated and lifeless. The letter therefore carries within it a dual corporeality which readers find uncanny: Let us consider letters... to see one’s own envelope on another’s table is to realize how soon deeds sever and become alien. Then at last the power of the mind to quit the body is manifest, and perhaps we fear or hate or wish annihilated this phantom of ourselves, lying on the table. (JR: 125, my emphasis) This lexis of severance and rupture (alluding to the concept of dismemberment) captures the sense of oxymoronic presence-absence which letters hold. These letters are both “us” and “not us,” essential and “superfluous,” existing as a distorted, fragmented duplication. Letters are simultaneously acknowledged to “be” the viewing body, and are expelled from it. If letters are “mirror-like,” they present a reflection of our own image, which is disturbingly wrong and out of time with its author, a representative of a self only existent in a singular, cemented past moment. “The idea has come to me”: thus Woolf introduces a writing theory that demands both the presence of everything in a moment, and the absence of superfluity; a process of saturation and elimination; a language equally of parts and wholes. The epistolary form is uniquely suited to holding such fundamentally opposed dichotomies—it allows incessant oscillations between these forces within structure, lexis, and content, without attempting to flatten or to “conclude” from them. Their contradictions are not resolved but rather interrogated and multiplied, allowed to resonate through a lively exploration of the epistolary form’s corporeality and subsequent fragmentation. Juliet Dusinberre (1997) argues that “letters stimulated [Woolf] to look for ways of writing which would challenge the critical world” (124). I would argue
that Woolf ’s letters stimulate their modern readers to look at them as ways of writing which could, and should, be considered to have challenged the critical world of Woolf studies. Woolf ’s epistolary corpus has provoked fruitful discussion upon broader issues such as personal canonicity and the critical classification of her autobiographical genres. Her letters may be internally figured as dismembered parts, but their critical position externally in Virginia Woolf ’s literary canon is undoubtedly central, and as equally part of the whole.
Woolf, Virginia. Novels ---.The Voyage Out. Ed. Lorna Sage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. First published 1915. Abbr. VO. ---. Night and Day. Ed. Suzanne Raitt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. First published 1919. Abbr. ND. ---. Jacob’s Room. Ed. Kate Flint. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. First published 1922. Abbr. JR. ---. Mrs Dalloway. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. First published 1925. Abbr. MD. ---. The Waves. Intr. Gillian Beer. London: Vintage, 2004. First published 1931. Abbr. W. ---. Between the Acts. Ed. Frank Kermode. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. First published 1941. Abbr. BA. Essays ---. The Essays of Virginia Woolf vol. 1 1904-1912. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1986. Abbr. E1. ---. The Essays of Virginia Woolf vol. 3 1919-1924. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1988. Abbr. E3. ---. The Essays of Virginia Woolf vol. 4 1925-1928. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1994. Abbr. E4. Letters and diaries ---. Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks. London: Hogarth Press, 1989. Abbr. CSL.
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---. The Diary of Virginia Woolf vol. III 1925-1930. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. London: Hogarth Press, 1980. Abbr. D3. ---. A Passionate Apprentice: the early journals. Ed. Mitchell A. Leanska. London 1990. Abbr. PA. ---. Selected Diaries. Abr. and ed. Anne Olivier Bell. London: Vintage, 2008. Abbr. SD. ---. Selected Letters. Ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks. London: Vintage, 2008. Abbr. SL.
Printed Altman, Janet Gurkin. 2006. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Ohio: Ohio State University Press. Avery, Todd. 2006. “The Letters of Lytton Strachey (review).” Modernism/ modernity 13: 934-935. Beebee, Thomas O. 1999. Epistolary Fiction in Europe 1500-1850. Cambridge: University Press. Bell, Anne Olivier. 1990. Editing Virginia Woolf ’s Diary. London: Bloomsbury Workshop. Cook, Elizabeth Heckendorn. 1996. Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters. Stanford: University Press. Cousineau, Diane. 1997. Letters and Labyrinths: Women Writing/Cultural Codes. London: University of Delaware Press. Dusinberre, Juliet. 1997. Virginia Woolf ’s Renaissance: Woman Reader or Common Reader? London: Macmillan. Hardack, Richard. 2000. “Bodies in Pieces, Texts Entwined: Correspondence and Intertextuality in Melville and Hawthorne.” In Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture, edited by Amanda Gilroy and W.M. Verhoeven. London: University Press of Virginia. How, James. 2003. Epistolary Spaces: English Letter Writing from the Foundation of the Post Office to Richardson’s Clarissa. Aldershot: Ashgate. Kauffman, Linda S. 1992. Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction. London: University of Chicago Press. Kermode, Frank and Anita Kermode, eds. 1995. The Oxford Book of Letters. Oxford: University Press. Marcus, Jane. 1988. “Invincible Mediocrity: The Private Selves of Public
Women.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. London: Routledge. Perry, Ruth. 1980. Women, Letters, and the Novel. New York: AMS Press, Inc. Rosenbaum, S.P. 1998. Aspects of Bloomsbury: Studies in Modern English Literary and Intellectual History. London: Macmillan. Sellers, Susan. 2000. “Virginia Woolf ’s diaries and letters.” In The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, first edition, edited by Susan Sellers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Simon, Sunka. 2002. Mail-orders: The Fiction of Letters in Postmodern Culture. New York: State University of New York Press. Snaith, Anna. 2000. Virginia Woolf: Public and Private Negotiations. London: Macmillan Press. Tamboukou, Maria. 2011. “Rethinking the private hypothesis: Epistolary topographies in Carrington’s letters.” Emotion, Space and Society 4: 25- 34. Walker, Nancy. 1988. ““Wider Than the Sky”: Public Presence and Private Self in Dickinson, James, and Woolf.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. London: Routledge. Web resources King, Julia, and Laila Miletic-Vejzovic, comp. and ed. 2003. The Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Short-title Catalog. Washington: Washington State University Press. Accessed 30 November 2013. http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu/masc/onlinebooks/woolflibrary/ woolflibraryonline.htm The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. 1989. OED Online: Oxford University Press. Accessed 28 November – 4 December 2013. http://www.oed.com/ Woolf, Virginia: The Works of Virginia Woolf. Web database: Primary Source Media. Accessed 29 November 2013. Woolmer, J. Howard. 1986. A Checklist of the Hogarth Press, 1917-1946. Duke University Library Holdings. Accessed November 2013. http://li brary.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/literary/hogarth.html
CONSTRUCTIONS OF THE REAL Emily Paull University of Michigan
one thing about literature, it is that we can comprehend much more about the reader than the text. There is neither an inherent nature nor are there any universal principles of literature to be found. In order to delineate a unified sense of a written work, the question of who endows the text with its meaning is immediately posed. Because the â€œwhoâ€? can refer to cultures and nations as well as persons, literary critics find themselves travelling down a narrow road, with little room for deviation from a prescriptive path. Yet literary studies are a dynamic field, producing a multiplicity of readings of the earliest canonical texts, with the project of interpretation persisting today. That persistence occurs partly because any critical approach is a lens created by the craftsman; it is a manifestation of personal biases, rendering a reading unique to its reader. Consequently, theory allows readers to bring assumptions to a text that may be outside of their experience, which is fruitful in the endeavor of literary analysis because it heightens a readerâ€™s selfawareness. However, one must never forget that theory cannot break free from its innate bias, for its bias is inherent in its construction; in this sense, theory is hopelessly limited. Nevertheless, the postulate that theory is idiosyncratic is expansive in that it validates all critical theories. Therefore, the theory that attempts to be the most valuable must be simultaneously broad enough to account for a variety of readings and widely applicable in such a way that it can be referential. At the same time, it must have enough specificity to be coherent, for the best a theory can do to account for its shortcomings is to always be aware of them. Any valuable theory ought to be interdisciplinary, not a derivative of one particular school. It also ought to continually mediate between the binaries that are fundamental to the structure of language. It must be concurrently linguistic and cultural, abstract and practical, and reflexive and referential. Combining post-structural, Marxist, and post-colonial theories, establishes an interdisciplinary methodology that accomplishes these objectives, ultimately f critical theory helps us understand
creating a theory that is universally germane despite its individual nature. The writings of Baudrillard, Said, and Hegel respond to the construction of the meaning of a text, its impact in constructing history and the power dynamics that underpin the structure of every written work. The ideas of the third theorist, Hegel, must be included to claim that this combination has a broad application. Baudrillard and Said posit that the truth is a construction. The tension between them forms the two ends of the binary in that, for Baudrillard, literature is the construct, while for Said, literature produces the construct. The third destabilizing factor is Hegel’s assertion of the creation of truth. This term, used in relation to Baudrillard and Said, sees its validation in the negation of the other two theories and it is important to note that the formation of self-consciousness outlined by Hegel is a process as opposed to a static state of being. Therefore, the real asserts itself because the nature of the construct is negated through the conflict of its producer, as argued between Baudrillard and Said; this is the life and death struggle in which these theories vie for dominance. As a result, the struggle “does away with the truth which was supposed to issue from” it (Phenomenology 114). The concepts are shaken – they have lost their truth. Yet in the final step, known as the ironic reversal, they acquire a legitimacy and freedom from their oppressor through their work—that is to say, they can assert selfhood.1 Having undergone this process, the hyperreal2 comes into its self-consciousness; it is the simulacra that persist. Baudrillard advances a reflexive theory that challenges the validity of the real. Instead of truth, he asserts that what one sees as a truth is in fact a 1 In this essay, inanimate objects, people and abstract ideas are lumped together.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, they all exist in our world as simulacra and so the concept is deprivileged to the human who is deprivileged to the status of a thing. Second, they are all acted upon in a similar fashion – all can be engaged with, reconstructed, and challenged. I find it pertinent to group them together to show how pervasive the simulacra are and that nothing is immune to them. In addition, just as humans go through the process of self-consciousness, so do things and concepts. Thus, the experience of self-hood can be applied liberally. 2 There is no truth as we know it in the sense that we cannot produce factual adages about life – it is profound in its unknowability. All attempts to define the truths of life have been akin to the production of simulacra, a perpetuation of hyperreality. While I use the terms “truth(s)” and “real” interchangeably to broadly challenge the notion of an essentialized knowability, hyperreality is the attempt to describe what is left of one’s sense of things after coming into self-consciousness.
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construct. What then comes to characterize the experience of an individual is a “fiction of the real,” for no such universal claim to truth can be made (Baudrillard 370). What replaces the essential truth of a thing is a simulacrum, which is “nothing more than operational,”; that is to say, it is arbitrary as opposed to referential (Baudrillard 366). Its arbitrariness is why it cannot be located in a logical, practical sense. The unlocatable, intangible quality of the simulacrum makes it hyperreal. Consequently, the simulacrum is irrevocably produced from the “artificial resurrection in systems of signs,”3 and is endlessly reproducible (Ibid.). Because it invokes the sign, it is predicated upon loaded social cues, yet the systems of signs are constructed and continuously modified by those that employ them. Thus, the notion of reference that is suggested is a mockery: simulacra are referential only unto themselves (reflexive) and, in that, they propose the “liquidations of all referentials,” for the simulacrum precedes the truth (Ibid.). The simulacra, and the process of simulation, are founded on ideals of equality between the sign (simulacra) and the signified (truths). The equality is an illusion. The process of simulation is all-encompassing and takes over the representation of any concept, thing or individual (Baudrillard 368). Simulation results in a loss of substantive understanding, so all that is left is the simulacrum, or the construct. Furthermore, this perceived loss of the real induces panic in the individual, who turns against the simulacra, proclaiming them the “murderers of the real” (Ibid.). The reaction here is necessary to survive, and to retain legitimacy, because “every form of power, every situation speaks of itself by denial” (Baudrillard 372). In doing so, the simulacrum of power is perpetuated, and the crisis of consciousness that momentarily threatened the system of belief is overcome to restore itself to pure consciousness. The simulacra and the real can be extrapolated onto the understanding of literature as it relates to society. For Baudrillard, literature is the construct; it is the simulation of truths dispersed by individuals. Therefore, literature’s formation perpetuates the underlying myth of order in society, just as the construct perpetuates the myth that there is a reality behind it. While Said is not antagonistic to the construction of reality, he opposes Baudrillard’s claims for literature. According to Said, it is literature that produces the construct of truth. His argument arises from his practice 3 It is the artificial resurrection in that the simulacrum is produced via a construct-
ed system of signs. Consequently, construct builds off construct in the realm of the hyperreal.
of literary analysis. For example, his grand claim that literature writes history must be extracted from his essay, “Jane Austen and Empire.” He begins by legitimizing his intellectual investigation into the relationship between literature and its implications in society, stating, “there was not much support for that resistance [to imperialism] in the main departments of cultural thought” (Said 1112). In staking his claim, Said validates the intricate link between political climate and practice and cultural productions, such as literature. His piece also critically highlights the ways in which readers of a text are complicit in its agenda. He emphasizes that the nationalist rhetoric of empire “[does] more than validate ‘our world’” (Said 1113). More crucially, it fails to “prevent or inhibit or give resistance to” imperialism, and thus it does not engage in social activism as one might expect (Ibid.). How can literature write history if it is, in this instance, passive? It does not resist because it does not need to; the function of literature in Said’s essay reaffirms truth as a construction, as presented by Baudrillard. However, literature, in Said’s theory, does not need to undergo the process of negation in order to assert itself because it creates the notion of history. This negation is always the work on the end of the construct, in this case, the construct that is history. Consequently, the rhetoric of imperialism is defined by the language of positive nationalism; imperialism comes to prevail under the guise of selfcontained national interest. The text therefore does the work of creating the construct, which goes through a Hegelian realization of consciousness. Because of this, Said argues that Austen’s text “opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible” (Said 1123, emphasis mine). Thus, literature is implicated in the construction of history and, by extension, culture, although it would be an overreach to blame Austen and her text for imperialism. Her text participates in the creation of the construct by reinforcing the imperialist mission through the presentation of nationalist themes in her novel. Austen’s novel can only be exemplary of this process because it is canonical; it has been invested with authority through its wide acceptance in society. This status is largely why Austen is complicit and not to blame; her text is part of a whole body of texts that collectively construct the history of imperialism. The significance of this is that her novel serves as a microcosm for the ways in which literature is implicated in writing history. The novel then perpetuates the illusion of the construct by imitation of the Hegelian process of self-
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consciousness, of the illusion’s struggle to attain its own truth. This attempt is inevitably only a simulation of finding reality. We must never forget that it is a construction. In the discussion of Baudrillard and Said and the role of literature in the construction of truth, a binary emerges. However, this two-dimensional combination is limiting in its application to literary interpretation. Furthermore, the power dynamic inherent in the nature of the binary has yet to be addressed. The introduction of Hegel’s lord and bondsman dialectic thus serves a twofold purpose: first, to complicate the flat binary and inject the necessary elements of three-dimensionality and play to make possible a variety of readings; second, to describe the flow of power in this theoretical system. Hegel’s dialectic has its basis in reality as a truth and so is oppositional to Baudrillard and Said. It thus challenges and implodes the binary. Hegel’s focus centers on the coming into being of self-consciousness. According to him, an individual’s consciousness is proven “through a life-and-death struggle with another to attain the certainty of selfhood” (Phenomenology 114). This struggle then momentarily shatters the notion of truth. Instead, the self is split into independent “pure self-consciousness” and dependent “consciousness in the form of thinghood,” as he states, “the former is lord, the other is bondsman” (Phenomenology 115). Thus, hierarchy defines these two terms (Ibid.). They form their own power dynamic and they are connected through a thing that is subsumed by the lord, but is independent from the bondsman; this being mediates the two and allows for the interplay necessary for Hegel to continue his process (Ibid.). The middle term serves to complicate the binary and intercede between the lord and the bondsman; to the lord, the thing is the individual through which he is negated, thus the “thing is independent vis-à-vis the bondsman” (Phenomenology 116). In these constructions of the relationship between the lord, the thing that is both used and worked on, and the bondsman, the lord is posited as the “essential action” (Ibid.) that uses the thing (thus subsuming it into dependence) and the bondsman is the “unessential action” that works on the independence of the third term (Phenomenology 117). Thus, the struggle is won by the lord, whose “truth is in reality the unessential consciousness” of the bondsman (Ibid.). The caveat to this is that the truth of the lord comes into itself by being acknowledged by the bondsman. In turn, this leads to the ironic reversal of power: the “essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be” for the lord. In practice,
