Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

WD Clarke’s ‘White Mythology’ & The Unbearable Loneliness of Books

David Foster Wallace liked to make the point that books can act as a cure for loneliness. I found a longer version of the quotation in a place, the source of which I cannot verify:

“Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

            Foster Wallace talks about curing loneliness via self-forgetfulness or transcendence, by first expanding the curative power of books beyond just the words on thin slices of tree soup, to art in general. Regarding the drugs or sex, I probably can’t quibble.

But I would quibble with the idea that fiction allows us to not be lonely. I can’t buy it. It reminds me too much of other Brainpickings sort of things I read about books, the ability that novels supposedly allows us to connect with another human, no matter how far removed we are from them by time, space, other variables. But ultimately, the reading of a book is a one-way dialogue and it’s not so much a cure for loneliness as a cosmetic treatment of a symptom.

We might consider this when reading WD Clarke’s two novellas, White Mythology, and the role that books, especially novels as distinct from books or narrative, play in the text. The first novella, ‘Skinner Boxed,’ is protagonised by Dr. Ed, a psychiatrist and a biological determinist. The novella documents Dr. Ed’s travails as the formerly neatly compartmentalised sections of his life become unsettled; his wife disappears, a son he didn’t know he had shows up on his doorstep and clinical trials of a new drug seem to not be going to plan. In this first half of White Mythology, the narrative voice blends with Dr. Ed’s own process of rationalising his experience of the world, and, as many satires of reason’s process are prone to be, the wording soon becomes recursive:

“The short term appeared to be so-not good that his long-term prospects were unchartable. The short-term chart was so very contra-positive that even the notion, even the suggestion of a ‘long’ term, as far as Max was concerned, was a dream originating in an opium pipe stocked with extraordinary psychotropic powers indeed.”

Dr. Ed’s peculiar distance from his own existence can be attributed to a formative experience at the hands of a Jesuit teacher, who offers him the moral lesson to be found in Great Expectations:

“If you visited Wemmick at the strange, miniature castle that was his home…he would have appeared to you to be the most generous and hospitable man you had ever met, and one full of colour, full of life. However, if you had the misfortune of visiting him at work, at the office of the ultracompetitive and successful lawyer Jaggers, for whom he toiled ceaselessly, you would have encountered an entirely different being…here was a man who worked in a black and white, in a world of instrumental reason…”

Dr. Matthews is opening the young Dr. Ed to the capitalist critique within Dickens, the play-acting and mechanisation that capitalism occasions in its participants, particularly in their working lives. However, Dr. Ed seems to have taken the intended whack of the lesson rather differently, and finds, while reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that he can ‘turn off’ his ‘emotions’ by ‘flicking’ a ‘switch’ inside his head. The inverted commas deployed whenever he does so ironise the event sufficiently, and bode ill for his capacity to detect when his son might be reaching out for his attention, when he mentions that the novel he’s reading, Great Expectations again, is about ‘an orphan.’

His scepticism regarding the writings of Sigmund Freud should be viewed in a similar light. Bearing in mind that he finds himself plagued by dreams, apparently about eggs, and the emotions that he’s worked so hard to repress are coming to revenge themselves upon him, he could conceivably locate within Freud a more sustaining interpretative schema than what lies on the ‘More drugs, less talk’ end of the discipline.

It could be argued that it is in the second novella, the less chronological and more populous ‘Love’s Alchemy’ posits an alternative in its being slightly lighter on the literary references, (some good Donne lines appear) and being more dialogue driven. It makes an interesting contrast with the tortured ratiocination of Dr. Ed, aswell as providing a vehicle for the telling of stories within stories, particularly ones about childhood and generally formative ones from adulthood.

It may be that novels are more vehicles for confirming our own solipsism and outlook. We can talk about the death of the author all we want, our interpretations will never inflect a work’s DNA, but it is through narrative and storytelling, books without covers, that we can get outside, that we can feel less alone.

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Wordsworth Editions & Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Voyage Out’

patou.jpg

I have mixed feelings about Wordsworth editions of classic texts.

Yay

They are cheap.

They are books.

