The Daedalus Complex explores American literary critic Kenneth Burke's contention that "the perfection of the work, including the perfecting of the victim" is a fundamental motive underlying all narratives. It takes its title from the story of Daedalus as recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, in which the perfect work is represented by the objects that Daedalus constructs -- including both the labyrinth that was commanded by King Minos and the wings that allowed him to escape from Knossos -- and the role of perfect victim is played in turn by the Minotaur and Icarus. It will focus on the comparable craftsmanship exhibited by writers who create both perfect victims in the form of the protagonists upon whom they displace what may otherwise have been their own suffering and perfect works in the form of literary masterpieces in which the sacrificing of their victims – foreshadowed by the fates of the Minotaur and Icarus – will assure their enduring glory.
Throughout this project, we will have at hand such resonant touchstones for the perfecting of the victim as T. S. Eliot’s question, raised in a letter, "Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another's dying?” as well as his celebrated distinction, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” between “the man who suffers” and “the mind which creates," the Romanian writer Emil Cioran’s assertion that “cruelty is a sign of election, at least in literature,” and Vladimir Nabokov's quip that the characters in his novels are "my galley slaves." Stephen Daedalus’s assertion, in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that “the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails'' will be an especially useful touchstone with respect to the perfection of the work.
We will explore this symbiotic relationship between the fashioning a scapegoat who will suffer in place of his creator and the construction of a work that will redound to the creator’s glory as it emerges in selected masterpieces of modernist writing, including T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, James Joyce's Dubliners, William Faulkner's Light in August, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, Cioran's A Short History of Decay, Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Jorge Luis Borges's ficciones, the parables of Franz Kafka, and the major plays of Samuel Beckett. We will notice, in particular, our authors’ predilection for creating within their works characters who attempt unsuccessfully to control events over which the authors themselves, for their part, exercise consummate mastery. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby -- to take just one example -- Gatsby's determination to "fix" everything so that Daisy Buchanan will return to him, which echoes Meyer Wolfsheim's fixing of the 1919 World Series, parallels Fitzgerald's authorial fixing of the (highly improbable) chain of events that leads to Gatsby's death as well as his arranging of Nick Carraway's narrative in such a way as to achieve a perfected chiastic structure that pivots midway through the novel with the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy.
Remembering that “Daedalus,” the name given by tradition to the archetypal artist, is also a common Greek noun that designated in classical antiquity both the labyrinth and the lifelike statues that Daedalus was credited with inventing will help us to keep in mind that -- although the author, his protagonist/scapegoats, and the literary work that he constructs are distinct things -- they also tend curiously to merge with each other. Likewise remembering that, in the first of the three stories that Ovid tells us about Daedalus, we learn that he himself came very close to being entrapped by the labyrinth that he had so cunningly constructed as a prison for the Minotaur will alert us to the possibility that the distinction between suffering and creativity may not be quite as absolute as Eliot’s formula would seem to suggest.
Having already published several books that deal with the subject of the protagonist of a literary work as its author's scapegoat, I am now embarking on a series of lectures at both American and European universities that treats the legendary craftsmanship of Daedalus and the no-less-legendary fates of the Minotaur and Icarus as its foundational model. These lectures will eventually be gathered together and published in a volume entitled The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing.
The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing
Table of Contents
Introduction: “Bound for Glory”
Ch. 1 “Framing Frames in Light in August”
Ch.2 “Incarnating Pain in The Book of Disquiet”
Ch. 3 “Transfiguring Cioran in A Short History of Decay”
Ch. 4 “Pla(y)giarism Unbound: Fixing Things in The Great Gatsby”
Ch. 5 “’The Eliot Way’: T. S. Eliot and His Prufrock”
Ch. 6 “Reversal of (Mis)fortune: Redeeming Falls in Dubliners”
Ch. 7 “Playing Beckett in His Major Plays.”
Ch. 8 “Loosening Lines in Gathering Evidence”
Ch. 9 “Baffling Signs in Borges's Labyrinths”