it is dependent on the bondsman to come into its self-consciousness and therefore is not free (Ibid.). On the other hand, the bondsman, in his work, comes to know his reality of having “a mind of his own” and is in fact free and independent (Phenomenology 119). However, Hegel does not claim that the attainment of the reality of selfhood abolishes the slavery: the bondsman remains “enmeshed in servitude” to the hegemony of the lord but is free in mind in that his conscious remains strong against this constructed power relation (Ibid.). Hegel does not acknowledge that this dynamic is a construct. To him, it is possible for truth to exist in the unity between concept and reality (Hegel 649) – that is, that the lord-bondsman dialectic can be a verity because the bondsman has obtained conceptual freedom despite the practice of the hierarchy in which the lord asserts his control. Hegel’s theory is not self-aware, functioning as the lord in its infallible insistence of truth. Baudrillard and Said shatter the concrete quality of the dialectic on which Hegel stakes his claim; it is merely a construction like the many other so-called truths that reign in society. The process of reversal and illumination that Hegel outlines can be used to chart the collapse of the Baudrillard-Said binary with the introduction of the lord-bondsman dialectic. Hegelian theory posits itself as the lord; it knows its truth because of the presence of the third term that mediates its relationship to the simulacra. The thing in this case is the literature itself. Reality takes pleasure in literature and literature is dependent on truth. We see this in the way literature correlates to what is perceived as history and why Jane Austen’s novel is implicit in British imperialism. Thus, literature is posited as independent of the simulacra. However, the simulacra performs work on literature (that is, in relation to it) and in doing so rediscovers itself. Consequently, as the simulacrum “[withdraws] into itself ” (Phenomenology 117), its self-sufficiency is legitimized. In its attainment of a mind of its own, only the illusion persists and, as Baudrillard claims, nothing is behind it – it exists only for itself. It is ultimately reflexive. So it is that the construction which Baudrillard and Said argue for critiques the claim to reality that Hegel makes. But this is all predictable in that it follows a pattern previously presented, and so an ironic reversal on the meta-level is in store. As long as Baudrillard and Said argue for the simulacrum, they will perjure themselves in terms of form because they rely on the statement, a vehicle for the presentation
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of a truth. Formally, the statement lords over the process that Hegel uses to construct his argument. The lordship of the statement makes Hegel necessary to balance the binary because his process is in opposition to Baudrillard’s and Said’s statements and thus challenges their imposition on the system. Hegel’s resistance against the statement validates the process through its negation against the statement. Ultimately, this frees the process. The statement, however, becomes dependent on the presence of the Hegelian process to exist. Consequently, in the revelation of the lack of freedom of the statement, Baudrillard’s and Said’s truth as the illusory construct can persist. However, the Hegelian process ensures that the construct is not merely reflexive (the simulacrum unto itself) but referential (the simulacrum as the freed bondsman under the lord of truth). We see this because society, in practice, functions under strict regulation. Despite this, the shackles of duty are invisible because they are nonexistent. We only bring them into being to conceal the chaos that is life. Unfortunately, a theory can only be so broad without devolving into pandemonium; it is inevitable that considerations in an interpretation will be left out when a critical approach is applied to the reading of a text. The shortcomings of the interdisciplinary theory presented here include negligence toward the aesthetics of a work. The theory provides a vocabulary and a framework with which to analyze cultural and historical relevancies of a text, but it sacrifices the opposition of the artistic versus the political for that of the real versus the construction. Furthermore, its focus is aligned with the reader. This is made possible by a collapse in the distinction between the text and its author. Such a project is dangerous, for to ignore the difference between the text and its author may prove as irresponsible as setting aside context in praise of aesthetic qualities. All of which means that this theory has serious pitfalls. However, it questions itself and so, at the very least, the function of self-reflection leads to recognition of its limitations. Consequently, continual critique is a hallmark of this critical approach; it aims to be dynamic instead of static. One can see the way this theory functions on two different planes: on the level of the reader and literature (the canon) and on the textual level, as shown in an excerpt of Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” The application of the Baudrillard-Hegel-Said trio to the relationship between the canon and the reader is an application of the theory in abstraction. Without a doubt, the
canon is constructed – its texts, for a long time, were handpicked by white male academics at English-speaking universities. Their selection sets the standards for culture, style and education that still live among us today. It clings to our notions of what is good and bad, worthy of study or what should remain in obscurity in the wake of the forward “progress” of history. The compilation of the canon rules us, sitting far above the people and dictating; from afar it excludes, marginalizes and reinforces its own hegemony. Resultantly, the reader is in bondage to the canon. Why and how an individual reads is inevitably compared with the standard of the study of “high” literature (that of the canon) and a reader’s ability to have a reading experience in which the artistic qualities of a text resonate with the individual. The so-called enlightened reading experience with this narrow collection of texts becomes invested with social capital; it is viewed with such authoritative power that canonical works are said to give us universal truths about human nature. They are transcendent and so are above humanity, which repeatedly lies to itself. Canonical works seem to hold a mirror to humankind because in practice, the canon only exists in relation to its readers and its struggle for self-consciousness (its validity in society). For whom does the canon exist if not for itself ? Its influence is a juggernaut – it is largely unaccountable to individuals. However, it so happens that its essential nature is not pure self-consciousness. The canon is not free from its constructors, rather it is the readers who are free, who have the agency of self-consciousness although the canon continues to subsume their actions by directing what is read. We see that the individual’s mind is liberated because he or she can criticize the canon, and, indeed, it has been criticized and modified in later years. Thus, in the construction and critique of the canon, the cultural standard is set and literature continues to write history. We must never forget it is a construct and we must never forget to question its so-called reality. In order to test out this theory, it needs to be put to the test: can it be applied to a text? Does it prove to be generative? In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the husband of the wife is described as reading works with negative depictions of women. The wife continues to comment on the depiction of women, asking “Who peyntede the leoun, tel me, who?” and, in doing so, brings the question of the constructor to the fore (Chaucer 692). This particular example, although it significantly predates all three theorists, is complimentary in content to the theory outlined above. In
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asking about the creator, the narrator questions the nature of a representation. Clearly it is a construct – we see that the “leoun” does not act and is the object of the “who” that brought it into being. The Wife then goes on to state, “if wommen hadde writen stories/ As clerkes han […]/ They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse/ Than all the mark of Adam” (Chaucer 693-6). The theory helps unravel the underlying power dynamic of this excerpt; it is the stories of the women that are posited as the lord, for they would produce the depictions of evil men. It is implied that their images would become pervasive and that men would develop a negative stereotype. However, this construct is an illusion. The men, although subverted by the image crafted of them, would be free in and of themselves; they would not be wicked in nature, albeit cursed to be wicked in name. While this is a plausible reading, it must be further challenged if we are to apply the theory. Women in this excerpt may seem to be the lord because it is “if wommen hadde writen stories,” but this is predicated on the actions of the men, for “as clerkes han [written stories] withinnne hir oratories” of women (Chaucer 693-4). Consequently, a double-layering is revealed. The woman is able, through her work, to see her role in the vicious cycle of antagonism that leads to misrepresentation. As a result, the Wife is able to beg the question of who is the producer, while the male writer reigns but is not and cannot become self-aware; he clearly cannot achieve self-consciousness because he is unable to see beyond the walls of his castle – he cannot ask the question. The other components of the theory shed light on the work of these gendered constructions. The tension between Baudrillard and Said allows the construct to simultaneously create wicked women (in that they conform to their societal trope and embody it) even though the wicked woman does not exist at all; she is merely an illusion to allow men to feel as though they can control women and possess superior natures. Due to the interplay of these theorists, we see how the wicked woman does not exist in the abstract, but that in practice, she is present in daily life; serving as the constructed illusion. The need for an interdisciplinary approach becomes apparent. The focus of a sole school of thought would prove too limited to provide much insight into the reader and would result in predictable readings of texts. Literary studies would become a persistent dial tone – innovation and variety would be lost. Baudrillard, Hegel and Said prove fertile because they work to refute each other and reveal nuance between what initially appears to be commonality.
Their combination theory proves referential in that it sees itself as distinct from aesthetic theories but is still applicable to the goings-on of the external world. It is reflexive in that it engages in a process in which it continuously implodes and renews itself, so that it is self-aware. This methodology reveals the dynamics of power of a text, but also its fallacy, for power, to a certain extent, must first be crafted by an individual and then assented to by all. Its basis lies within the question of creation.4 This goes beyond the notion of control. Control is obtained through force – the power from creation we can see in itself, for it is creativity. What seduces the world into the cult of the simulacra is the wholeness of it, and so the world reaffirms the construction. Inevitably, the construct becomes so assimilated in the world and we to it that we cannot remember its origin. We come to regard it as a believed reality, a religion of sorts. In the application of the theory, we pinpoint the long-lost beginning and in doing so, we gain our readerly selfconsciousness. The shortcomings limit us but we are aware of this and work against it. We become free to interpret. In our struggle, we earn the right to our interpretation and we can see that there is equality among readings. They are all constructed and so no reading is better than another, they only hold better or lesser places in the simulacrum of culture. Finally, in closing I must note that I have pieced together this theory. Reader, never forget the fact that its construction is its greatest strength but also its insurmountable limitation.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 365-77. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Norton Critical Edition ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005. 118. Print. Hegel, G. W. F. “Dialectics.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 647-58. Malden, MA: Blackwell 4 A way to think of the power of creation is to look at schools of thought such as For-
malism that give the author power to wield a magic wand of language. The desire to know the author’s intentions, to derive his or her meaning, is the power of creation. It is the unwavering sense of divine authority. It makes emperors out of authors and producers. Control can change hands and can be much more easily critiqued. Its power is constructed but tends to fizzle out.
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Publishing, 2004. Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. Said, Edward. “Jane Austen and Empire.” In Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julia Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 1112-25). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
“MANURE THE WHOLE PLACE OVER” NARRATIVE CYCLES AND THE FECAL FECUNDITY OF LANGUAGE IN JAMES JOYCE’S ULYSSES
Sean Kirkby University of Wisconsin-Madison
oyce’s] own art, the Christian church, and indeed the history of
the world had their guinesses in the sublimation of the pregenital sexual delights of urination and defecation,” critic Chester Anderson wrote about the role of urination and defecation in the works of James Joyce (242). Anderson is one of many scholars who have written on the connections between artistic creation and scatology in Joyce’s work, yet many have neglected to deal specifically with why Joyce chose the fecundity of defecation as a way of expressing the creative process. Anderson provides the answer; this fecundity is closely entwined with Joyce’s vision of the “history of the world.” Scholars have also written widely on Joyce’s choice to structure Ulysses in a manner that mimics the cyclical nature of history proposed by the philosopher Giambestta Vico. When considering the work of previous scholars who have connected waste production with language production and others who have analyzed the cyclical nature of the novel, it becomes apparent that Joyce chose the language of urination and defecation to highlight this cyclical nature. Scenes involving acts of excretion are critical to the novel’s argument regarding Vico’s vision of history as well as critical to the formation of the relationship between the Stephen and Bloom. Rather than simply running as an analogue to Joyce’s emphasis on language in the novel, the removal of waste from the body performs a cyclical function in Ulysses while presenting a powerful metaphor for creative endeavor. Many scholars have viewed Joyce’s use of excrement in his works as an analogy of artistic creation. Vincent Cheng argues that to Joyce, “artistic creations of ‘litterature’ are at once bilabial speech, biological offspring, and biodegradable waste. Each implies the others and Joyce proves by algebra an equation between the activities of artistic creation, physical procreation, and excremental production” (85-86). Susan Brienza claims that for Joyce, bodily processes and cycles, such as eating and excreting, together represent, or
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parallel, the creative process (118). Lindsey Tucker argues that Joyce’s focus on the digestive process and the responses of Bloom and Stephen are two ways in which he comments on the creative process (2). While all these studies explain the strong connections between excrement and language in Joyce, they neglect the question: Why did Joyce choose to use the language of excrement in Ulysses? The few answers scholars have provided to this question are unsatisfying. Tucker proposes that Joyce’s attention to “transformational properties of language, style, and narrative techniques derive from his awareness of the role played by the alimentary process in relation to the socalled higher activities of the mind” (2). While this explains Joyce’s focus on eating and consuming, it does not explain the main and climactic roles that defecation and urination, which appear throughout the novel at key points, play in its overall development. Some of the suggestions for why Joyce chose the language of defecation and urination in his works have hedged on his personal life, drawing from letters Joyce wrote to his wife, Nora Barnacle, that mention these processes. Clive Hart states in his study of Finnegans Wake that Joyce’s use of excremental images bordered on “obsession” and that “there can be no denying that Joyce found everything associated with evacuation unusually pleasurable” (202). That Joyce may have found “evacuation unusually pleasurable” provides neither an adequate explanation nor a satisfying answer as to why Joyce placed such an emphasis on defecation and urination in his novel nor how this emphasis functions. Although she does not develop it to the fullest extent, Tucker posits a possible analogue with language and excrement in her study of Ulysses. She writes that the philosopher Giambestta Vico proposed that language evolved from gesture, arguing that “of particular importance here is Vico’s focus on all creative processes—intellectual and linguistic—as extensions of human consciousness and human corporeality” (Tucker 7). Vico’s focus on processes also led him to propose a cyclical version of history, wherein multiple civilizations follow the same trajectory of rising and declining throughout time. William Tindall notes that the general structure of Ulysses is cyclical and that “the process of eating, digesting, and excreting is another circle” (70). He goes on to argue that these cyclical patterns suggest Vico’s interpretation of history, which consists of three ages that move through a cycle: the divine, the heroic, and the human. When one cycle finishes, “another begins, and
flux comes reflux…history repeats itself ” (Tindall 71). Tindall’s explanation of the three ages of the cycle ties in neatly with attributes of the three central characters of the novel: Stephen’s emphasis on the divine nature of mankind, the heroic nature of Bloom through his correspondence with Odysseus, and Molly’s association with humanity. Joyce connected Molly with humanity in a letter in which he said she receives “the last word (human, all too human)” of the novel (Joyce, Letters 278). Joyce associates defecation and urination with the creation of writing and language and he does so in part because of the cyclical nature of these processes and their end-result of fertility. Rather than simply functioning as a metaphor for writing and language, the removal of waste from the body also serves to create a cycle that matches Vico’s cyclical interpretation of the world’s history. The foremost role the language of excrement plays in fertility, and in the initiation of the cyclical function of the novel, is the connection that forms between the creation of words and the creation of waste. In “Proteus,” as Stephen walks among the rocks, he urinates into the water. Deciding to finish the job quickly, Stephen notes his urine creates “a fourworded wavespeech: seesooo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos…it flows purling, widely flowing floating foampool, flower unfurling” (3.456-460). Joyce connects this passage with the opening of the next chapter, which begins with a description of how Bloom likes grilled mutton kidneys, giving his palate a taste of “faintly scented urine” (4.4). Already, both Bloom and Stephen have formed a connection over the process of removing waste from the body, although one chooses to expel it while the other chooses to consume it. However, urine in this passage is more closely associated with the production of words and language. As Cheng notes, the scene has an “analogical link with art, to understand that urination is—like writing poetry or printing books—another mode of production” (88). The urine has become a fertile form of production, producing a “fourworded wavespeech.” A connection then is drawn between Bloom, Stephen, and fertility again with the phrase of a “flowing floating foampool, flower unfurling.” At the end of “Lotus-Eaters,” Bloom rests in the tub as he looks over his body, focusing on “the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower” (5.571572). The descriptions of Stephen’s urine and Bloom’s penis both emphasize flower imagery. As a result, a connection forms not only between Stephen, Bloom and urination, but also between production and fertility. This connection between urination and defecation and production and
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fertility echoes what many scholars have pointed toward as the role of artistic creation and the role of language in the production of waste; however, scholars have neglected to realize the implications of the cyclical efforts of the novel. Words do not only rise out of waste; they turn into waste as well. When Bloom retires to an outhouse to read a “prize tidbit” from Matchman’s Masterstroke, he begins to defecate. As Joyce writes, “quietly [Bloom] read, restraining himself, the first column, and, yielding but resisting began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone” (4.506509). While words once before were associated with rising from urination, here they literally become excrement. In the process, Bloom describes the periodical as “one tabloid of cascara sagrada” (4.510). As critic Don Gifford notes, “cascara sagrada” is Spanish for sacred bark, which was often advertised as a mild laxative (81). Words have not only been consumed by Bloom and turned into waste—they have helped him turn it into waste easily, breaking his constipation from the previous day. By connecting the process of reading and defecating, Joyce combines the two processes, as the body is both processing waste and processing words, again emphasizing Vico’s association between process and cycle. While the act of urination earlier in the novel was associated with the act of creating words, the defecation that occurs in this scene destroys words—as Stephen functions as a creator of words, Bloom functions as the destroyer. Joyce removes any ambiguity about this by having Bloom tear “away half the prize story sharply and wipe himself with it” (4.537). The desecration of the written word is clear in the passage, but at the same time, it also functions as a cycle: words once came out of urine and waste and they now return to it. They may not be the same words as before, but they are still words that bear a close association with the same words that entered the system, reflecting a cycle of death and birth. While Bloom defaces language by wiping himself with it, he also expresses a desire to produce his own work for publication; in a way, he seeks to further the cycle of creating and destroying. After Bloom finishes defecating on the prize tidbit and his “water flow[s] quietly,” he begins to envy “kindly Mr. Beaufoy,” who wrote the story for three pounds, thirteen and six. He ponders writing his own sketch with his wife, “invent[ing] a story for some proverb” (4.518-519). Joyce connects the act of desecration and destruction of a text, the act of transforming it into waste, with a desire to create another text and