The spines are standardised and tasteful.

The introductions generally include stimulating, wide-ranging analyses involving detailed, close-reading from experts in their field.

Nay

Footnotes are sparse and selective.

The poetry editions don’t give enough space to individual poems; you might get three different poems appearing on the same page if they’re short enough. White space should be retained, it’s an interpretative matter, dammit. Where the hell am I supposed to write my marginalia? On my phone’s memo pad or something? Hah?!

Cover design is patchy. The Woolf and Mansfield ones had nice art-deco type pieces on their front, but recently they’ve begun using some awful examples of digital art. Just look at this pseudo-photorealistic shitshow.

bad

They’ve done similar things to the Joyce editions, in ways that hurt my heart, so I won’t include an image, suffice it to say that I so much prefer the ones that used to be on the cover of the Wordsworth Finnegans Wake, which features a painting by Markey Robinson. The below image isn’t what’s on the Wake cover, I couldn’t find a version of it online, but it’s from the same series, and the cover could well be a detail from this canvas.

joyce

This brings me to one of the other perhaps dubious choices made by Wordsworth editions, in publishing A Room of One’s Own, an essay based on a series of lectures Woolf gave to female students in Cambridge with her novel The Voyage Out. On the one hand, this is a good thing, and even more cheap, two books for the price of one and all that, but, what are the implications for how we read the texts when they’re sat so close to one another?

Well, it has the consequence of making it seem as though The Voyage Out is a fictionalised re-iteration of what Woolf conveys in the polemic that precedes it. I wouldn’t posit that it actually is, but the essay inevitably operates as a screed through which The Voyage Out is perceived.

The Voyage Out depicts Rachel Vinrace, a sheltered young woman going away from home for the first time with her aunt Helen Ambrose and her husband Ridley. As the narrative develops, Rachel begins to further her own education, under the auspices of her aunt and the wider group of upper-middle class ‘intelligentsia,’ partially modelled, as most of the Woolf novels that I’m familiar with are, on Woolf’s own experiences with the intellectual coterie of the Bloomsbury Group. The Voyage Out’s title is a loaded one; Rachel is travelling outwards in an inner sense, exposing herself to atheism, the abstract ideas of her day, aswell as the more literal voyage to South America.

This metaphorisation of space is also central within A Room of One’s Own; in her introduction to the essay, Sally Minogue points to the ambiguous nature of the word ‘room.’ It is not only an actual physical space, necessary for a female writer in order that she may sit down and write, but alongside this autonomy in the space of the room, there is an implied wider connection with others. A room, after all, must be within a house, which is in turn a metaphor for the wider tradition of female novelists, the Brontës, Eliots and Austens, without whom, Woolf’s writing would never have been possible, as she herself puts it.

The oscillation between being inside or outside the novelistic tradition is significant for Woolf as it becomes a necessity for female novelists to salvage their own tradition. Seeing that they have been silenced or marginalised for so long, they must exert themselves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of a cultural and financial infrastructure that a male novelist may depend on. Woolf senses that this greater imperative on the female novelist brings with it a vitality that seems advantageous.

One might disagree, and see this positive spin on enforced individualism as unhelpful and Woolf would certainly not have been called an ‘ally’ in the contemporary sense. She disapproves of promiscuity, and, references a would-be biographer, Winifred Holtby, daughter of a Yorkshire farmer, as someone who, ‘learnt to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs.’ This snobbishness and disregard for the material circumstances of women of a lower class is an unpleasant feature of Woolf’s writing, and is surprising, considering that A Room of One’s Own advocates for wider access to education for women.

This political myopia is attributable to Woolf’s aesthetic concerns, as she disliked materiality or political beliefs making themselves clear in a writer’s work. She preferred instead the notion that through art, the material may be transcended, which is ironic considering how informed her work is by her own social position; Woolf is probably the standard bearer of the English fin de siècle bourgeois class. Her own background, her material advantages seems, in this ideological position, to have been rendered invisible to her. The material condition of the lower classes is what she objects to. The disabled, too. She doesn’t like them either.