continue the cycle. Even before entering the outhouse, Bloom announces his desire to “manure the whole place over,” feeling upset over “all soil like that without dung” (4.477-479). He thinks about the neighboring hens in the next garden, commenting that their “droppings are very good top dressing” (4.479). Thus, in the lines preceding and following Bloom’s defecation, he expresses his desire to create—to make the surrounding wasteland vibrant. In preceding scenes of the novel, Stephen’s urination had only given rise to words, while Bloom’s defecation had destroyed them. Here, however, Bloom desires to move beyond the creation and destruction of words as a process in itself. He wants to create a cycle, to “manure the whole place over,” and allow for growth even as he destroys language. Joyce anticipated that critics would associate the production of writing solely with defecation, so he included scenes that counteract this notion and demonstrate that writing and waste production are not the same. Despite Bloom’s desire to write and emulate Beaufoy, he never achieves success, as reflected in the “Circe” episode. When Bloom presents himself in the trial as an “author-journalist” of a new “collection of prize stories of which [he is] the inventor, something that is an entirely new departure,” Beaufoy takes the witness stand and accuses Bloom of lying (15.802-805). He accuses Bloom of being a plagiarist, “a soapy sneak masquerading as a littérateur,” and insults him as “a funny ass” (15.822-823, 15.832). Joyce has also built into these insults a reference to “litter” and Bloom’s bottom, emphasizing excretory functions. Beaufoy presents Bloom with “the damning evidence, the corpus delicti…a specimen of my maturerer work disfigured by the hallmark of the beast” (15.843-845). This is presumably a copy of the page Bloom has torn and wiped his buttocks with, as a voice from the gallery declares “Moses, Moses, king of the jews / Wiped his arse in the Daily News” (15.843-845). Bloom, however, cannot be the plagiarist that Beaufoy accuses him of being as Joyce provides us with no evidence of Bloom’s writing talents. Hence, the argument that waste and writing functions as an analogy with one another falters in Bloom’s narrative. Bloom, despite his desire to emulate Beaufoy and his jealousy over the publication of Beaufoy’s story, must find a different method to establish a fertile relationship and another way to pursue his desire for fertilization and creation. Critic Kelly Anspaugh, however, offers a different interpretation of the trial and Bloom’s punishment in “Circe.” Pointing toward other passages,
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specifically Bello’s punishment for Bloom (“We’ll bury you in our shrubbery jakes…we’ll manure you, Mr. Flower”) and the slang hurled at Bloom such as “shitbreeches,” he argues for a less positive interpretation of defecation (15.3207-3212, 15.195). Whereas Hart argues that there is little indication of any real guilt on Bloom’s part in this chapter, Anspaugh claims that “‘Circe’ reveals the unconscious mind of Bloom…what is represented is precisely Bloom’s repressed guilt over his coprophilic tendencies, and by extension perhaps Joyce’s own ambivalence” (Anspaugh). Anspaugh associates Bloom and Joyce too closely, and his interpretation runs counter to what Joyce wrote in his own letters to his wife, which often focused on his wife’s anus (Anspaugh). Whether or not the passage “perhaps [shows] Joyce’s own ambivalence,” as Anspaugh writes, toward his preoccupation tells the reader little about how defecation functions in the novel. This interpretation is confounded by Bloom’s own testimony in the court, where he not only presents defecation in a positive light, as some critics have argued, but also indicates that the fertility of soil goes beyond simple creative processes. As Bloom is put on trial, the Sins of the Past present their own testimony, which includes the description of several crimes of Bloom that focused on the process of defecation. For example, according to the Sins of the Past, Bloom supposedly “encouraged a nocturnal strumpet to deposit fecal and other matter in an unsanitary outhouse,” as well as “gloating over a nauseous fragment of well used toilet paper” (15.3032-3033, 15.3038-3039). Calling him a “repugnant wretch,” Bello insists on knowing Bloom’s dirtiest crime, to which Bloom replies “I rererepugnosed in rererepugnant” (15.3052, 15.3057). While appearing to mean that Bloom feels he is repugnant, the phrase is ambiguous. Sheldon Brivic argues in Between Freud and Jung that the reason “Joyce always spelled rear ‘rere’ may lie in a linguistic equation between feces and the multiplicity of matter.” Brivic explains that the Latin word for matter, “res” becomes “re” in the causal sense, meaning that, in Ulysses, the rear of the body may be involved in the potential creation of a multiplicity of types of matter (139). Also involved in this would be the sense of “re-” as repetition, such as redoing or recycling something, another emphasis on the cyclical nature of the digestive process. This act of associating fecal matter with fecundity in “Circe” runs counter to Anspaugh’s claims that Bloom’s coprophilia, a sexual preference for feces, is not presented in a positive light. Furthermore, the process of fertility in this scene could lead to the
development of an increase in something beyond simple writing. The cycle does not necessarily involve the rising and creating of language but can cause the formation and cycling of a father-son relationship. The cycle of fertility comes full circle near the end of the novel when both Bloom and Stephen urinate in the garden, fulfilling Bloom’s desire to create a breeding ground and solidifying the union between the two characters. Shortly before entering the outhouse where he defecates while reading a tidbit from Matchman’s Masterstroke, Bloom expresses a desire to “manure the whole place over” (4.477). As both he and Stephen urinate next to one another in the garden, at “Stephen’s suggestion, at Bloom’s instigation,” they come very close to accomplishing this goal, providing the soil with the fertility that Bloom sought at the beginning of the novel (17.1186). This fertilization of the ground is not the only process that is at work here, as another cycle in the novel completes when the metaphorical father and son join together in the same act of urination. At the beginning of the novel, Stephen and Bloom have only met in passing, although Joyce joins them together in a metaphysical union not only through the overtones of the Odyssey (where Stephen represents Telemachus, and Bloom represents Odysseus) but also by the proximity of pages at the end of “Proteus,” when Stephen urinates in the novel, and the beginning of “Calypso,” when Bloom thinks about how he enjoys the taste of kidneys tinged with the scent of urine. Since this is the only other part of the book where both characters are in the act of producing physical waste from their bodies—and since previous acts involving feces and urine were closely associated with artistic production and new growth in the garden the two urinate in—their simultaneous urination provides the fertilizer to grow their new relationship. To demonstrate the completion of the cycle, Joyce provides a celestial sign above the scene to echo the scene’s resemblance to the reunion of Telemachus and Odysseus in the Odyssey, to emphasize the joining of the two characters, and to hint at Vico’s cyclical vision of history again. As both Stephen and Bloom urinate and gaze up at the stars, they simultaneously observe a “celestial sign,” which Gifford notes shares a parallel with the climax of the Odyssey (586). A celestial sign sent from the goddess Athena appears in the battle of the suitors in which Odysseus and his son Telemachus fight off the suitors who have assailed Penelope and ravaged his hall during his twenty-year absence (Fitzgerald 430). Further, the sign that both Bloom and
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Stephen witness comes between the constellations of the lyre of Orpheus, an instrument related to poetry, and the Coma Berencises, the beautiful hair that a woman pledged to Athena if her husband returned from war (Gifford 586). Bloom and Stephen both receive the celestial sign rooted between two constellations: one that evokes artistic significance, the hallmark of Stephen, and the other evoking the return of a traveler to his wife from war, which corresponds to Odysseus who is connected with Bloom. The celestial sign that they witness together bring the two together. The connection to the Odyssey brings in to play Vico’s interpretation of history as the sets of heroes of two different eras become joined together, as both Telemachus and Odysseus became joined under a constellation and Stephen and Bloom become joined under a constellation. In other words, the scene represents one of the major culminations of the novel. It not only joins together the father and the son and begins their new relationship, to not only complete Bloom’s goal to “manure whole place over,” but also completes Vico’s vision of the cyclical nature of history. While the cycle appears to have come full circle in terms of Stephen and Bloom’s repeated acts of urination, it does not account for all the places in the narrative where acts of urination or defecation occur. Joyce includes the urination of a side character named Murphy whom serves as a foil to Bloom to highlight the fertility of Bloom’s defecation. When Murphy—the spinner of yarns who functions as a pseudo-Odysseus in the novel through his associations with wandering and traveling—urinates in “Eumaeus,” “the noise of his bilgewater” awakens a horse (16.939). Later in the episode, a horse defecates “three smoking globes of turds” (16.1876-1877). Brienza argues that this forms a special connection between horses and Murphy and that the other horses’ “globes” of feces link “him to Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and to the three sections of Joyce’s epic novel” (125). She claims that Murphy and the horse share similar characteristics and become closely associated at the end of the chapter, that they are also closely associated with Joyce as “the walking embodiment of the artist as assimilator of past writers’ material” (Brienza 126). While Brienza poses an interesting parallel between the horse’s defecation and Shakespeare’s venue of production, her claims are dubious and not well-substantiated as she merely cites the similarities without explaining them. Moreover, given the chapter’s preoccupation with deception, as Murphy substantiates his claims on traveling with a postcard that is not even
addressed to him, any connections between Murphy and Joyce are suspect (16.489). Rather, Joyce parodies Bloom in this chapter by making Murphy into a flawed interpretation of what Bloom does in the novel. Murphy attempts to mimic Bloom’s previous desire to fertilize the ground but his urination is not associated with artistic production; the only description it receives, other than being loud enough to wake the sleeping horse, is a period in “which silence reigned supreme” (16.937-938). This scene of urination fails to accomplish the words that Stephen’s urination created, fails to destroy the words that Bloom did in the outhouse, and is not connected to the formation of any relationship as when both characters urinated in the garden. Rather, it is devoid of language, existing only to break the silence. Murphy functions as a foil to the products of his, Bloom’s, and Stephen’s excretions and, much like his stories, lacks the artistic connections to fertility or nature of the cycle. It appears that Joyce is making a comment on the infertility of the sailor to highlight the fertility of excretory processes. Underlying the theme of urination and defecation in the novel are the organs that are involved in these processes. These organs, in themselves, hold keys to the novel’s development. While the penis has a strong, fertile connection with language production just as the anus’s fertility improves the garden, the buttocks also has a connection to the cyclical nature of the novel. This connection comes into focus when Bloom kisses Molly’s “plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melonsmellonous osculation” (17.2241-2243). The description is similar to the description of Stephen urinating in “Proteus.” The internal scheme of this passage plays on “mellow,” “melon,” “rump,” and the repetition of “pro” on “prolonged provocative.” Stephen’s urination has the same style of repetition, describing how the urine “slops: flop, slop, slap” and “flows purling, widely flowing floating foampool, flower unfurling.” In this case, both parts of the body share remarkably similar connections to language and purpose. Joyce explores the bottom as a source of creation in the “Penelope” episode of the novel, where the bottom becomes associated with infinity. Joyce writes, “Penelope” has “four cardinal points being the female breasts, arse, womb and cunt expressed by the words because, bottom (in all senses, bottom button, bottom of the class, bottom of the sea, bottom of his heart), woman, yes” (Joyce, Selected Letters 285). Tucker argues that Joyce places the
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most emphasis on the function of the bottom in relation to Bloom in the passage mainly because of Joyce’s focus on explaining it “in all senses” (153). Molly’s fertility and bottom play a large part in the episode mainly because their shape is meant to form an infinity symbol. The infinity symbol is closely associated with the chapter as the episode consists of eight sentences, the symbol for infinity turned on its side; moreover, the narrative itself is cyclical as it begins and ends with the word yes. The connection goes beyond the connection of fertility and the penis because buttocks contain the symbol for the never-ending cycle derived from the philosophy of Vico. Further, the kissing of the buttocks marks the end of the narrative’s focalization of Bloom’s and the beginning of Molly’s narration. Thus, Bloom’s literary life is bookended with scatology, as Brivic notes, beginning with “the fact that he likes to eat kidneys, partly because they taste of urine, and end[ing] with him kissing his wife’s buttocks” (139). However, Bloom’s ass-kissing is not the last scene in the novel to feature some sort of fixation on waste production. After Molly menstruates in the sixth of the eight “sentences” in “Penelope,” she also urinates. Tucker argues that Joyce emphasizes Molly’s urination and its association with music, writing: “still perched on her pot, Molly’s tuneful flow below is matched by a tuneful flow above” (153). This association again corresponds with “Proteus” because the urine creates music, an artistic creation, much like it created words for Stephen. However, since Molly is an opera singer, she associates urination with song rather than the words Stephen, a poet, admires. Tucker’s argument enhances this connection as she argues that Molly’s menstrual blood is “not only the first female transformation mystery, but is also food, food that nourishes the embryo.” While Tucker admits this passing of blood indicates that Molly is not pregnant, she says that the menstrual blood “is symbolically the substance that nourishes the embryonic artist. It is the stuff of life on which the artist must feed” (152). Much like urine and feces, the menstrual blood carries with it fertility, a connection supported by Bloom when he refers to her as “flower of the mountain,” making yet another reference to the “languid floating flower” in “Lotus-Eaters” (18.1606). Yet, entwined with this production and this neverceasing increase of fertility is, again, the cyclical nature of the novel. Much as Stephen’s urination creates words earlier in the novel, Molly’s urination in this scene creates a melody. The repetition of ejecting waste from the body and creating art is how Molly’s narration ends, much as how Stephen’s urination
ended the focalization at the beginning of the novel on Stephen and how Bloom’s urination ended the narrative that was focalized on himself. By having each of the three focalizations of the narrative end near a scene of urination and defecation, Joyce highlights the importance of the excretory system in the context of the narrative. Throughout Ulysses, urination and defecation, and the associated organs involved with each become closely associated with fertility and rebirth as well as destruction. They also facilitate the cyclical functions of the work, highlighting the connection between Ulysses, the Odyssey, and Vico’s interpretation of history. Although Joyce may have obsessed over excretory functions in his own personal life, within the context of the novel they take on added meanings and function in important ways by solidifying the relationship between Stephen and Bloom. Because of the cyclical aspects of the digestive system as well as their fertility, urination and defecation function as an exquisite and elegant metaphor for what Joyce strives to accomplish within his novel. The ramifications of his obsession echo his other works, including the first page of his Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, in which Stephen wets his bed (Joyce, Portrait 3). This study, hence, provides the fertile ground to explore more of Joyce’s obsession with excretory language in his own works and how acts of urination and defecation further the cyclical functions of these narratives, a call to study how and why Joyce chose to “manure the whole place over” in his novels and letters.
Works Cited Anderson, Chester G. “On the Sublime and Anal-Urethral Sources in Pope, Eliot, and Joyce.”Modern Irish Literature; Essays in Honor of William York Tindall. Ed. Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy. [New Rochelle, N.Y.]: Iona College, 1972. 235-49. Print. Anspaugh, Kelly. “Powers of Ordure: James Joyce and the Excremental Vision(s).” Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 27.1 (1994): 73-100. ProQuest. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. Brienza, Susan. “Krapping Out: Images of Flow and Elimination as Creation in Joyce and Beckett.” Re: Joyce’N Beckett. Ed. Ed Jewinski and Phyills Carey. New York: Fordham UP, 1992. 117-46. Print.
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Brivic, Sheldon. Joyce between Freud and Jung. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1980. Print. Cheng, Vincent. “‘Goddinpotty’”: James Joyce and the Language of Excrement.” The Languages of Joyce: Selected Papers from the 11th International James Joyce Symposium, Venice, 12-18 June 1988. Ed. Bollettieri Rosa Maria. Bosinelli, Vaglio Carla Marengo, and Christine Van. Boheemen. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub., 1992. 85-99. Print. Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California, 1988. Print. Hart, Clive. Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake. Great Britain: Northwestern University Press, 1962. Print. Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 1998. Print. Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin Classics, 1992. Print. Joyce, James. Selected Letters of James Joyce. Ed. Richard Ellmann. New York: The Viking Press, 1975. Print. Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Claus Melchior, and Wolfhard Steppe. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print. Tindall, William York. James Joyce: His Way of Interpreting the Modern World. New York: Greenwood, 1950. Print. Tucker, Lindsey. Stephen and Bloom at Life’s Feast: Alimentary Symbolism and the Creative Process in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984. Print.
SAPPHO CLARK AND THE TRANSFORMATION FROM OBJECT TO AUTHOR BY WAY OF EMBODIMENT Tess Scriptunas Wesleyan University
n her revolutionary novel Contending Forces, Pauline Hopkins grapples with many of the controversial and painful associations that nineteenth century United States society tacked onto the black female body. With remarkable bluntness, Hopkins confronts the ways in which white men reduced African American women to mere pounds of flesh, to commodities and machines, and to blank canvases with which to reinforce their masculine identities. Despite the abuse they have suffered, Hopkins warns African American women against the temptation to turn away from the body. Rather, she juxtaposes the characters of Sappho and Grace to suggest that healing lies in the process of re-embodiment and in the reclaiming of corporeal passion. The body does not replace the spiritual, however, and through her depiction of Sappho as a Christ figure, Hopkins demonstrates the potential for union between the material and the metaphysical. Finally, just as Christ possessed a divine nature, Sappho is in many ways her own creator, as she forms her own identity as a political, independent mother, and as a sexually virtuous woman. As a creator, she recalls Hopkins herself (and Sappho of antiquity), and represents the transformation of woman from canvas into author.
The Body as Flesh, as Commodity, and as Blank Slate: The Reductive Mechanisms of Prejudice Hopkins is brutally forthright in demonstrating the progress that needs to be made to revise the nineteenth century perception of black female bodies as mere tissue. In her article “Slavery, Sexuality and Genre,” Kate McCullough cites Hortense Spillers in claiming that the distinction between human and nonhuman is parallel to that between body and flesh. She asserts that Hopkins’s aim in Contending Forces is to elevate the African American woman
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from the status of “flesh” (22). The Oxford English Dictionary defines this term as, “The soft substance, esp. the muscular parts, of an animal body; that which covers the framework of bones and is enclosed by the skin.” To identify “flesh” as a “substance” is particularly apt, as this phrase demonstrates how white masculine thinking reduces the bodies of African American women to unspecific matter. In the scene of her whipping, Grace undergoes this transformation from subject to mere muscle just as she “becomes” black (Putzi 9). Hopkins transposes Hank’s thoughts at this moment, writing, “those lily-like limbs, the tender flesh that had never known aught but the touch of love, should feel the lash as he had” (68). Hank views Grace’s limbs as the most essential aspect of her very being in this instance; they are what he wants to impact. The objectifying nature of this whipping is also apparent in the description of the actual violence. Hopkins writes, “a shriek from the victim—a spurt of blood that spattered the torturer—a long, raw gash across a tender white back” (69). The disembodied way that Hopkins conjures the spurt of blood and the infliction of the raw gash mirrors Hank and Bill’s perception of Grace as a hollow form. This elimination of Grace’s subjectivity is particularly evident in the phrase, “a tender white back.” Hopkins does not bother to specify whose back, as Grace is no longer an individual in the eyes of society. The fact that Grace is beaten alternately makes the scene even more dehumanizing; the whole encounter is so impersonal that there is not even a distinct relationship between abuser and victim. Ultimately, Brenda Stevenson is right to underscore pure physical violence as well as sexual violence against African American women in terms of its dehumanizing capacity. She notably states that the “public, sadistic maltreatment” of female slaves was meant to “shame them, to strip black women, both privately and publicly, of their humanity, femininity and power (sexual, emotional and moral)” (Putzi 3). Portraying African American women as flesh also serves to de-gender their bodies. American culture puts a remarkable emphasis on individuality as a tenet of humanity, and thus the de-gendering of black women further objectifies them by making them more ambiguous. Hopkins references this tradition through Dora, when the latter remarks to Sappho, “that’s just what makes me feel so unsexed so to speak” (Hopkins 122). Historically, white society used the laboring capacity of female slaves as an excuse to label them as unsexed. This notion was employed to justify the inhumane treatment of black women, and allowed slaveholders to don out as many whippings to women as
to men and to employ the former for their own sexual gratification (Putzi 3). By this reasoning, the violation of African American females was not considered rape, since these slaves were not “feminine.” Even white abolitionist literature upholds the conception of African American women as physically stronger than white women, as is apparent in the fiction of Lydia Maria Child (Putzi 5). The designation “stronger” becomes dangerous when it implies that black women are less emotionally vulnerable and can withstand sexual violations better than white women. By a terrible irony, the more African American women were abused under slavery and the more they demonstrated that they could survive, the less sexed and the less human they became in the eyes of white society. Although de-sexed in the sense that they were denied the connotation of femininity, African American women were also highly eroticized and viewed as sexual commodities. Throughout Contending Forces, Hopkins refers to the desire of her male characters to possess the women to whom they are attracted. She writes of Anson Pollock’s “scheme for possessing the beautiful woman” Grace for instance, and John Langley’s mercenary nature extends to his longing to acquire Sappho (70, 220). In the latter case, Hopkins provides her readers with an instance in which white male greed infiltrates the African American race, presumably by way of Langley’s “cracker” blood (221). This controversial and seemingly Darwinist language serves to destabilize the constructions of race, and shows how even the failings of races can be fluid. By turning them into products, American culture also denied the moral integrity of black women. Vincent Woodard writes in “Deciphering the Race-Sex Diaspora in Pauline Hopkins’s ‘Contending Forces’” that, “New Orleans is an index for a dangerous fluidity, a sexual economy that has historically situated black women outside of US moral terrain” (85). In a culture that glorified the domestic and viewed the public sphere as brutal and often corrupt, to associate African American women’s sexuality with economics was comparable to labeling it as impure. Black women were thus dehumanized as objects of desire at the time when Hopkins was writing. They were viewed not only as commodities, however, but as machinery and equipment as well. Woodard writes, “Th[e] black female sexual economy [of New Orleans] foregrounds the ways that black women have historically existed at the locus of imperialism, American industry, and the cosmopolitan pursuit of pleasure” (Woodard 85). His mention of their
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role in American industry is particularly telling, as it underscores the view of enslaved African American women as reproductive assembly lines. Julie Cary Nerad highlights in “‘So strangely interwoven: The Property of Inheritance, Race and Sexual Morality in Pauline E. Hopkins’s Contending Forces” that it was routine practice for white men to rape female slaves as a means of increasing their property (Nerad 365). This brutal conception of black women’s utility is evident in an early conversation between Hank and Bill in Contending Forces. When describing an auction to his friend, Bill says, “A raffle’s a great thing fer pickin up bargains in niggers an’ horses. This pertickler one was fer a bay horse, a new light buggy an’ harness, an’ a Mulatto gal Sal” (Hopkins 38). By conflating Sal with a bay horse and buggy, Bill renders her invisible, apart from the economic purpose she serves. This interpretation is further solidified by his reference to her as a “fust-class breeder,” and his statement: “mate her with the right sort an’ you’s got yer own money” (Hopkins 38, 39). Bill strips Sal of any agency in this intimate act with the term “mate her,” and once again demonstrates his view of her as a tool without inherent value aside from her ascribed function. Whiteness, too, is imagined as possessing intangible economic value in Hopkins’s novel. As Woodard writes, “Hopkins demonstrates that…whiteness [is] a form of chattel currency” (Woodard 75). This can be seen through Bill and Hank’s conversation as Charles and Grace step off the boat from Bermuda. Following Hopkins’s physical description of Grace, Hank remarks, “[I’ve] never seed sich a booty.” Bill replies, “strikes me, Hank, thet thet ar female’s got a black streak in her somewhere” (41). Nerard reads this scene as noteworthy in terms of the subconscious associations that the two men make in transitioning from discussing Charles’s extensive slave holdings to commenting on Grace and her physical appearance (362). Hopkins may be employing a pun with the word “booty” as well, making it ambiguous whether Hank is referring to Grace as a “beauty” or whether he is talking about Montfort’s property. In either case, the vague nature of his true meaning draws a deliberate connection between these two potential significations. The fact that Bill draws her race into question, and that Pollock uses this rumor for his own personal gain, is also telling of the white masculine desire to control the perceived property of whiteness. Slightly later in the conversation, Bill states, “You can’t tell nothin’ ‘bout these Britishers; they’re allers squeamish ‘bout thar nigger brats, yas, sah, very squeamish” (41). With the term “brat” Bill implies that Grace is presuming
to have the same claim on whiteness that he and Hank possess. As Nerard writes, “‘whiteness…afforded its owner invaluable access to social and legal privilege because it designated the owner as ‘not-Black’” (Nerard 361). Given that “whiteness” was an incredibly powerful possession, Hank and Bill want to assert their dominance over it as men. This masculine thirst to protect the property of “race” can be seen as the driving force behind the beating of Grace by Hank and Bill: a scene where the whiteness of all parties is portrayed vividly by both Hopkins and by R. Emmet Owen, the illustrator of the novel. In addition to their alternate functions as unsexed flesh or erotic commodities, African American women’s bodies were also commonly employed as blank canvases with which men could assert their own gender and racial identities. Hopkins writes that immediately prior to the whipping, when Hank is looking down on the unconscious Grace, “…an evil smile lighted up his countenance. He looked around, but saw nothing of Anson Pollock…This woman’s husband had flogged him—he would have a sweet revenge” (Hopkins 68). Here, Grace serves as a vessel onto which he can project his anger towards her husband. She also allows him to reassert his dominance as a white man, as Montfort had stripped him of this agency by flogging him. Unfortunately, black women also occasionally acted as scapegoats for black men who were confronted with their own emasculation. In Lydia Maria Child’s narrative, “Slavery’s Pleasant Homes: A Faithful Sketch,” a young African American man named George, upon learning of his wife’s rape by her slavemaster, “fl[ings] her from him, with so much force that she reeled against the wall” (Putzi 6). George violently and instinctually reasserts the manhood that was suddenly revoked from him, at the expense of the only vulnerable creature within reach. Allison Berg also denotes Grace’s whipping as a “slave-branding” (Putzi 11). This strikes me as particularly apt, since by indelibly marking Grace, Hank and Bill are attempting to make fixed the slippery question of race. Hopkins underscores the permanence of such markings in her description of Sappho, as she writes that she is a, “woman with a story written on her face” (89). The scars from the projections and rebellions of men are therefore enduring: the key is learning how to survive with them.
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Embodiment and the Crucial Role of Passion Jennifer Putzi remarks in her article, “‘Raising the Stigma’: Black Womanhood and the Marked Body in Pauline Hopkins’s ‘Contending Forces’” that, “embodiment, rather than transcendence, [is] the key to African American survival” (2). McCullough also observes that through her novel, Hopkins “struggle[s]…to avoid being reduced to the body while also struggling to recode that body, reclaiming a space for African American women as embodied humans by grounding her representations of gendered identity in a reworked notion of erotic and maternal desire” (22). Within this general umbrella of embodiment, I argue that Hopkins stresses the need to reclaim corporeal passion in particular. Hopkins suggests, for instance, that Sappho’s desire for Will is sanctified because it originates in her (McCullough 33). Hopkins vividly paints Sappho’s longing for Will; she writes, “…when night came she lay awake hungering for the sight of a face, the touch of a hand, the glance of an eye. Sometimes the craving grew almost too powerful to be resisted” (Hopkins 354). Sappho’s desire is justified at the end of the novel when Will discovers her in New Orleans, and their union is all the more gratifying because her passion matches his. In this way, their marriage contrasts with that of Dora and Doctor Lewis. Dora is not even permitted to speak when she is proposed to, and “her own individuality [is] swallowed up in love for her husband and child” (Hopkins 360, 390). Sappho, however, develops over the course of the novel from being ashamed of her amorous appetite—believing that Will is too “good” and “noble” for her (182)—to embracing her attraction for him. By acknowledging her sexuality as a positive force, Sappho resembles the Sappho of antiquity. One verse of the poet’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” illustrates this attitude particularly well: Come to me now. Drive off this brutal Distress. Accomplish what my pride Demands. Come, please, and in this battle Stand at my side. In calling on the Goddess of Love to stand beside her at the front, Sappho the poet compares the gravity of her desire with the significance of war. So, too, can Sappho Clark by the end of the novel appreciate the import and nobility of her passion for Will. By embracing her body, Sappho Clark also privatizes it: a crucial action in terms of redefining the role of African American women in society. When
she consummates her relationship with Will and acknowledges her identity as Mabelle to her loved ones, Sappho brings her sexuality back into the domestic sphere from the brutally public position it was in at the time of her rape. As McCullough writes, Hopkins, “place[s] the issue of miscegenation in a domestic realm in a way that necessarily redefines that realm” (25). Hopkins uses Will as a mouthpiece to express her opinion on this issue. When speaking at a meeting of the American Colored league, Will declares, “Rape is the crime which appeals most strongly to the heart of the home life” (271). By way of Will, Hopkins rallies against the desire of white society to keep the issue of rape separate from family. Hopkins’s stance on this matter is conveyed through the character of John Langley as well, for his greatest crime is attempting to drag Sappho’s rape back into the public realm (320). Sappho’s ability to embrace erotic love is contingent on embracing her passionate love as a mother. Sappho struggles with motherhood initially because she associates her child with violation; Hopkins writes that, “she had felt nothing for the poor waif but repugnance” (342). Nerard demonstrates, however, that, “by accepting her role as mother…[Sappho] finds a way to reclaim morally virtuous passion” (Nerard 369). Hopkins demonstrates the physicality of Sappho’s motherly love; she writes, “There was a new light in her eyes as she gazed on the sleeping child. Impulsively she folded him in her arms… She gazed with new-found ecstasy at the rosy face, the dimpled limbs, and thought that he was hers…Again she kissed him passionately” (345). Hopkins uses the word “impulsively” to demonstrate what a bodily experience this is for Sappho. She is not reflecting on her role as a mother in a detached manner; rather, her body instinctually expresses her feelings. The “new-found ecstasy” that she undergoes also conveys how earthly passion, somewhat ironically, can be the key to transcendence. Speaking later of Sappho’s devotion to Alphonse, Hopkins writes, “In this new and holy love that had taken possession of her soul was the compensation for all she had suffered” (347). Thus, although Sappho’s union with Will is noble and satisfying, she does not need him to acquire a sense of fulfillment. By engaging in motherhood, Sappho also sheds the role that society placed on her as the un-gendered producer of children. Hopkins writes, “her feeling of degradation had made her ashamed of the joys of motherhood, of pride of possession in her child. But all that feeling was swept away” (345). In this passage, Hopkins appropriates the notion of possession and helps relieve the pain that it conjured for African American
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women in association with themselves and their children. Juxtaposed to Sappho is Grace: a fully embodied, wholly ethereal woman. Even their names suggest a contrast between the celestial and the earthly. In fact, Grace lives up to her metaphysical designation in nearly all of her characteristics. In her first description of Grace, Hopkins writes, “Grace Montfort was a dream of a beauty” (40). This highly intangible account of Grace’s appearance suggests that Grace is more form than person. Hopkins goes on to illustrate the dispassionate nature of her marriage: “As Grace Montfort, she found again the love her uncle had delighted to lavish upon his adopted child” (44). Clearly, this marriage is not founded on erotic love, as it mirrors Grace’s relationship with her uncle.. Even Hopkins’s depiction of Grace’s death is disembodied: “The waters of Pamlico Sound tell of sweet oblivion for the broken hearted found within their soft embrace” (71). Thus, Grace represents an extreme of the model of true white womanhood, as she epitomizes a profoundly pure, almost magically virginal existence. Hopkins demonstrates that this existence is far from ideal, however, as it is not sufficiently human. Putzi discusses how suicide was regarded as the only virtuous option for a woman who had been subject to rape, but as Hopkins illustrates, by clinging so strongly to the ideal of virtue, Grace neglects her earthly duties and abandons her children (Putzi 7). Her scars never have the chance to form, whereas Sappho grows strong enough to confront her markings. Hopkins exhibits another side to Sappho’s passion through her portrayal of her relationship with Dora. Hopkins suggests in the chapter entitled “Friendship” that love between women can be an especially rewarding form of affection. Scholars agree that the title of Chapter VII, “Friendship,” is a reference to the nineteenth century tradition of romantic female friendships (Putzi 79). The epithet by Emerson further illuminates the nature of these relationships. Hopkins quotes him as saying, “What is so great as friendship? The only reward of virtue is virtue: the only way to have a friend is to be one” (114). Hopkins employs the latter phrase, “the only way to have a friend is to be one,” to allude to the high potential for mutual understanding and communion among women, as they are socially cultured to be in touch with their emotions. Hopkins’ choice of Sappho’s namesake reinforces this notion, as the poet’s homoerotic lyrics tended not to distinguish between the lover and the loved object, unlike the writings of her male contemporaries (Halsey, “Sappho”). In using this epithet, Hopkins also appropriates the term “virtue”—so often
portrayed as unattainable to African American women because of their forced sexual encounters—and applies it to this feminine relationship. The profound nature of Dora and Sappho’s relationship is evident when Hopkins writes, “Dora’s shrewd common sense and womanly intuition discovered [in Sappho] a character of sterling worth—bold, strong and ennobling” (114). This passage demonstrates Dora’s profound appreciation for Sappho’s character and her ability to imitate Sappho’s virtues in order to “ennoble” herself. Thus, her love for Sappho is in some respects superior to Will’s, as the latter is highly preoccupied with Sappho’s appearance. Hopkins writes of Will’s attempts to study: Ever and anon [Will’s] attention wavered, and finally he threw his books and papers to one side with a sigh, and rising to his feet paced the floor impatiently. Two soft eyes looked into his; the low music of a gentle voice seemed all about him…“I never thought mere beauty in a woman could move me so” [he reflected]. (166) Hopkins presents Will’s fascination with Sappho’s beauty as a distracting influence; she does not stand as a model of character and behavior for him as she does for Dora. Finally, through Sappho and Dora’s relationship, Hopkins symbolizes a union between Northern and Southern African American women. The regional heritages of both are emphasized throughout the novel, as Sappho is consistently referred to as a Louisiana beauty and Dora as an “energetic little Yankee girl” (107, 114). Thus, Hopkins portrays their relationship as especially intimate to suggest that solidarity between black women should not be mitigated. Hopkins is more hesitant on the subject of masculine passion, and suggests that one must be cautious when indulging in this form of fervor. Her portrait of John Langley’s obsession with Sappho certainly speaks to this message. From Langley’s perspective she writes, “The girl looked so beautiful and spirited that he longed to crush her with the weight of his surmises” (317). Hopkins demonstrates in this passage how Langley’s desire has reached such a peak that it finds violent expression in his language. Langley’s regard towards Sappho also displays the volatile nature of his infatuation. While observing him watching her friend, Dora reflects, “such a look! love—hatred—tenderness— the gamut of passion was disclosed by the look bent upon the unconscious girl before them” (304). This anarchic passion is certainly not what Hopkins
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has in mind as the ideal form of romantic love. In contrast to Langley, Will is not at all an overly sexual being. Hopkins writes, “Many a sigh was wafted after his handsome, unconscious self, as a pretty maiden who had fancied that she had at length conquered the unconquerable, saw her chains fall from him as lightly as a cobweb is brushed away” (169). Hopkins’s description of Will as “unconscious” of these attentions shows that he is not in the least bit tempted by the prospect of superficial pleasures. Will’s refusal to see other women while he is separated from Sappho speaks to his immunity to these temptations as well (390). By demonstrating his sexual restraint, Hopkins presents him as a model of manhood. Hopkins also portrays the power of passion to inspire action in everyday life. She expresses this view through Mrs. Willis, when the latter says to Sappho, “I believe that in some degree passion may be beneficial, but we must guard ourselves against a sinful growth of any appetite. All work of whatever character, as I look at it, needs a certain amount of absorbing interest to become successful” (154). Hopkins reinforces this idea by offering a glimpse into a dispassionate life through her portrayal of Sappho’s time with Monsieur Louis. Although Sappho is relatively content, Hopkins describes her as “dumb and submissive beneath her martyrdom” (354) during her time at the estate. Once married to Will, however, Hopkins writes that, “united by love, chastened by sorrow and self-sacrifice, he and she planned to work together to bring joy to hearts crushed by despair” (401). Now that her passion is reignited, Sappho is spurred to work and to uplift the race. Thus, passion as a motivating force is crucial, as it relieves one from the status of victim. Putzi writes: The slave marked with scars could be seen as a victim in need of assistance, but very rarely a man or woman capable of agency. As Frederick Douglas remarks, “human nature is so constituted that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even that it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.” (2) Passion therefore plays an essential role in its relationship to work, as it elevates one out of helplessness.