What are we to make of the fact that Rachel Vinrace dies, spoiler alert? In the Victorian novels that I’ve been unfortunate enough to read, death is often used to reinforce conservative moralising, one thinks of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, for instance, but in the case of The Voyage Out, Woolf may be protesting this usage of death for political ends. She is not, unfortunately, protesting how protracted these affairs are when they are rendered, but the language in which these are conveyed. Woolf’s style becomes mechanistically descriptive and neutral: (“The second day did not differ much from the first day, except that ther bed had become very important, and the world outside, when she tried to think of it, appeared distinctly further off.”) not sentimental, as one finds in the ghastly death scene, one of many, in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son:

“Yes, yes. No other stranger would have shed those tears at sight of him, and called him her dear boy, her pretty boy, her own poor blighted child.

‘Remember Walter, dear Papa,’ he whispered, looking in his face. ‘Remember Walter. I was fond of Walter!’ The feeble hand waved in the air, as if it cried ‘good-bye!’ to Walter once again.”

Rachel’s fever makes her inchoate and delirious; making her incapable of such indulgent faffery in her last moments. What is being critiqued here is Rachel’s failure to not get married, so soon after having achieved a degree autonomy. She merely exchanges one sequence of patriarchal variables for another in choosing to marry Hirst.

I’m not sure I find this entirely convincing. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf castigates herself for being overly attentive to material conditions, and, from what I’ve said so far, the ridiculousness of her assertion should be pretty clear, for both texts. There is obviously no other choice for a woman seeking to live independently, other than coming into large amounts of money through an inheritance. This is to leave aside the thin nature of the relationship’s development, the Proustian social comedy veers into Restoration farce as Rachel and Hirst are uncertain whether they love or loathe one another, whether marriage is the best or the worst idea, then find all of a sudden that they are very much in love, but only when they’re not speaking; when they do dialogue, they are mostly bickering and bristly with one another.

Hey, maybe it is realistic after all.

Against Hypertext: Digital Literature and its Antecedents

Hypertext essay

The War of Form in John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’

John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row opens with a striking sentence. It is a striking sentence because it makes use of the novel’s title. (I will be awarding points for examples of other novels that do this) It is a striking sentence because the particle word ‘a’ forms approximately 30% of its content. It is a striking sentence because it is inaccurate. The sentence runs as follows:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

I’ll leave aside these subsequent descriptors and focus on the first.

Cannery Row is not a poem; it’s a novel, barely, if you, like me, subscribe to the Goodblood Theory of Prose Genre by Length, the terms of which are outlined below:

Flash fiction = 1 page

Short story = Between 1 and 50 pages

Novella = Between 50 and 150 pages

Novel = 150+

There, neat categorisers for those sick of the ‘it-both-is-and-it-isn’t’ language of the literati.

Anyway, Cannery Row is not a poem, but it obviously means something important when Steinbeck says that it is. I find that when the words ‘poem’ and ‘poet’ are used to describe texts or artists that are not strictly poems or poets, that the usage is generally suspect. For example, when rappers, singer-songwriters or comedians are described as poets, I find that the delineation generally does an injustice to both art forms, as if what makes a great comedian or rapper are somehow analogous to what makes a great poet.

What I think is going on here when critics say things like this is that they are internalising the intellectually bankrupt notion that the culture that we consume should be graded on a scale of respectability. Poets tend to reside at the Olympian end of the scale and comedians are somewhere towards the bottom. Incidentally, comedians that are praised as poets are generally the prematurely dead ones known for their acerbic political commentary, wearing of leather jackets and posing with cigarettes in black-and-white photographs. See also, when television shows such as The Wire are compared to the novels of Charles Dickens, as if in order to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re watching TV, we have to pretend that the great serial novelist of our time is David Simon, just because they both deal with questions of how people’s lives are dictated by their social milieu. One is far better at doing so than the other. I’ll leave it to yourself to choose which one I mean.