Sappho Clark as Christ Figure: Empowered Victim, Spiritual Human and Creator In stressing the importance of agency, Hopkins does not reject the notion of African American women as victims entirely. To do so would undermine the suffering that they have endured as well as their innocence in the crimes committed against them. Rather, through Sappho, Hopkins provides a model of a woman who is both a survivor and a victim. She does this by presenting Sappho as a Christ figure, or as one who has endured unimaginable sufferings but has rediscovered life. In doing so, she reclaims the religion that was so often invoked as a tool for oppressing her race. Hopkins acknowledges this tradition of oppression, writing, “Apologists tell us as an excuse for the barbarous practice of slavery, that it is a godlike institution for the spread of the gospel of the meek and lowly carpenter’s son” (41). Hopkins re-images the religion by placing Sappho in the role of Jesus, as the “Negro [who] plods along bearing his cross, carrying the sins of others” (332). In describing Sappho’s state immediately after she is confronted about her identity by John Langley, Hopkins writes, “Sometimes the rough winds of adversity are tempered to the shorn lamb who is not responsible for acts which are forced upon him; God in infinite wisdom and justice remits the severity of our sufferings” (341). Hopkins’s use of the word “lamb” to refer to Sappho acknowledges her vulnerability, but as the term alludes to Christ it retains a sense of dignity. Christianity holds too that through Christ’s death, eternal life was created; similarly, Sappho’s sufferings breathe new life into her world. They rejuvenate her as a mother, and provide new meaning to her union with Will. Hopkins describes their romance as “a love sanctified and purified by suffering” (398). Through her use of the word “sanctified,” Hopkins suggests that Sappho’s trials, like Christ’s, serve a holy purpose. Sappho performs another crucial task as a Christ figure in the novel. Putzi writes that in this role, Sappho, “bridges the corporeal and the spiritual, rather than transcending one for the other” (3). Putzi stresses how, like Jesus, Sappho is reborn on Easter, although in her case through love of Will (16). Once again, earthly passion provides a crucial key to transcendence. Indeed, Hopkins relates how, on this day, Sappho was greeted joyously by Dora and her family “as one risen from the dead” (394). The scene of Sappho’s rebirth is both sensual and spiritual. In recounting Will’s walk to the Cathedral, Hopkins illustrates Easter Morning in New Orleans: “the air was filled with the faint
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sounds of returning life; the sweet odor of the magnolia, mingled with a thousand other subtle perfumes, intoxicated the senses” (391-392). Will moves from this setting into the Church, where “the stillness, the coolness, the swiftly moving, silent figures, the slanting rays of sunlight growing higher and higher, seemed to calm the spirit of the troubled man” (392). This luscious, natural environment acts in harmony with the sparing, ethereal portrait of the inside of the Church, and is symbolic of the potential union between the physical and the spiritual. In fact, this description echoes a portrayal of a holy site by the poet Sappho, who held similar views on the communion between the natural and the metaphysical. Sappho wrote: Leave Crete and sweep to this blest temple Where apple-orchard’s elegance Is yours, and smouldering altars, ample Frankincense. Sappho of antiquity saw her sensual descriptions of “smouldering” altars and “amble” Frankincense as perfectly appropriate for describing a place of worship, and so would Hopkins. A significant distinction,, however, is that Sappho figures as Christ not only in her love of Will, but as a mother as well. Hopkins offers this analogy in the first dialogue that we receive between Alphonse and Sappho: “‘I am your mother, Alphonse,’ she said, in answer to his looks of inquiry. ‘My mamma is gone away to heaven,’ replied the child solemnly…‘No, dear, I am your mamma, come back to keep you with me always’” (346). It is noteworthy that Sappho appears to become Christ in this moment. McCullough writes of Sappho’s return to motherhood, “The mind/body split caused by the rape— the body creating a child who is rejected by the mind—is thus healed by this new version of modernity, a white bourgeois model now expanded to include the “fallen woman” and the African American woman” (41). This mind/body reunion is symbolized by Sappho’s appearance as Christ, as she encompasses the divine and the human at once. Sappho also appears divine in her role as a creator in Contending Forces. Woodard, referring to the prevailing belief that Eve brought sexuality into the world and that men should regulate women, writes, “This white, virginal myth runs contrary to a world in which black women, such as Mabelle Beaubean, have had to recreate themselves, giving birth to themselves in new forms and guises” (84). As Woodard implies, Mabelle gives birth to multiple creations
almost simultaneously, producing Sappho at the same time that she produces Alphonse. In this role, Sappho resembles the Sappho of old, who was a great creator of both music and of art (Halsey, “Sappho”). At the end of the novel, when Sappho acknowledges her identity as Mabelle but retains that of Sappho; she undergoes a process of healing. Woodard writes: “As a composite person, Mabelle and Sappho model a process of fracturing and self-formation that we would not see so clearly were either character depicted as an insular personality…It is an internal movement that involves departure— migrating away from the self—in order to create a new internal landscape” (83). This gradual reconstruction that takes place within Sappho can be read as a restructuring of her fractured racial identity. A product of two (artificial) legacies of “blackness” and “whiteness,” Sappho fashions a new, unified conception of herself that is not subservient to any inherited identity. The fact that Sappho retains her new name after her old identity has been unearthed speaks to her power as a creator. But who is this Sappho that Mabelle has created? In addition to possessing a well-developed sense of her body and of her spirituality, she is also empowered in terms of her intellect and her political opinions. She does not hesitate to challenge men. When talking with Dora about her employment as a stenographer, Sappho comments, “Sometimes the dictator is obtuse, or long-winded, or thinks that the writer ought to do his thinking for him as well as the corrections; then it is not pleasant work” (99). The fact that Sappho judges how well her male superiors complete their own work is radical for the nineteenth century. Sappho also displays faith in her own reason when she and Dora discuss Doctor Lewis’ philosphy. Dora states: “Arthur says that [it] would be better for us [to be deprived of franchise]; the great loss of life would cease, and we would be at peace with the whites.” “Ah, how can he argue so falsely! [Sappho replied.] I have lived beneath the system of oppression in the South. If we lose the franchise, at the same time we shall lose the respect of all other citizens.” (125) Sappho does not hesitate to draw on her own experience to dispute the opinions of a man—a Doctor, even. Later in the conversation, Dora admits that, “‘Arthur thinks that women should be seen and not heard, when politics is under discussion. ‘Insufferable prig!’ exclaimed Sappho, with snapping eyes’” (126). Sappho is willing to use sharp language in response to an insult to her
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intelligence, and is confident enough in her cleverness to be indignant at sexist prejudice. Sappho is therefore a complex, multi-faceted woman; as Nerard observes, she is a “politically engaged, visibly white, socio-legally Black, sexually moral, unwed mother” (367). Hopkins herself highlights the broad range of qualities that Sappho’s character encompasses. She writes, “Sappho possessed a brilliant mind and a resolute character. If she had been a religious devotee she would have been as devout and fervid as a disciple of old. If a sinner, the queen of them all” (341). Hopkins thus rejects the notion of dichotomies once again, showing how even devotees and sinners have traits in common, and Sappho is not compelled to be either one or the other. Ultimately, as an intellectually independent woman, Sappho mirrors the position of Hopkins herself as a female author. By exhibiting their cerebral strength, Hopkins and Sappho transition from object to subject status: from blank canvases to their own spokespeople. Hopkins hints at the essential role of female authors in the preface of her novel. She writes: The colored race has historians, lecturers, ministers, poets, judges and lawyers,--men of brilliant intellects who have arrested the favorable attention of this busy, energetic nation. But, after all, it is the simple, homely tale, unassumingly told, which cements the bond of brotherhood among all classes and complexions. (13) When she writes of “the simple, homey tale,” Hopkins refers to feminine, personal narratives. She suggests that domestic stories are just as important to racial uplift as soaring, political rhetoric, and are not entirely separate from the political, either. Through Sappho, she offers a new model of womanhood: one that encompasses embodiment, passion, motherhood, spirituality, and intellectual self-sufficiency. African American women do not have to wait for anyone else to provide them with these attributes, either. Even as they strive for progress in political battles, these assets will render them fulfilled.
Halsey, Katie. “Sappho.” Literature Online Biography. Literature Online, n.d. Web. Hopkins, Pauline E. Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print. McCullough, Kate. “Slavery, Sexuality and Genre: Pauline Hopkins and the Representation of Female Desire.” The Unruly Voice: Rediscovering Pauline
Hopkins. Ed. John Gruesser. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 1996. 21-49. Print. Nerad, Julie. “So Strangely Interwoven: The Property of Inheritance, Race and Sexual Morality in Pauline E. Hopkins’s Contending Forces.” African American Review 35.3 (2001): 357-73. Print. Putzi, Jennifer. “’Raising the Stigma’”: Black Womanhood and the Marked Body in Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces.” College Literature 31.2 (2004): 1-21. Print. Sappho. Stung with Love (Penguin Classics). N.p.: Penguin, n.d. Literature Online. Web Woodard, Vincent. “Deciphering the Race-Sex Diaspora in Pauline Hopkins’s ‘Contending Forces’” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 8.1 (2006): 72-93. Print.
THE MOMENT OF THE “TWANG”
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS IN INFINITE JEST
Paula Zelaya Cervantes University of British Columbia
in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Schtitt explains to Mario Incandenza that tennis is beautiful not because it means “order” but because it means “limit”, limits being the place “where things [break] down, fragmented into beauty” (81). Rejecting the “Euclidean efficiency” of a straight-line rush toward a goal, Schtitt advocates the three-dimensional nature of the game of tennis, which is “contained” (81) but which, within its limits, “allows a diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution” (82) to grow and expand. The rules are contained and finite, but what they generate is not; the mathematical expansion of possibility and the boundaries that make tennis a game both emanate from “the talent and imagination of self and opponent”, — from the human players themselves (82). The game is infinite because it relies on the players’ own limitations which are combatted, “killed and mourned”, and re-animated “over and over again” (84). This looping motion can be understood in terms of what Douglas Hofstadter calls a “strange loop” in Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid: this is a motion through which by “moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started” (10). Strange loops echo fugue-like throughout David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest; the urge to transcend limitations in the novel is continually checked by a return to the starting point. However, in Wallace’s “U.S. of modern A” (83) the prevailing tendency at the individual, institutional, and national level is a two-dimensional pursuit of immediate satisfaction that, combined with a fear of opposition, leads the characters to try to demolish or conceal limits so as to make order. There is a great emptiness at the heart of Infinite Jest, a sense that despite all forecasts about the pursuit of happiness, there is very little happiness to go around. This feeling of “dis-ease” (205) is powered by a yearning for something that, as Hal often reflects, “you can’t quite remember” but “ you know, inside” (270). uring a conversation over ice cream
A sense of presence or significance is connected in Infinite Jest precisely to that which is most frightening - the contingency and process of game that Schtitt links to the game of tennis. Elaborating on Schtitt’s ideas, Wallace’s narrative voice explains that tennis is not a game about “reduction”, but “perversely” about “expansion” (82), and compares it to the difference between “Euclidean efficiency” and “Cantorian” complication (82). Hofstadter also contrasts the two, explaining that in the nineteenth century, the notion that geometry in almost all of its possibilities had been “codified” or catalogued by Euclid was countered by the “discovery of non-Euclidean geometry” (19). Non-Euclidean geometry assumed a three-dimensional understanding that “many different kinds of ‘points’ and ‘lines’” could be viewed to exist “in one single reality” (Hofstadter 20). Similarly, Gödel worked toward creating a language of “symbols and sequences of symbols” (Hofstadter 18) that could stand for or “be about a statement of number theory (possibly even itself)” (18). Such a “code” or language can be seen in Cantor’s idea that one set of “all things” can “swallow” (20) itself; that is, it can, like Gödel’s statements, encompass itself or be about itself. Hofstadter points out that these ideas are strange loops because they reveal that more than one truth can inhabit the same object —“this coding trick enables statements of number theory to be understood on two different levels: as statements of number theory, and also as statements about statements of number theory” (18). Hofstadter uses his own version of the “liar’s paradox” to illustrate the point. Each sentence in this pairing could be viewed as one of the arms of the strange loop: The following sentence is false. The preceding sentence is true. Because the pairing is about itself, the difference between the “code” that expresses the statement and the statement itself collapses. Since the statement is designed to contradict itself and since one cannot separate the code from the statement, it is impossible to arrive at a conclusion: we cannot conclude that either sentence is false because that would mean concluding that what the other says is true. Each sentence attempts to be “above” the other in order to refer to it and yet must simultaneously be beneath the other in order to be referred to. Hofstadter uses the liar’s paradox to illustrate the dismaying complication that Gödel and Cantor’s theories brought to light: that no single
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“fixed system, no matter how complicated, could represent the complexity of the whole numbers” (Hofstadter 19), because no system is exempt from itself, making any system suspect and subject to its own conditions. It is this kind of complication that Schtitt, James O. Incandenza, and Wallace himself admire in tennis, praising the infinite multiplication, “infoliation”, of a game where “each well-shot ball [admits] n possible responses, n2 possible responses to those responses” (Infinite Jest 82), a kind of game “that can only be done by a living and highly conscious entity and then only unconsciously” (“Tennis Player”, Wallace 236). At the same time that the player relies on herself and her abilities to win, she is also her own court and her own opponent; she branches, like the arms of the liar’s paradox, yet loops around herself in a game made possible by paradox. When Gödel’s investigations were published, Hofstadter explains, there were attempts to “exorcise” Strange Loops “from logic, set theory, and number theory” (21). Some were interested “in the elimination of paradox altogether” through “hierarchization” and by “disallowing the formation of certain kinds of sets” (21). “Metalanguages” were suggested as a way to allow division between concepts, but they would in turn require frantic generation of new vantage points from which to speak about a concept without calling upon that concept to speak about itself. This desire to break up and smooth out paradox requires artificial systems in order to return to something like the two-dimensionality of Euclidean geometry. It may also be comparable to the two-dimensionality of the “myth of efficiency and no waste” which, according to Schtitt, is “making this continent of countries” (80). For Schtitt, a goal-oriented culture where the “efficient way is to plow in straight”, is “flat” (81) and denies the endlessly branching possibilities of which the human mind is capable. The two-dimensionality of this “myth of efficiency and no waste” is comparable both to Euclidean geometry and to the anxiety to prevent paradox that Hofstadter describes. One such denial of complication in the novel is the forceful removal of nuclear waste from U.S. territory that forms the “Great Concavity” but which—according to Alain, one of the novel’s foreigners—is actually a “Great Convexity” because “filth by its very nature it [sic] is a thing that is creeping always back” (233). Marathe summarizes this as a nation-wide belief that to “maximize pleasure, minimize displeasure” is “what is good” (423). The attitude can also be clearly observed in Eric Clipperton, the boy
who plays with a gun to his temple and with an oath to shoot himself “if he should lose, ever, even once” (408). Eric fabricates for himself the illusion of a winning streak; rather than playing against himself and his own limitations, as in Schtitt’s tennis idyll, he refuses the contingency of play and the potential displeasure of losing, choosing to depend only on his opponents’ “default” (410) decision not to make him lose. Eric works toward a perfect record, and when perfection is finally, albeit mistakenly, reached, he shoots himself. Wallace continually connects perfection to death and to illusion. In the novel, the effort to sustain an illusion of stability over territory that in reality is extremely rough is always accompanied by the manufacturing of systems that are even more complex and artificial than what they first attempted to simplify. Perhaps no other character embodies the obsession for cleanliness and perfection better than Avril, “the Moms” of the Incandenzas. Mario, her son, is anguished by the thought that Avril never seemed sad after her husband’s death, that she in fact “seems like she got happier” (42). His brother, Hal, tries to explain that different people grieve differently and he employs a convoluted image: “One way to lower the flag to half-mast is just to lower the flag. There’s another way though. You can also just raise the pole. You can raise the pole to like twice its original height. You get me? […] She’s plenty sad, I bet” (42). Avril’s way of showing sadness, according to Hal, is by not showing it, contriving to lower the flag by not lowering it, attempting to grow taller than any discontent she might have felt. This growth is symptomatic of much of Avril’s behavior, a perfectionism that hungers to smooth out any complication around her. Yet hers is only a surface ironing, because any more involvement to her would mean touching upon the very source of her initial discomfort. For example, “checking up” on her sons might reveal to Avril that the trust she believes exists in her family is but an illusion. She thus creates a complex logic to sustain her way of thinking without probing it, as Mario explains to Hal: “She wants you to know she trusts you at all times and you’re too trustworthy to worry about or check up on” (770). Like the complex systems created to avoid complications and paradox, the Moms even generates a structure to address her sons systematically, directing “every fourth comment to Orin, Hal, and Mario, like a cycle of even inclusion” (744). Avril is extreme in her show of trust and openness around her children, removing doors and walls from her home and office, but she remains closed off from any true connection. For example, Hal does not approach her about
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his marijuana addiction and when Mario wants to talk about feelings, Avril avoids much of the conversation by giving him dictionary definitions for the word “sadness” instead. In his discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’ notion of “reality as totality” in Infinite Jest, Van Ewjik argues that a “constant need of consciousness to grasp and control the ‘Otherness’ while declaring itself as absolute” leads to a sense of isolation, and the individual “becomes a prisoner of its own totalizing tendency” (138). Avril suffers from a “totalizing tendency” and it isolates her from Hal and Mario. She believes she is trustworthy only insofar as she feels trustworthy; however, that sensation of trust does not reach out beyond her—her sons do not feel it. Afraid of bad parenting, and, like Eric Clipperton, of even the possibility of failure, Avril goes full circle and produces the very results she hoped to avoid. For Wallace, perfectionism is not only a cause for suffering; he also identifies it as a deadly tendency in the device of “The Entertainment”. The Entertainment is a film so enticing to its viewer that it leads to a death rather like Clipperton’s own: attaining a perfect rendition of their desires seems to quell spectators’ will to live. Kenneth Burke suggests that an individual may “[exert] almost superhuman efforts in the attempt to give his life a certain form […] despite the fact that such efforts at perfection might cause the unconscious striver great suffering” (18). For Burke, the quest for utter completion is so compelling that if it also happens “to contain the risks of destroying the world, that’s just too bad” (19). Marathe makes a similar claim about the United State’s willingness to kill Quebecois, just as it was willing to kill “Colombians and Bolivians to protect U.S.A. citizens who desire their narcotics” because narcotics produce an effect of immediate satisfaction (319). Again and again Wallace’s characters experience a paradoxical urge to avoid pain, which, strangely, always manages to loop back because their avoidance strategies almost invariably produce pain equal or greater to that which they first sought to escape. Hal and other addicts such as Kate, who starts smoking marijhuana just “to get” her “through dinner” with her mother, consume drugs to “minimize displeasure” but do so to their detriment as they end up consuming a substance in order to mediate the suffering that same substance causes (77). Like drug use, the Entertainment offers an instantaneous pleasure that immediately turns into fatal compulsion. However, for Marathe, the A.F.R.’s plan to make the Entertainment available in the U.S. is not terrorism. He argues that the A.F.R. wants to make available a product
that the U.S. itself has created but that, due to the culture of the pursuit of “immediate gratification”, its people cannot resist. Marathe calls this a “death of pleasure with spoons” (318), identifying a difference between choosing everything that one is free to choose, and enacting one’s freedom in choosing not to choose it all: “This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose — this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only. Don’t you see?” (318). For Marathe the Entertainment itself is not at fault: The U.S. of Infinite Jest creates structures and special investigations in order to find and destroy the threat without ever stopping to question what makes it a threat, just like many of the novel’s obsessive characters avoid coming to terms with the attitude responsible for their obsession. Wallace identifies a fear of failure, of weakness, of instability that keeps many of his characters, like Avril, from engaging in a game fuller than the constant superficial erasure of daily struggles. The irony of the A.F.R.’s mirror ruse is that motorists speeding toward a mirror strategically placed in the middle of the road do not know that it is they who are “the impending idiot”, flashing their “beams right back” at themselves (311). In their anxious avoidance of death, they “veer” off the road and die, not realising that a head-on crash with a mirror, with themselves, would not be fatal. It is tragic that these motorists could not have possibly known, but the image echoes the tendency to avoid even one instance of failure or discomfort even if that attitude produces failure and discomfort. Accepting addiction, acknowledging that there is a problem, is a step taken at the very bottom of bottom’s despair because it means admitting that one is dependent on artificial stimulation to make life tolerable. The mirror stunt is finally uncovered when “an actual U.S. would-be suicide, a late-stage Valium-addicted Amway distributor from Schenectady who was at the end of her Benzodioxane-rope” chooses to smash into the car racing toward her, and consequently, finds the mirror (312). In her suicidal desire to quit herself, she also, in the A.F.R.’s symbolic set up, crashes head-on with herself—with what had caused so many to veer off. For recuperating suicidal people and the “laststage” addicts in the novel, the self-catching and totalizing motions they had previously employed to avoid suffering have become painfully conspicuous because these are the behaviours that allow and sustain a desire to die or to continue drug-use. Indeed, these are the attitudes that now make it difficult for
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them to exit the cycle. Due to the intensity of their dis-ease, they are acutely aware that the logic systems by which they justify drug intake constitute their cage. An addict at the bottom of his or her despair is more than ready to face what others in less dire circumstances can still try hard to ignore: that they are their own cage. It takes someone at the “end of her rope” to finally see this. But the implications for Wallace do not end with drug addicts. Drug addiction, because of the intensity of its symptoms, is used in the novel as a sort of “tracer” signal for a dis-ease that is replicated on various levels throughout the structure and that is made manifest in many ways. What makes a person commit suicide or homicide, or become an addict, is no different from the motions of the other, arguably more socially acceptable, addictions and obsessions that Infinite Jest catalogues, such as perfectionism or obsession with fame. For example, LaMont Chu’s wish to establish a valid identity is entwined with an obsession to be famous, looked at, and envied. Lyle points out to him that fame “is not the exit from” LaMont’s obsession; rather, “escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage” (389)”. Lyle claims that Chu “suffer[s] with the stunted desire of one of the world’s oldest lies” (398). A craving, like Chu’s, to “make an impression” is at the heart of much of the solitude that pervades the novel. One of the complaints of videophone users in the novel’s discussion of, “[...] And But So Why The Abrupt Consumer Retreat To Good Old Voice-Only Telephoning” (145), is that, in the playback mode of videophones, callers were deeply disturbed to discover an “indefiniteness” (147) to their own faces during phone conversations. A desire for self-definition, once again part of a “totalizing” or perfectionist effort, can be viewed in the “outright demand” (148) first of masks, and then of “heavily doctored still-photographs” that presented the videophone caller as an “incredibly fit and attractive and well-turned out human being”, and even offered digital versions of the caller’s surroundings, “the sort of room that best reflected the image of yourself you wanted to transmit, etc.” (149). Consumers’ discontent with the videophone is followed each time by a new attempt to overcome the device’s drawbacks, which were previous improvements on other drawbacks; the final move being the rejection of videophony in favour of the “good old voice-only” system. This simulation of a “return” to telephones affords consumers “a kind of chic integrity, not ludditism, but a kind of retrograde transcendence of a sci-fi-ish high-tech for its
own sake, a transcendence of the vanity and the slavery to high-tech fashion that people view as so unattractive in one another” (151). The culture’s fabrication of limitations produces a trendy illusion of progress, relief, and freedom from a problem that, in fact, has little to do with videophony; the public’s unwillingness to interface in person cannot be “attributed to the videophonyfad per se” (151). Like Avril’s performance of exemplary parenthood, “the videophony-fad” glosses over the darker and far more complex issue at hand: a “new panagoraphobia” or reluctance to interact publicly that motivates the creation of “home-shopping and delivery” (151) for convenience, and later, of the cartridge entertainment system itself. The return to voice-only calling creates the illusion of transcendence and progress through the fabrication of artificial complications. This is a recurrent pattern in the world of Infinite Jest, where characters facilitate their shortcomings and their suffering by developing alternate systems that pretend to transcend, but truly only refuse to address, uncomfortable or painful spells. This may be observed in E.T.A.’s strategies to combat the loneliness to which its highly competitive students are prone. Hal tells his little Buddies that the E.T.A. staff ’s harshness and the intensity of school activities are deliberate strategies in the formation of a “common enemy” against whom the children can rally and project hatred through “group expression” (114). Hal describes it as a “medicine” (113), a type of artificial stimulation to form community and combat the “loneliness” (114) that E.T.A. competitiveness produces. As he talks to the little Buddies, Hal chews Kodiak, which provides a cure for an unbearable dryness in the mouth caused by his usage of marijuana: “the smokeless tobacco started almost as an excuse to spit, sometimes” (114). Hal’s need for one substance leads to the use of another substance to manage the symptoms of the first, taking him one degree further from the heart of his addiction, not unlike the E.T.A “medicine” for loneliness he describes. What motivates his marijuana addiction in the first place is a puzzling question to Hal, although he senses that it is related to his love of the secrecy around drug use. “The insatiable need to advance some impression of himself ” (114)— which Hal begrudgingly concedes he and Ingersoll share—seems to be central to Hal Incandenza’s addiction. Hal finds himself thinking that he, “for the most part believes what he’s said about loneliness and the structured need for a we here; and this, together with the Ingersoll-repulsion and spitflood, makes him uncomfortable for a moment on why he gets off on the secrecy
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of getting high in secret more than on the getting high itself ” (114). Secrecy, a performance of expecting to be seen while simultaneously avoiding being seen, parallels the videophone masks in bringing Hal forward into a social interaction that simultaneously removes him from that interaction, allowing Hal to frame himself in a particular kind of light, to make an impression. When Hal provides a perfect, word-for-word definition of acutance, the boys in the locker-room tease him calling him, “The Halster”, “Halorama”, “Halation” (97). This name-calling speaks to Hal’s longing to glow incandescent beyond the confines of his body, as halation is “the spreading of light beyond its proper boundaries to form a fog round the edges of a bright image in a photograph or on a television screen” (“Halation”), Wallace captures a curious desire for community and closeness that is inverted continually into a craving for uniqueness—to be remarked upon. Hal associates the “luminescence” of LSD to the feeling of winning Spelling Bee competitions as a child: “he’d felt the same pale sweet aura that an LSD afterglow conferred, some milky corona, like almost a halo of approved grace” (999). Like Clipperton’s, Hal’s substance abuse acts as a replacement for a sensation of validation, approval, presence, and purpose; and hiding in the “embranchingly tunneled” (49) bowels of the tennis academy, gives him the thrill of a “subterranean covert drama” (952). It is as if the drug were giving him an excuse to play meaningfully, to interact, to radiate out into the world through a light of his own; paradoxically however, the introspective effects of marijuana simultaneously remove Hal from a true sense of engagement with the world. Like the videophone users, Hal is so concerned with self-image that he falls into an obsessive generation of structure to sustain it. Hal’s claim that an exam that he and his peers just sat “was talking about the syntax of Tolstoy’s sentence, not about real unhappy families” (95) reveals his tendency to split coding or syntax from what it expresses. His existence on an analytical plane can be, to an extent, paralleled to the “hierarchizing” efforts to shatter paradox that Hofstadter describes. Isolated in his mind, prone to cynicism and irony, Hal attempts to remain on one arm of the loop, on the side of abstraction that is continually attempting to leap ahead of itself to a vantage point that might be exempt from the flaws of the first. Thus, he attempts to present textbook symptoms of grieving for his therapist only to discover that his original feeling, an anxiety towards the doctor’s refusal to accept Hal’s symptoms, is in fact a perfectly common response, which the doctor is finally able to perceive when
Hal commits to actually showing it. Hal pretends to perform his original anger and anxiety in an attempt to disown the feelings, to be a step ahead of them, perhaps even to seem remarkable or unique as a patient. Similarly, when he is desperate to confide his troubles to Mario, yet hesitant to seem desperate, he speaks convolutedly, trying to remove himself from his own plea for attention: “You might think I’m wondering why you aren’t asking me why thirty days, why it was so important to extract the thirty days from the blue-blazered guy before a G.C./M.S. scan. As in what is there to be afraid of, you might ask” (772). Hal’s stunting, self-conscious rendition of meta-thinking is in fact the type of “metatechnique” that Wallace claimed was a souvenir from the sixties and led young people in the nineties to believe they “needn’t worry about making up moral systems” (“Interview”). It is this self-distancing, ironic stance that Wallace seeks to overcome in this novel. Konstantinou explains that Wallace’s “postirony is not an effort to make fiction paradoxically selfconscious of its own self-consciousness” (91). “Metafiction” can counter irony and detachment and “produce the opposite effect: belief ” (Konstantinou 93). Wallace explores through Infinite Jest a new understanding of “metafiction”, not as the language through which to attempt to speak about and disown oneself, but of the ability to engage with oneself, to embody one’s “Strange Loopiness” (Hofstadter 21). Thus, at the heart of Hal’s strictly mediated speech is a genuine desire for connection, which is continually undercut by an effort to project a totalizing identity. In the locker-room, amidst complaints of the day’s work, Hal notes his reflection on the tile: “Hal’s reflection just fits inside one of the wall-tiles opposite, and then if he moves his head slowly the face distends and comes back together with an optical twang in the next tile” (104). Hal’s face is distorted by the interface between tiles and seems to be lost. In the instant of the “twang” Hal’s face is both distorted and restored, as if in the limit between tiles he were both becoming and un-becoming himself, as if his reflection were fighting with the “indefiniteness” of the border. Although Hal cannot “un-become” himself, there is still fear to expose even an instant of weakness or change, which leads him to self-consciously perform upgraded versions of himself. Hal’s addiction to incandescence is not particular to him. Brockengespenst is “a magnified shadow of an observer, typically surrounded by rainbow-like
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bands, thrown into a bank of cloud in high mountain areas when the sun is low” (“Brocken Spectre”), which Marathe and Steeply see as the sun sets. Like their shadows through Brockengespenst, the two men expand themselves through talk of their organisations, B.S.S and A.F.R., and of O.N.A.N. and various political figures. The image is echoed in different forms throughout the text. The spectre is reminiscent of LaMont Chu’s search for self-validation through another fiction of enormity, Chang’s fame, and of Orin’s sensation of “a denial of silence: 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul” (295) as he kicks the American football. Orin feels “his own self transcended as he’d never escaped himself on the court, a sense of presence in the sky, the crowd-sound congregational, the stadium shaking climax as the ball climbed and inscribed a cathedran arch, seeming to take forever to fall” (296-7). He is validated not through the game itself, but through the immediate satisfaction of the crowd, and through the feeling of having “escaped” and “transcended” himself and the “weaknesses” of his game of tennis. It is Schtitt’s belief that Orin never tried to improve out of an “unwillingness to risk the temporary failure and weakness for long term gaining” (293). Orin was not among the best tennis players at E.T.A., but Wallace’s narrative voice underlines that “mediocrity is contextual” (285). Orin is a phenomenal player at the Universitylevel; however, he is lured by “The Show” and by finding resonance in the roar of a crowd and validation in the ability to win much more often. Like Hal and LaMont, Orin seeks to find a sense of presence in expanding himself and his influence through fame and achievement. The world of play is continuously linked to metaphysics in the novel and to a sensation of consequence similar to the one that attracts Orin to the crowds. Awed by a match of Hal’s he has just watched, Mario asks his brother whether he “believed [in God], today, out there” (40-41). For Mario, the appearance of being “on”, of seeming to belong “out there”, is almost religious. “Being on” and “so right there” imply a sort of alignment or precise engagement not only with the game but with the territory, “right there” (4041). There is also a degree of playfulness and near magical precision in Hal’s attachment to smoking in the tunnels at E.T.A. In his discussion of mythopoeia, Johan Huizinga identifies myth-making as a playful personification of objects, a “tendency to create an imaginary world of living beings (or perhaps: a world of animate ideas), a playing of the mind” that arose out of a need “to communicate one’s perception to others” (136). Thus, he connects the play
impulse to an interaction with the surrounding landscape, the surrounding community, and a quest for significance. Huizinga describes the “timeless, ever recurring patterns of play” as “beat and counter-beat, rise and fall, question and answer, in short, rhythm” (142); to him play involves a sense of resonance or momentous response from the outside world. Eric Clipperton’s blind father plays obsessively with a paddle ball (433), the elastic rebound of which acts like a soundboard or a rhythmic link to the outside world. His obsession, of course, isolates him from other forms of interaction and he and his wife fail to connect with their son and his plight, just as much as Eric failed to connect with his opponents because his game relied on always being the winner. This desire for evidence of presence, “to feel the seams of everything” (166), can also be viewed in Jim’s father’s discussion on objects. The father takes delight in showing his son how he interacts with and leaves traces on the world, as when he notes that his liquor flask is “slippery” because of his fingers—“My oil, Jim, from my body” (160-1). Jim’s father finds pleasure in the way things are “placed, guided, with senses on Full, feeling the edges, the pressure on the little floor of both hand’s fingers” (161). However, as with the Clippertons, this father-son relationship is not about connection; he lectures without listening to the boy. James O. Incandenza is part of a line of puzzling father-son relationships in which the father is concerned that his son has retracted into his own mind and the father is anxious to persuade the son to come out into the world of objects through a game, and “maybe for once be a real boy and learn how to play and have fun and frolic and play around in the relieved sunshine this city’s so fuck-all famous for” (162). Jim’s father introduces him to tennis, and Jim, as the wraith reveals to Gately, devises game after game for Hal in the hopes of making something “the gifted boy couldn’t simply master and move on from to a new plateau […] something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self ’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life” (839). The result is the perfect Entertainment that fulfils the desire for pleasure—perhaps even for presence and connection—so fully, so expediently, that there is no need to play anymore. As often happens in the novel, in his drive for a perfect solution, Jim produces the exact opposite effect that he had hoped to achieve. While perfectionism creates a detachment from the world, the desire to create a perfect engagement with the world again produces alienation from it. Like Hal with Mario and the therapist, Jim generates a disconnect between his son and himself by imagining
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or fearing that there is one. Motions toward “perfection” throughout the novel that remove the possibility of meaningful play create a simultaneous craving for purpose— the feeling that they have forgotten something essential. The appeal of the Entertainment is an experience of evocative engagement or immersion, similar to the experience Jim’s father sought to achieve through his involved interactions with objects. Steeply explains to Marathe that the Entertainment’s appeal has got “something to do with the density” because it is a particularly intense type of hologram (491). James Incandenza’s effort to engage his son through an upgrade from two-dimensional entertainment to threedimensional entertainment is similar to the “new millenium’s passion for standing live witness to things” (620), a desire to return to “density”, to be “all out in the world” (621), something that they had in the past and might have had all along but for the development of the cartridge system. Mario’s sense of “being on” while playing a game, Hal’s thrill in engaging in a lively way with the E.T.A. tunnels, and consumers’ desire to experience “density” through live performance all relate to a craving to find purpose in a mythic, near spiritual sense. The characters’ desire to return to density, to meaning, may be a yearning to return to the very source of the pain and discomfort they attempted to disown—themselves. While Hal’s and Orin’s games mostly offer an opportunity to be watched and to continue to project their incandescence, Schacht finds meaning in the sounds of his and his opponent’s own game. He feels that “there is a nourishing sense of pregnable space in a big indoor club that you never get playing outside” because he can hear himself playing: “everything cracks and booms, the grunts and shoe-squeaks and booming pocks of impact and curses unfolding across the white-on-green plane and echoing off each tarp” (269). Schacht’s game has been improving since he “stopped dreaming of getting to the Show” (270), but not in comparison to others; his rank, not his game, has been “declining”. Schacht fully embodies the understanding of the game of tennis that Schtitt encourages in his students. For Schtitt, the opponent is “the excuse or occasion for meeting the self ” because “you compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win” (84). The player, probing his or her limits through engagement with another self comes into contact with the thrill of contingency, of standing on the edge or the seams:
You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned over and over again (84). The possibilities of game are infinite, the player is not; and yet it is the player’s very limitations, the flawed self and life itself that “make the game possible”. Tennis depends on the player’s strange loopiness, as she rises above limitations, “killing them”, and then comes back to the start to begin again. It is in grappling with them, in “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without” (84), that these limits become “animating”, because they allow a sense of purposeful presence in infinity to combine and emerge as “dynamic object in relationships to other people and objects” (Fraudenthal 204). The self loops inside and outside, so that “coding” and “statement” become entangled, complex, and paradoxical; the hierarchizing motion that prevents engagement with the world is overcome in the game of tennis as it finally is in the Eschaton debacle. In Eschaton, Pemulis attempts to maintain the difference between “map” and “territory”, between code and what it codes for, but this is a hierarchy that falls apart when the children entangle the divide. Snow, as in the end of the novel, falls as a force of cohesion, illustrating the collapse of metathinking. The children who were the “apparatus” of the game make a “meta-decision” to truly play rather than play abstractly through the highly theoretical game of Eschaton: “A couple of ostensible world leaders run around with their open mouths directed at the sky, trying to catch bits of the fall’s first snow” (332). Snow near the end of the novel similarly brings back a spirit world of the forgotten and repressed. As Gately lies in the hospital, struggling against pain and the temptation of a relief that would mean falling back into drugs, he begins an internal battle of “Getting In Touch” with some of the feelings that made him use “the Substances in the first place” (446). Gately dreams of his childhood home and of “Herman, the vaculole”, a hole in the roof that, in “an attempt to deal” (809), his landlord had covered with plastic. In the dream, the “attempt to deal” bursts and Gately’s memories flood back--memories of domestic violence and disappointment, of scenarios where he remained passive, and of desperately sad and loving figures, such as Mrs. Waite, whom he failed to help or acknowledge. It is by grappling with the memories that first caused his addiction that Gately moves through every centimeter of his time at
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the hospital. The image of ambient water, of submersion in and out of consciousness, is prominent in the last section of the novel, and it may be linked to Gately’s previous discussion of “Getting In Touch” in his AA program. After speaking at an AA session about his struggle with the “god angle” (443) of the programme, Bob Death—perhaps, an antithesis to the drowse of marijuana or “Bob Hope”—tells Gately a joke about the fish who asked, “what the fuck is water?” (445). The fish are unaware that they are floating in the very liquid that allows them to live. That night, Gately’s dreams “set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is” (449). The image becomes much more powerful in Gately’s hospital room where he floats not only in “memories of his youth” that “sank without bubbles” in his adolescence (447), but also in an acute awareness of his body, and of the struggle of each moment as a movement “between heartbeats” (860). The idea of floating in something “the same temperature as he is” is another tangle of Gately as a complex loop because his struggle with his limitations becomes who he is. Gately is playing with himself, but this is not another instance of avoidance or strict hierarchical thinking. It is in fact an effort to see the cage that first trapped him and that traps, perhaps, many of the characters in the novel—a desire to reach completion and a desire to avoid, by whatever means possible, pain or fear of incompleteness, even when the attempt involves more pain and a whirling hollowness around the concavity of what has been stowed away from sight. Painful as it may be, it is in the “twang”, in the instant where he faces erasure and simultaneously reasserts himself that a character like Gately becomes most aware of himself, becomes most alive. As in the game of tennis, by battling with “the self you cannot live without” (84) and employing his limitations and incompleteness as part of the game, Gately’s efforts are imbued with meaning. He discovers that the horrors he had sought to escape were all along part of the game that now allows him to cope with them—life itself. Like the “videophony fad”, the return to live entertainment, or Hal’s return to a performance of his genuine feelings, Gately comes back to himself, an image that Wallace repeats in his essay, “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funninness”: The horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That
our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home […] to envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens…and it opens outward— we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. (64-5) Infinite Jest is intricately patterned with loops that reach out beyond the self only to be twanged back. For Hofstadter, “implicit in the concept of Strange Loops is the concept of infinity, since what else is a loop but a way of representing an endless process in a finite way?” (Hofstadter 10). The twodimensionality of a goal-oriented culture is countered by a three-dimensional notion of humans as a continual process and struggle of becoming that at any given point can be intersected by infinite numbers of branching possibilities. Infinite Jest suggests that the Pursuit of Happiness is perhaps what makes us most unhappy because it is an attempt to neutralize the very processes and rhythms that make life and give it meaning: “beat and counter-beat, rise and fall, question and answer” (Huizinga 142).