Towards the end of the book, Steinbeck introduces a series of poems, read by the altogether lovely main character named Doc. Doc is a romantic, which means that he gets drunk by himself and reads melancholy poems about unrequited love while listening to Monteverdi and broadcasts a general vibe of quiet desperation, tempered with an essential benignity. Thanks to a group of good-ol’-boy ne’er-do-well brothel creepers, Mac and the boys, Doc is a reluctant host of a couple of raucous soirées and towards the end of one of them he reads a translation of a Sanskrit poem, quoted below, with a view to developing Cannery Row internal dialogue between novels/poetry/life:

“Even now

If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one

Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,

Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with a flame,

Wounded by the flaming spear of love,

My first of all by reason of her fresh years,

Then is my heart buried alive in snow.”

With its sickly-sweet Keatsian indulgences and Homeric compounds, social realism this poem is not.

Steinbeck’s subjects in Cannery Row, live on newly emerged societal frontiers. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, vast swathes of the American population were reduced to transitory existences, with what fledging skills they had, they tried to get by. Despite his engagement in social matters and social justice, or the lack of it, the medicine of his novels is generally sweetened with a larger poetic mission statement, or a sense of cosmic redemption. When Mac and the boys’ first party destroys Doc’s home, this rift emanates outwards into the wider community, “a black gloom” descends upon Cannery Row itself.

This is a big part of what the novel is supposed to do, perhaps allow the abstract emotions of the poem above to descend to a more comprehensible level, attach a few specificities and inveigle itself to the average reader with a more holistic approach. If Cannery Row is a poem, it is definitely not the one cited above.

Hypertext and Textuality

The current trend within literary studies is to define a text as being a discontinuous, contradictory and open-ended entity. In Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), George P. Landow argues that there is a continuity between these traits that are ascribed to text, as put forward by theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and how hypertextual literature actually functions. For Landow, what these theorists have in common in that they “argue we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of centre, margin, hierarchy and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks.”[1] This nebulous approach  as regards hypertext is fitting because what is innovative about hypertextual narrative is that it contains links that allow a reader to click on a particular word and arrive at a different part of the text. Other navigational aids can also be a part of a hypertext’s interface. Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) allows the reader can click on different parts of the Patchwork Girl’s anatomy. The reader is exposed to different lexia or units of text depending on how they navigate and therefore, each reader could ostensibly have a quantifiably different experience of reading the narrative. For Landow, this constitutes a breakthrough in textual theory and means that the theories of the poststructuralist critics mentioned above are vindicated.

Landow identifies Barthes writings in S/Z as productive in describing how hypertext creates meaning. For Barthes:

the good of literary work…is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterised by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of its text and its user…between its author and its reader.[2]

What Barthes is describing here is the familiar idea of the death of the author. Under this schema, the intention of the author in the creation of meaning is marginalised in favour of the reader’s ability to read the text in a more unrestricted way. When reading a hypertext, the reader is allowed freedom of movement within a textual network. The reader is allegedly emancipated from the tyranny of linear, sequential reading and is free instead to plot their own course and develop their own understanding.

This presents the question as to whether pre-hypertextual narratives did not allow the reader free reign of interpretation. A pre-digital or analogue text that may prove illuminating in this context is J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country (1977). The novel is narrated by Magda, an unmarried South African woman living in the veld. Magda is an unreliable narrator and often informs the reader directly that what she is saying is not necessarily to be believed. It is also possible for the reader to notice inaccuracies for herself. On more than one occasion, Magda describes murdering or assisting in the murder of her father in a number of different ways, yet he appears to be alive at points following on from these various murders and also by the end of the narrative. The novel is arranged into lexia in much the same way that hypertexts are. They are rarely longer than a few paragraphs and are numbered, from “1.,” at the start of the novel, to “265.” at the end. Also, like hypertexts, they are non-sequential; the narrative thread that the reader follows depends on their own view of the events that Magda narrates. Perhaps Magda did succeed in murdering her father at the start of the novel and everything that follows after is a contrivance, a justification or a fantasy. Or maybe it is the other way around, and Magda is, as he suggests that she is at times, making the whole thing up.