“Brocken Spectre.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. Burke, Kenneth. “Definition of Man.” Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkley: University of California, 1966. 3-24. Google Books. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. Burn, Stephen. Conversations with David Foster Wallace. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Project MUSE. Web. 26 Nov. 2013. “Halation.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. Fraudenthal, Elizabeth. “Anti-Interiority: Compulsiveness, Objectification, and Identity in Infinite Jest” New literary history. 41.1 (2010): 191-211. Project Muse. Web. 4 Dec. 2013. Hofstadter, Douglas. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic, 1979. Print. Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. 2nd ed.
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London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. Yale University School of Art. Yale University. Web. 3 Oct. 2013. Samuel; Konstantinou, Lee. “No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief.” The Legacy of David Foster Wallace. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Ebook Library. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. Wallace, David Foster. “Laughing with Kafka.” Harper’s. Harper’s Magazine, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013. Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York: Back Bay, 2006. Print. Wallace, David Foster. “Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness”. 1996. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. 1st ed. New York: Back Bay, 1998. 256-353. Print. Van Ewjick, Petrus. “‘I’ And The ‘Other’”: The Relevance of Wittgenstein, Buber And Levinas For An Understanding Of AA’S Recovery Program In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” English Text Construction 2.1 (2009): 132-145. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
THE DEATH OF THE SUBJECT
A POSTMODERN APPROACH TO IDEOLOGY IN EUGENE O’NEILL’S THE HAIRY APE
Neil Cooney Lee University
“death of the subject,” or the “end of individualism,” in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson says, “… individuality and personal identity is a thing of the past… the old individual or individualist subject is ‘dead’… one might even describe the concept of the unique individual and the theoretical basis of individualism as ideological” (1850). For Jameson, a Marxist, this event evolves from postmodernism qua late capitalism, reflecting the inevitable and pervasive loss of meaning in postmodern critical theory. This loss of meaning evident in the vanishing of the Real into simulation as described in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, in narrative discourse’s loss of ability for self-legitimization in JeanFrancois Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, in the infinite deferment of meaning into the impalpable quality (or rather, non-quality) of différance for Jacques Derrida, and even in the fictive trajectory of the tripartite self at the advent of what Jacques Lacan calls the mirror stage—and so on. Consequently, a postmodern approach to Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape—a play that has been widely acclaimed as a quintessential “modernist” drama—is an inherently problematic undertaking. Beginning with Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism, “incredulity towards metanarratives,” the play’s Marxist elements are receptive to scrutiny (Lyotard 72). Admittedly, other twentieth-century literary works with Marxist content may appear more readily to invite a postmodern re-examination1, but the state of Marxist discourse in the early twentieth century, as demonstrated in The Hairy Ape, participates in a dialogue with the utopian proposition of a post-Revolution socialism, a dialogue taken seriously by the text more than would be the case in more postmodern-influenced strains of Marxism. After all, Lyotard’s presentation of postmodern incredulity is “such that we no escribing the
1Or, if preferred, Marxist content that more readily subjects postmodernism to itself.
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longer expect salvation to rise from these inconsistencies, as did Marx” (73). In “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida writes: It was probably necessary to begin to think that there was no center, that the center would not be thought in the form of a being-present, that the center had no natural locus… This moment was that in which language invaded the universal problematic… when everything became a system where the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. (225) The postmodern approach used in investigating the death of the subject in The Hairy Ape lends itself to Derridean deconstruction; it is a rather playful enterprise that necessitates understanding the infinite deferral of identity in the play’s characters, specifically Yank and Mildred, through multiple constellations of differences. That understanding, in collaboration with persistent unraveling of the spontaneous inconsistencies of the metanarratives upon which the play depends, reveals the substancelessness of Robert “Yank” Smith and Mildred Douglas, not just as narrative structures but as fictional subjects. That is to say, the activity at hand is precisely to understand these characters as non-subjects, non-selves. Whereas some deconstructive approaches begin by regarding the text externally, pulling it apart into its incompatible parts, here it is both possible and desirable to situate a postmodern critical approach to The Hairy Ape within literary discourse, to approach the text more internally. Slavoj Žižek’s discussion of ideology in his 2008 book, Violence, is a fitting entrance to the internal structure of The Hairy Ape as an anti-capitalist play. Žižek observes that “certain features, attitudes, and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked. They appear to be neutral, non-ideological, natural, commonsensical. We designate as ideology that which stands out from this background” (36). However, “it is precisely the neutralization of some features into a spontaneously accepted background that marks out ideology at its purest and most effective” (36). Žižek’s concept, applied to The Hairy Ape, leads to the conclusion that the text’s ideology is less what it explicitly says than what occupies its “spontaneously accepted background.” The target of this deconstruction, namely the ideology of The Hairy Ape, is more visible in the ramifications implicit in its structure than in the simple facts of the events depicted in the play. A useful way to begin approaching this concept is to
employ Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the “Implied Reader.” For Iser, “the reader’s role is pre-structured by the three basic components: the different perspectives represented in the text, the vantage point from which he [the reader] joins them together, and the meeting place where they converge” (33-34). Of course, the “reader” here is a constructed fiction, a result of analyzing a text’s structure—the Implied Reader is itself a defunct and non-volitional subject. What Žižek and Iser bring us to is the proverbial separation between what the text “means” to do and what it actually does. It is the latter that deconstruction concerns itself with, resulting in the third option: what the text cannot do. From a postmodern perspective, The Hairy Ape cannot legitimate its Marxist metanarrative, nor can it stabilize its meaning into anything more than a precarious system of differences—especially where it uses binary pairs. Furthermore, the alleged foils represented by Yank and Mildred highlight their artificiality, not as characters qua literary constructs, but as fictional selves. That is to say, the two characters do not belong. O’Neill uses both to typify their respective social strata, and yet both Yank and Mildred are outsiders. Their encounter renders them in binary opposition, unsubtly presenting the two as black versus white, but the contrast does not hold up. Yank’s blackness is not that of the stokehole workers, nor is Mildred’s whiteness the angelic, virginal purity that whiteness often represents. The play’s ultimate aporia, the undoing of the play’s “spontaneously accepted background” or underlying ideology, as Žižek would have it, is the ultimate lack of substance to these two characters, who are rather more akin to apparitions or vacuous husks. Contra any humanist reading of The Hairy Ape, the play undermines its own ideological assumption of individuality. As Erika Rundle writes in “The Hairy Ape’s Humanist Hell”: Scholars and critics trying to fit The Hairy Ape into a pre-existing literary or theatrical tradition have relied almost exclusively on humanist assumptions to make their case; in the primate drama, however, these epistemological “givens” are replaced by attention to performance and evolution as posthuman constructs. (54) Obviously, “the primate drama” refers to the play’s title, Yank’s nickname, ultimately dehumanizing him and stripping away any semblance of human subjectivity he may have. Xiao-Ping further notes that “[i]nterestingly, in the description of the gorillas, we see words related to the human being, for
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instance, ‘chatterings’ and ‘conversational;’ while in that of men, we find words related to animals: ‘beast’ and ‘hairy-chested’” (32). The blurring of the line between human subjectivity and beasthood, as seen in the play’s title, calls for a reading that is incompatible with any form of humanist essentialism. It invites an interpretation, such as the one at hand, of Yank as nonhuman, as an entity with a destabilized identity. The easiest entry to the labyrinth of The Hairy Ape is through Yank’s character. He is a liminal character, with too much of a need for autonomy to assimilate into any group and too much of a need for solidarity to be truly autonomous, which becomes steadily more the case as the play progresses. In Scene One, Yank is one of the stoker crowd, yet he is separate, as “they respect his superior strength—the grudging respect of fear. Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression, the very last word in what they are, their most highly developed individual” (141). Is Yank’s social position one of difference through sameness or sameness through difference? He is the quintessential embodiment of the group, but the result is not solidarity, but rather otherness. O’Neill’s description of Yank unravels here: Yank is so like the group that he is not like them. He is and is not their self-expression, as evidenced in the men clamoring an echo of Yank’s pronouncements; Yank is and is not the last word in what they are, their most developed individual. As Analisa Brugnoli points out in “Eulogy of the Ape,” the others become homogenous, like a Greek chorus, but Yank is caught between—belonging but not belonging. With the suggestion that, upon his death in a gorilla cage at the zoo, maybe Yank “finally belongs” coming at the end of the play, it is reasonable to suggest that, in spite of Yank’s raving about belonging, he does not actually belong (197). Yank directly addresses his liminality in his monologue to the ape at the end of the play, saying, “I kin make at talkin’ and tinkin’—a’most git away wit it—a’most!—and dat’s where de joker comes in…I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in de middle somewhere tryin’ to separate ‘em, takin’ all de woist punches from bot’ of ‘em” (197). Such is the nature of Yank’s identity, both explicit in The Hairy Ape and implicit in a postmodern reading of it: a decentered, un-delineated self, the end of the fiction of stable identity. In “Absurdity Theme in Eugene O’Neill’s Middle Period Works,” Zhou Xiao-Ping devises a system of four metaphysical cages: the zoo, the stokehole, the prison, and the society. Xiao-Ping’s discussion of these cages is likely underdeveloped, but it brings him to conclude that with respect to
Yank, his autonomy, and his belonging—namely, that the character of Mildred destroys his sense of belonging and “breaks his spiritual cage of authority, individualism, and [even] optimism” (33). Xiao-Ping continues: “Without the confining [sic] of the spiritual cage, Yank gets the chance to see through the society he lives in.” But at the same time, the cage has been a form of protection, without which Yank becomes “bewildered, indignant, uneasy, lonesome, and finally desperate” (33). Xiao-Ping’s description illustrates Yank’s predicament effectively indeed—it is, after all, a literal cage to which Yank returns in the play’s final scene. The metaphorical (and literal) cage’s function for Yank in The Hairy Ape, then, is not just a keeping-in but also a keepingout. Yank’s struggle with autonomy versus community is precisely the struggle of a man whose cage on one hand limits and on the other delimits. That is, Yank’s battle against that which constricts and oppresses him is also a struggle against that which delineates his identity, that which defines him. Removed from the system of signs in which he normally operates—the steel, the dust, the engineer’s impatient whistle—Yank belongs nowhere. His strength and violence become nothing more than white noise, or impotent flailing. Violence versus impotence is perhaps Yank’s most prevalent tension. As his identity unravels, violence is his way of asserting his reality in his surroundings. It is, after all, his violence that causes his fellow stokehole workers to regard him with “the begrudging respect of fear” (141). Yank reveals his self, or his non-self, in his attempts at violence. However, as I hope to demonstrate, the binary of violence versus impotence collapses into itself, such that the two are shown to occupy the same symbolic level. Close examination of these attempts at violence reveals their ultimate failure: that Yank’s violence is his impotence, and his impotence is his violence. Yank’s strangest impotent attempt to commit violence occurs among the nameless bourgeoisie in a rich part of New York City. In Yank’s failing search for his foil, Mildred Douglas, toward whom he plans to act violently, the socialist Long accompanies him, reminding an angry Yank that they are involved in a class struggle, not a personal matter (175). Yank refuses to abandon his violent intentions; however, when he becomes aggressive with the ghostly procession of wealthy people, he bumps into and merely bounces off them, and they do not seem to notice (179). From the socialist perspective of the novel, what reaction from the reader does this scene hope to elicit? Yank contrasts with Long in that Long wants socialism to come through social
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reformation and within the parameters of law, to which Yank replies “Hell! Law!” and the others chime in with “Law!” in laughing ridicule (167). Perhaps the implication is that Yank is impotent because he is operating outside of the law, but given the play’s sympathy towards Yank, it is more likely that he is impotent because he is revolutionary, and while the Revolution will be, as Long says, a class issue, it will not happen through the power of one man— Yank will need solidarity with a group, a task he seems incapable of achieving or sustaining. However, Yank’s violence does not become impotence solely because he confronts a titanic and nebulous enemy. He throws himself into these bourgeois apparitions on a one-on-one basis, but he only succeeds in getting one man’s attention: the most Yank’s impotent violence (or violent impotence) can do is to make a man miss his bus, resulting in Yank’s arrest— arrest for being not a terror but rather an inconvenience (180). The nightmare Yank finds himself in is a result of lacking both autonomy and solidarity; he is caught in between, withering—once capable of violent intimidation, and now effectively non-existent. Yank’s second incidence of impotence comes in seeking solidarity in violence with the “Wobblies,” the “Industrial Workers of the World,” an organization the newspaper calls the “Industrial Wreckers of the World” in what appears to be a fear-mongering propaganda piece (184). It is here that Yank shows his non-subjectivity by momentarily forgetting his remarkably generic name, Robert Smith (189). As it turns out, Yank is wrong about the IWW being revolutionary. Yank offers to destroy the Nazareth Steel factory if he is just given the dynamite, and the IWW secretary rejects his violence and ejects him from the room, leaving Yank sitting “pathetically impotent” outside the IWW office (193). Yank’s impotence is so complete that his strength and violence are useless in resisting the violence of the secretary, who is rejecting Yank specifically due to his violence. Once again, the Implied Reader perhaps will see the exclusion of a true revolutionary proletariat from an emphatically nonviolent proletarian institution. But again, Yank’s violence is ineffectual even against the violence of that non-violent institution. Ultimately, that which was supposed to make Yank a paragon of his type, his violence, is illusory. Yank’s violence is not violence, thus the violence-versus-impotence binary undoes itself. This collapse becomes even more apparent in the moment of Yank’s violence—in fact, the only incident in the play in which Yank commits “real”
violence, a crucial moment in the unraveling of his identity. Before visiting the IWW, Yank is in prison, and learns that Mildred’s father’s company, Nazareth Steel, made the steel that comprises the ship in whose stokehole he works and, he believes, made his jail cell, as well—however, a fellow inmate corrects him, saying it is not steel, but older iron (187). The realization that this steel is everywhere results in the inevitable impotence Yank describes when he says, “Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me” (194). When Yank bends the iron cell bars in his rage, he is trying to assert some sort of agency by enacting violence against the symbol of his lost identity, the steel with which he identified. He is trying to destroy what he is but is not, that which deceived him into believing he belonged. However, again, the prison bars are not steel. The single moment in which Yank successfully exerts his terrible strength is nothing but a misdirected spectacle—not a symbolic act, but a virtual simulation without substance. In Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, Žižek speaks of the “fundamental paradox of the ‘Passion for the Real,’” that it “culminates in its apparent opposite: a theatrical spectacle” (9). By trying to establish his place in the Real, Yank actual reveals his lack of substance, staging a violent act that is a mere farce. The ape motif in The Hairy Ape recurs remarkably frequently, and it signals Yank’s de-subjectification as he identifies with the ape more and more throughout the play. In his final desperation, Yank looks to zoo animals for some sort of solidarity. It is, of course, a bitter and insincere search for that community, coming out of ironic disdain of himself and his situation. It is the ape to whom he confesses his obscure and nameless problem: “It beats it when you try to tink it or talk it—it’s way down—deep—behind—you ‘n’ me we feel it” (197). After the ape proves that even it has more agency than Yank by mortally wounding him and locking him inside its cage, Yank remarks, “Even he [the ape] didn’t tink I belonged. Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in? …In de cage huh? Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at de one and only—(his voice weakening)—one and original—Hairy Ape from de wilds of—” (198). From the wilds of where? Even Yank can not name it because it does not exist; if he comes from any “wilds,” it is the Desert of the Real, the wilderness of Nothing. If Yank, lying dead on the cage floor, finally belongs, it is only because he was already dead. He has no solidarity, no agency, no autonomy whatsoever. As a subject, his center is gone. He is not a subject at all.
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In Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson describes what he calls the “waning of affect:” As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. (319) This numbness is the mode of The Hairy Ape’s bourgeois existence, embodied in the procession of flat-affected rich New Yorkers, none of whom Yank can affect with his impotent violence. While Mildred Douglas is not completely emotionless, there is something grotesque, even dead , about the smug woman in white, “fretful, nervous, and discontented, bored by her own anemia” (154). When Mildred’s aunt calls her a ghoul, saying she is even beginning to look like one, Mildred is simply unaffected, saying “(in a passionless tone), I detest you, aunt” (155). She speaks her feelings but cannot act on them. Mildred is thus characteristically bored and uninterested. In terms of what role the text mplies for its reader - or more aptly, in terms of what place Mildred occupies in the ideology of The Hairy Ape - Mildred’s character is enigmatic. Philanthropy is a peculiar choice for a bored bourgeois looking for something to do. Her social concern is certainly the disingenuous philanthropy of the bourgeoisie, but despite being a simple, empty amusement for her, it is hardly ignorant: Mildred is aware of her own artificiality. Mildred says, “I would like to be of some use in the world. Is it my fault I don’t know how? I would like to be sincere, to touch life somewhere . . . with weary bitterness). But I’m afraid I have neither the vitality nor the integrity” (156). Indeed, Mildred has no “vitality” at all. In The Precession of Simulacra, Jean Baudrillard writes a fictional anecdote of a “simulated” hold up in a store, detailing the strict attention paid to the process of creating a perfect simulation of such an incident, with a fake hostage, fake ransom demands, etc., while at all times trying to avoid doing anything illegal: “But you won’t succeed: the web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements (a police officer will really shoot on sight; a bank customer will faint and die of a heart attack; they will really turn the phony ransom over to you…)” (358). Mildred finds herself suspended between two insincerities. Despite bearing the trappings and suits of philanthropy, she is not truly a philanthropist; despite her insistent boredom and enervation, she participates in philanthropy. She is caught up in simultaneous simulations of
two insincere opposites: she both does and does not want to “be of some use in the world,” to “be sincere,” “to touch life somewhere.” Real sincerity is impossible for Mildred; hence, her aunt’s ironic advice that sincerity “isn’t becoming to you, really—except as an obvious pose. Be as artificial as you are, I advise. There’s a sort of sincerity in that, you know” (156). This whole proposition is a smoke screen, an absurd suggestion to change from insincere sincerity to sincere insincerity, a discussion of whether Mildred’s is a bored philanthropy or a philanthropic boredom. It reveals Mildred as a construction of multiple flat and incompatible surfaces with no real center or substance. Annalisa Brugnoli’s article describes the foil of Mildred with Yank, but first, it must engage with the internal foil of Mildred with her own image: There is nothing of the innocence and purity traditionally associated with whiteness in Mildred’s hue. On the contrary, Mildred’s candor has more to do with “the whiteness of the whale” as Melville describes it . . . where the frightening and uncanny quality of whiteness is set against the cliché whereby white is the color of beauty, nobility, and virtue. (45) Mildred is a grotesque apparition of whiteness that isn’t white, a selfcancellation. Her persona is steeped in difference immediately. Brugnoli’s examination further discusses the whiteness of aristocrats and the blackness of the stokers, saying, “it is only after his encounter with Mildred that Yank becomes aware of his color” (45). Indeed, the moment of encounter between Yank and Mildred is not only the crux of the play, but it is a defining moment of aporia, and it is Iser’s third and final source of the Implied Reader’s role, the point of collision. Brugnoli is correct in observing that it is at this moment that Yank becomes aware of his color, but what color is it and what does that color mean? What Brugnoli does not address is the ease with which the black versus white binary crumbles. Mildred, again, is white but not white, and when Brugnoli states that “it is only after seeing himself in the mirror of the eyes of his ‘dead white’ opposite that Yank deliberately reaffirms his blackness by deciding not to remove the coal dust that ‘sticks like black make-up’ on his face and body” (Brugnoli 45). This observation seems to ignore the otherness Yank experiences in the group of stokers. Yank experiences the exclusion of being too much the self-expression of the stokers; in fact, the stokers tell Yank to wash up, instructing him to remove his façade of blackness. The blackness of the stokers is the real blackness, and Yank’s black makeup does not reaffirm
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his blackness, as Brugnoli claims; rather, it separates Yank from the group and emphasizes his incapacity for solidarity. Yank is black but not black. Therefore, the contrast is not between whiteness and blackness, but between whiteness that is not whiteness and blackness that is not blackness. This difference of differences leads, naturally, back to Derrida’s “Différance”: “The elements of signification function due not to the compact force of their nuclei but rather to the network of oppositions that distinguishes them, and then relates them to one another” (392). The difference between Yank and Mildred is a composite difference of the differences that comprise them. Their moment of collision is a deferral of meaning in the difference between two entities whose own meanings or substances are deferred by differences—as Derrida would have it, in infinite regress. Brugnoli’s use of the image of the mirror is likely no accident. When Jacques Lacan describes the moment of the Mirror Stage, he says, “The form [in the mirror] situates the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual . . . ” (179). Obviously, the moment of Yank and Mildred seeing each other is not the same as the moment in which a toddler sees himself or herself in the mirror, but it is a perverse type of this moment. It does not signal an entry into the Real Order, but an exit from it; it is the moment of realization that these two characters have no center or substance. For that reason, Yank later says of Mildred, “she tinks she can get away with moider”; and for that reason, in this mirror moment, Mildred is “paralyzed with horror, terror, her whole personality crushed, beaten in, collapsed . . . “ (175, 163). It is not so absurd for Yank to call what happens in that moment “moider,” for it is precisely the moment of the death of the subject. Admittedly, this postmodern reading is not the reading O’Neill would have intended or sanctioned. In the same way, Iser might not foresee the usage of the Implied Reader in a postmodern reading. Linda Hutcheon’s description of postmodernism’s attitude toward metanarratives bears reproducing here: “[Postmodernism] argues that such systems are indeed attractive, perhaps even necessary” (247). The Implied Reader is a fiction, a construct which “makes it possible for the structured effects of literary texts to be described” (Iser 38). Here, it is a pathway into Žižek’s conception of ideology as revealed not by what stands out but by what does not. For instance, when Mildred faints upon seeing Yank in the stokehole, does she faint because she is a sheltered bourgeois with
a wealthy capitalist for a father, or is it, rather offensively, because she is frail, anemic, and a woman? Using the concept of the Implied Reader would seem to ask the question: What is the reader meant to think? Deconstruction itself cannot help but exist within the discourses it critiques, and the question of where its conclusions come from will remain. Are there artifacts of the death of the subject preexistent in The Hairy Ape, artifacts that this reading unearths, as it were? Or does consciousness of the postmodern condition simply carry the death of the subject around wherever it goes, seeing, in its schizophrenic narcissism, images of itself everywhere? Ultimately, it remains undecided and undecidable, and deconstruction, left unattended, will deconstruct itself. The persistent reduction of Yank and Mildred into non-subjects is an inclusion of a postmodern concept in the text. It is not an external dismantling of the text itself; rather, it is an activity of working within the text and finding there the materials that constitute the death of the subject. The ultimate result is the spontaneous collapse of the metanarratives in the play. The question of gender in Mildred’s case, the questions of race that Yank’s blackface makeup raises, the overall socialist sensibility of the play, and the isolation of Yank that presages modernist isolation and individuality give way to the ultimate problematics of postmodernism, the deferral of meaning, the death of the subject. Jameson’s concept of the self as ideology fulfills Žižek’s discussion of ideology as effectively a normative background, not as that-which-stands-out. The Hairy Ape’s implied reader, simply put, is not a postmodernist. The ideologies that stand out of the background, ideologies of Marxism versus capitalism, isolation versus community, feminism versus misogyny, etc., are secondary to the play’s most basic presuppositions. The text’s ultimate background, The Hairy Ape’s ideology at its purest, is a form of individualism—individualism steeped in isolation and uncertainty, but individualism nonetheless. Simply switching off the background ideology of individualism causes the collapse of all the others, leaving a desert of incredulity, simulation, and endless deferring difference. Injecting the death of the subject into The Hairy Ape results in a radical reinterpretation of the play’s strange events. When Mildred is a ghost, a selfcontradicting image of a whiteness that isn’t whiteness, brave yet weak and anemic, philanthropic in her boredom and bored in her philanthropy, sincere in her insincerity and insincere in her sincerity, she is lost in an impalpable
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fog of difference. When Yank is so like the stokers that he is not like them, when his violence is his impotence, when he claims to belong but belongs nowhere, when he is blackness that isn’t blackness, he disappears as well. With the ideological backdrop gone, the two experience a Lacanian moment of horror and loss from which both they and the play cannot recover (e.g. the two never meet again in the play). The moment in which each mirrors the other’s lack of substance is the sudden transformation of what had been a modern, individualistic terrain into the postmodern wilderness. As a result, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape loses the metanarratives on which it depends. It is not immediately the postmodern incredulity towards them that precipitates the unraveling of these metanarratives, however. Rather, it is precisely the disappearance of the play’s most basic ideological premise that evaporates the structure of the play. Nothing remains but a disjointed ghost story, so to speak, depicting the postmodern horror of the dissolution of the self.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Precession of Simulacra.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State University of New York. 1993. 342-375. Print. Brugnoli, Annalisa. “Eulogy of the Ape: Paradigms of Alterity and Identity.” The Eugene O’Neill Review 33.1 (2012): 43-55. Print. Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 2000. 385-407. Print. Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State University of New York. 1993. 223-242. Print. Iser, Wolfgang. “Readers and the Concept of the Implied Reader.” The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1978. 27-38. Print. Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010. 1846-1860. Print. Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State University of New York. 1993. 312-332. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 2000. 178-183. Print. Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” A Postmodern Reader. Ed. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State University of New York. 1993. 71-90. Print. O’Neill, Eugene. “The Hairy Ape.” Three Great Plays: The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape. Dover ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2005. 138-198. Print. Rundle, Erika. “The Hairy Ape’s Humanist Hell: Theatricality And Evolution In O’Neill’s ‘Comedy Of Ancient And Modern Life’.” The Eugene O’Neill Review (2008): 54. JSTOR Arts & Sciences XI. Web. 31 Dec. 2013. Xaio-Ping, Zhou. “Absurdity Theme in Eugene O’Neill’s Middle Works: Take The Hairy Ape as an Example.” Studies in Literature and Language 1.2 (2010): 33-35. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Dec. 2013. Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome To the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on 11 September and Related Dates. London: Verso, 2002. Print. Žižek, Slavoj. “SOS Violence.” Violence. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
THE HUNGER TO DISCOVER AN INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR KAREN ALKALAY-GUT
Karen Alkalay-Gut is beginning to wind up (apparently not down). After fifty years of teaching, thirty-five of them at Tel Aviv University, she is now Professor Emeritus. Having founded the Israel Association of Writers in English in 1980 and chairing it for most of the time, she is now allowing others to carry on, but has joined the founding board of the new PEN Israel. Having long planned to abandon research and concentrate on poetry, she is now completing a volume entitled, “Here Lie: Poets and Their Graves,” which explores the myths surrounding the burial of famous poets and asks the question of the popular necessity for poetic mythology. “Rhyming to Keep From Dying,” a study of poetic sequences describing the progress of disease or convalescence, is the next project. Academic publications include Alone in the Dawn: the life of Adelaide Crapsey (Georgia, 1988, 2004) as well as numerous articles about Victorian and modern poetry. To the numerous books of poetry Alkalay-Gut has published, including over twenty volumes in English, such as “The Love of Clothes and Nakedness,” So Far So Good, and Layers (Sivan, 2004, 2009, and 2012), eight books in Hebrew translation (Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Keshev), and an Italian-English volume, (Kolibris, 2012). Her numerous translations of Hebrew writers have appeared in journals around the world, most recently Ronny Sommek in Seneca Review. Alkalay-Gut has published audio-books (Belly Dancing in Tel Aviv, 2014) jazz (The Paranormal in our Daily Lives with Liz Magnes) and a progressive rock album (Thin Lips with Roy Yarkoni). She has written lyrics for the albums of Panic Ensemble and Una Selva, and contributed songs to numerous singers. She has published poems with fashion companies on t-shirts (Flying Camel, Toronto) hems (Shihar, Pardes Hana) and within the lining of jackets (Comme-il-Faut, Tel Aviv).
127 You work across a variety of genres: poetry, literary criticism, fiction, translations, blogs, nonfiction, and even music. How does your work in one genre influence that in another? What makes you choose to work in one form or another? Why do we divide things by forms? It’s all part of the same hunger to discover communication and beauty. I’ve got poems in my bathroom about what it means to wash your hands, and over the toilet a poem that says “sometimes art/is just a distraction/from the proper goal.” I am mad about dance and music but have wooden feet and can only sing “far, far away” as far as my family is concerned, so I seek a way to express myself through music and dance by working with others. Sometimes a collaboration becomes much more than the sum of its parts (for example “Sodom” that I love). Sometimes the collaboration goes in a completely different direction and doesn’t work (as in the clip of “To the Muse,” which was a poem about Jungian inspiration and became a clip about seduction or “Tell Me,” which was a poem about trying to get someone to talk to you and became a clip in Hebrew about seduction. Yes there seems to be a pattern here). Sometimes learning about others’ poetry give me an understanding that inspires a depth in my own poetry I didn’t know about before, and sometimes writing criticism or translation turns me off writing poetry myself. I have to go with the flow and see what comes out. A lot of your scholarly work is on Victorian poetry and poets, but you still write a great deal about current works and events. How do you see Victorian texts still affecting modern ones? How can learning about the Victorian world and its literature help us better understand contemporary life? Learning about anything helps us better understand contemporary life, but learning about Victorian poetry taught me a great deal about psychology, medicine, economics and how history works - because this is a period of great self and social analysis. I particularly like the way people like Browning try to get inside other people’s heads and walk them through what externally appear like extreme actions. One of my favorite poems is Amy Levy’s “Xantippe” which takes the stereotype of the shrew and explains how a woman can become what society terms ‘a bitch.’
128 Having been born in London, raised and educated in New York, and living and working in Israel since 1972, what do you see as the connection between your location and your work? How have movement, emigration, and diaspora shaped your critical perspective, in particular? Well, it’s not done a lot of good for my ‘career’ because I am totally cut off from the rest of the world and only tangentially connected to the Hebrew literary society (I have 8 books in Hebrew - but translations from English), but it has done wonders for me searching into myself and not being affected by literary trends. It gives me a lot of freedom to be anonymous. Seriously. On the other hand I am in a very exciting society that is absolutely multicultural and continuously changing. The fact that so many experiences come from a variety of languages and cultures keeps me busy balancing and re-evaluating myself and my life in relation to others. It’s that old Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ How does your location affect your scholarship on literary traditions or authors associated with a particular country? For example, you have written a lot about Victorian-era American women’s poetry - how was studying that different when you lived in America and when you lived in Israel? My goodness it is so much easier in America. I have an obsession about original sources. I don’t trust second hand information, so when I’m researching something I need to go back and find out where it came from. This is very complicated when you live thousands of miles away from the necessary library or collection, but on the other hand makes for very interesting discoveries. Just because some critics says something about a place doesn’t always mean you don’t need to visit that place, or when an author talks about a certain craft, it is sometimes essential to find out the details of that crafts. For example when you read the actual handwriting of an author you can sometimes see what the emotional state of that author was when she wrote it, and therefore what the tone was. That may not come across when you read the printed letter.
129 As chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English (IAWE), you’ve done a lot to “act as a bridge between Israeli society and the cultures of other English-speaking countries,” to quote the IAWE. What about your work with IAWE has been particularly rewarding? Why are the IAWE and organizations like it so important? The organization is incredibly important because building bridges is very important, between communities within Israel and between Israel and abroad. I have not been a very great success in this area in the past years, primarily because funding was cut off for many literary organizations and the other organizations fell apart. As far as building bridges abroad, it’s hard to do it as an organization without some kind of backing. But we’ve managed to keep our journal going and promote readings within the country. Do you think literary criticism and literature as a whole are getting more “global” or “transnational” because of economic and technological changes? Conversely, do you see literature influencing a move towards transnationalism? The opportunity to read translations from all over the world online gives us all a window into different cultures. The poetry explosion in general is amazing. But you only find what you’re looking for on the web. If there is no interest in advance there’s little influence. Transnationalism is probably more possible on Facebook than in literary sites. Recently, you have been writing a series of articles in Haaretz about famous writers’ graves. What makes the burial places of these authors so fascinating? What graves are your favorites? How do you think some of the authors would have reacted to their graves? For years I’ve been visiting poets’ graves to pay tribute to them. When I’m in a foreign country, it always seems like I’m visiting an old friend. And sometimes I feel like I owe it to the poet, like Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise in Paris, who was so lonely in his exile from London. So now I’m writing about these graves. A few years ago I came upon Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s very elaborate monument in Florence, and I was surprised there was no name on it, just her initials. That question stayed
130 with me for a long time, and only lately have I pieced together the story behind the grave. It’s fascinating how some poets are forgotten and some remembered by their graves. My favorite one is Langston Hughes, because his ashes are under the floor of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, as if an entire body of knowledge is based on Langston Hughes’ works. I don’t know how the poets would have reacted to their graves, though. I only work with facts, not speculations. As a longtime teacher, how has working with students affected your own work? What about teaching undergraduates is unique? So you saved the toughest question for last, did you? How would I know how working with students affected my work? I never tried writing without having worked with students. Students have always been part of my life and experience. I started baby-sitting when I was barely eleven and graduated to camp counselor at the age of fifteen. When I understood that working with younger people was not just a responsibility and an income but it was also part of my nature, to share, to help and to learn from others, I knew that whether I’m formally teaching or reading someone’s Tarot cards, I need to help guide people in their lives as much as they need guidance. Undergraduates are not unique as a group. Each undergraduate, however, is unique. The one thing I regret is not being able to get through to some students who needed just a bit more guidance. Outside of your various literary pursuits, what else do you enjoy? Almost everything: music, acting, dance, animals, museums, medical research, sitting in cafes, travelling, playing with little kids. I’m not crazy about cooking.
CONTRIBUTORS Viccy Ibbett is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford (2014). Her academic interests include postmodern literature, especially where it intersects with post-structuralist philosophy and theory. Her favorite authors include Angela Carter and Ali Smith. After graduation, she intends to read and travel for a year or two, then apply to master programs. Huan He is a 2013 graduate of Dartmouth College, with a major in English and a minor in Film & Media studies. His primary academic interests include Asian American literature, queer studies, and literary theory, and cultural studies. In the near future, he plans to apply to PhD programs in Literature and Cultural Studies. He currently works as a Marketing Coordinator for Animoto, a web-based company in New York City. Emma Walshe has just completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Oxford. She has accepted a place on the 17001830 English Literature masters programme at Oxford, through which she hopes to pursue research in epistolary theory, particularly on the relation of the letter-object to the writer’s body, and on critical definitions of the letter form. Emily Paull is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a senior at the University of Michigan studying English, French and Museum Studies. Her research interests include literary theory, in particular the Frankfurt School and gender criticism, Romanticism and the 19th century novel. Sean Kirkby graduated the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May 2014, majoring in English, journalism and history with a certificate in Integrated Liberal Studies. He currently interns at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and hopes to pursue a career in journalism and writing. He reads pretty much everything and anything, particularly if it’s about wolves. Tess Scriptunas graduated from Wesleyan University in May, 2014. She majored in English and French Studies at Wesleyan, with a focus on African American literature, Caribbean literature and creative nonfiction writing. Beginning in October 2014 she will spend a year in Toulouse, France as an assistant teaching English to elementary school students.
Paula Zelaya Cervantes received her BA in Theatre and Honours English from the University of British Columbia. She is interested in representations of performance, simulation, and celebration in film, theatre, and literature. She is also interested in play and screen writing and dramaturgy and is a co-founder of Quimera Theatre Collective. She is originally from Mexico City.Â Neil Cooney majored in English at Lee University with concentrations in literary criticism and in writing, and he graduated in May 2014. His literary interests include 20th Century / Contemporary literature, technological consumerism, and Continental postmodern theory. At heart, though, Neil is a fiction writer, and is currently at work on a novel.
Published on Jul 28, 2014
The Madison Journal of Literary Criticism aims to provide a forum for undergraduate students to publish their scholarly work and engage in t...