At first glance In The Heart of the Country may not be visibly replete with links or concordances in the same way that Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story (1990) is but this is to underestimate the ability of the reader to recall links that in analogue novels are more subtly embedded, in descriptive motifs or in imagery. For example, when Magda is narrating, she will often use language that relates to knitting or braiding textiles: “When I was a little girl (weave, weave!)”[3] and “More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider, for I was not watching.”[4] This is used to draw attention to the gap that exists between events as the really happened and how amenable they are to being related in narrative form. If In The Heart of the Country was to have a hypertextual interface, uses of the word ‘weave,’ ‘braid’ or ‘embroider,’ would presumably be linked, in the same way that the hypertextual concordance of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is. This would have the effect of concretising or making overt the more subtle connotations of word usage. In short, it would be an interpretative mechanism that would, rather than lift the restrictions on the reader to form individual impressions of the text, coerce them into particular readings that are pre-ordained by being constructed within the hypertext.

Landow conceives of hypertexts as having an encyclopaedic functionality, wherein each word would provide the reader with related information that would in turn branch off in different directions ad infinitum. One of the examples he presents is a hypertextual edition of a novel by Charles Dickens that would provide a historical background, such as information on child mortality, harsh conditions within factories of the time and a history of nineteenth-century London that informs so much of Dickens’ writing. What is problematic about this amount of information being contained within a hypertext is a similar one to the point raised about the overt interleaving of words with one another; it is an interpretative act that would incline the reader towards a socio-historical or Marxist critique of the text. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, of course, but rather than leaving the reader open to pursuing their own autonomous lines of inquiry, interpretations are instead codified into the structure of the text they are reading.

Despite hypertext seeming to be a proof for literary critics who in their theories view text as having neither centre nor periphery, the question is whether hypertext really is a proof, or indeed if this really needs to be proven. Is it instead the case that hypertext is codified to be labyrinthine and interconnected and therefore a visualisation of the kind of text that Barthes describes in S/Z. This is not to say that hypertext is wholly without merit or does not present the critic with useful means of analysing texts, particularly literary works that pre-date the advent of computation to which hypertexts are heavily indebted. The aforementioned Patchwork Girl contains references to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) by L. Frank Baum and also includes a number of quotations from the writings of Jacques Derrida. The title of Afternoon, a story (1990) is derived from a line in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), a short story about contingency, infinity and concatenation.[5] The sustained engagement of authors of hypertexts with canonical predecessors can be seen in more recent examples of the form, as in Will Self’s digital essay Kafka’s Wound (2012), which borrows both from Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller. While hypertext may not have much to offer to contemporary textual theory other than a fabricated proof of the infinite referential potential of any given signifier and differential networks of meaning et al., it is perhaps in theories of media or film theory in which it can prove rewarding or productive. Kafka’s Wound, as an example of hypermedia rather than hypertext may serve as a good example of the kind of meaning that is generated when different forms are so closely interlinked and connected, something that could be understood as being truly innovative or at least to some extent without precedent.

[1]Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992), p.2

[2]Ibid, p.4

[3]Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999), p.6

[4] Ibid, p.1

[5] Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin Classics: 2000), p.48

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths (Penguin: 2000)

Coetzee, J.M., In The Heart of the Country (Vintage: 1999)

Jackson Shelley, Patchwork Girl (Eastgate Systems: 1995)

Joyce, James, Ulysses (Vintage: 1993) http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~rac101/concord/texts/ulysses/

Joyce, Michael, Afternoon, a Story (Eastgate Systems: 1990)

Self, Will, Kafka’s Wound: A Digital Literary Essay by Will Self (London Review of Books: 2012) http://thespace.lrb.co.uk/

 Secondary Sources

Gabler, Hans Walter, ‘The Segments and the Whole: An Aspect of Joyce’s Art of Construction,’ (Modernist Versions Project: 2012) http://web.uvic.ca/~mvp1922/gabler/

Greetham, D.C., Theories of the Text (Oxford University Press: 1999)

Landow, George P., Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (The John Hopkins University Press: 1992)

Schreibman, Susan, Siemens, Ray & Unsworth, John, A Companion to Digital Humanities (Blackwell Publishing: 2004)

Siemens, Ray & Schreibman, Susan (Editors), A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell Publishing: 2007)